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Wednesday, June 21, 2000

Strength and honor

Today, an old wrong is righted
as 22 Asian-American heroes are
awarded the nation's highest
honor for bravery in battle

Today's News Coverage: Becoming legends, part of history

By Gregg K. Kakesako


lthough 60,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders served in World War II, only two were given the Medal of Honor for bravery. Neither of them was from Hawaii.

Private First Class Sadao S. Munemori of Los Angeles, a member of the 100th Battalion, was originally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross after sacrificing his life to save two comrades by smothering a blast from a grenade with his body on April 5, 1945.

A year later, the award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor under pressure from Utah Sen. Albert Thomas, who asked if the Navy Cross or the Distinguished Service Cross -- the nation's No. 2 medal for heroism -- was the best Asian Americans could hope for.

Yeiki Kobashigawa in uniform, taken in 1942.

The other, Sgt. Jose Calugas, was a mess sergeant with the 88th Field Artillery, Philippine Scouts, when a gun battery was bombed and shelled and put out of commission on Bataan on Jan. 16, 1942. Calugas ran 1,000 yards across a shell-swept area and got the cannon back into operation.

By the end of World War II, the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team had earned 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, but only one Medal of Honor.

Today, that all changes.

Twenty-two Asian Americans -- 20 from the 100th/442nd -- join the elite fraternity of soldiers after President Clinton awards them the Medal of Honor.

Responding to legislation by Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka, the military upgraded 19 of the 52 Distinguished Service Crosses and one Silver Star won by the 100th/442nd to the Medal of Honor.

Twelve recipients are from Hawaii. Of the 22, 10 were killed in battle -- nine in Europe with the 100th/442nd and one in the Philippines with the 34th Division.

Five of today's recipients survived World War II, but they will never know that their medals were upgraded. They are:

Bullet Private First Class Kaoru Moto of Maui, who died in 1992.
Bullet Private First Class Masato "Curly" Nakae, who died in 1998.
Bullet Staff Sgt. Allan Ohata, who died in 1997.
Bullet Private First Class Frank Ono, who died in 1980.
Bullet Tech. Sgt. James K. Okubo, who died in 1967.

That leaves just seven living recipients. Five are from Hawaii.

Congress late Thursday night approved legislation, authored by Akaka, that granted the Medal of Honor to Okubo.

During World War II, Okubo was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but the 442nd medic was rejected.

Instead, Okubo, a Detroit dentist who was killed in auto accident in 1967, was awarded the Silver Star.

Okubo, whose family was sent to a relocation camp at Hart Mountain in Wyoming from Bellingham, Wash., after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, used his body to protect wounded soldiers. He also saved a wounded soldier by pulling him from a burning tank in France in 1944.

To date, five Hawaii residents -- two from the Korean War and three from the Vietnam War -- have earned the Medal of Honor. All died fighting to save their comrades. They are:

Bullet Sgt. Leroy Mendonca, U.S. Army. B Company, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. Near Chich-on, Korea, July 4, 1951. Mendonca covered his platoon's withdrawal from Hill 586 until ammunition ran out. He is credited with killing 37 enemy soldiers.

Bullet Private First Class Herbert Pililau, U.S. Army. C Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. Near Pia-ri, Korea, Sept. 17, 1951. Pililau voluntarily stayed behind to cover the withdrawal of a platoon from "Heartbreak Ridge." He is credited with killing 40 enemy soldiers.

Bullet Sgt. Emelindo Smith, U.S. Army. C Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division. Vietnam, Feb. 16, 1967. During a patrol, Smith's platoon was pinned down by machine-gun fire from three sides. Wounded several times he continued to assist in rallying his soldiers. At one point he crawled into the open to fire upon a weakened point on the perimeter.

Bullet Sgt. 1st Rodney Yano, U.S. Army. Air Cavalry Troop, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Near Bien Bao, Vietnam, Jan. 1, 1969. As a helicopter crew chief, Yano fired upon enemy forces and then marked their position with smoke and white phosphorous grenades.

A grenade exploded in the helicopter, severely wounding him and filling the aircraft with smoke and flaming debris. Able to use only one arm, Yano managed to hurl blazing ammunition from the helicopter.

Bullet Cpl. Terry Kawamura, U.S. Army. 173rd Engineer Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade. Camp Radcliff, Vietnam, March 20, 1969. An enemy demolition team infiltrated Kawamura's camp and tossed an explosive charge into his quarters. Kawamura threw his body on the explosive charge and saved two comrades.


Until today, Hawaii had no living Medal of Honor recipients.

Among the families who will be accepting the Medal of Honor for a relative killed in combat will be the Kurodas who had four sons -- Ronald, Robert, Wallace and Joseph -- who served in World War II.

Two of them -- Ronald and Robert -- won the Distinguished Service Cross; Robert as a member of H Company, 442nd RCT, and Ronald fighting as a member of B Company, 100th Battalion.

At today's White House ceremony, Ronald, now 82, will receive the medal for his brother, Robert, who was killed Oct, 24, 1944 at Bruyeres, France, as he was taking out a second German machine gun nest after single-handedly silencing the first one with four hand grenades.

It was Robert who had set aside one-third of his Army paycheck to pay for the education of the youngest brother, Joe, who would become a colonel in the Army Reserve, an educator and serve in the state Senate for 16 years.

'You fought not only the enemy, you fought prejudice, and you have won.'

President Harry S. Truman
At a 1945 White House ceremony
honoring the 100th Battalion and
442nd Regimental Combat Team

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