CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Robert Arakaki, president of the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Club, swiftly sliced cake with a sword at the unit's 65th anniversary banquet yesterday at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The World War II veterans celebrated their reunion with recognition awards, lunch, a keynote address by Maj. Gen. Jason K. Kamiya, scholarship awards and songs. Also at the cake cutting were Saburo Nishime, Ted Hamasu, Kazuto Shimizu, Seisaburo Taba, Stanley Izumigawa, Goro Sumida, Stanley Akita, Motoyoshi Tanaka and Joichi Maramatsu.
Sons keep war legacy alive
Alzheimer's fails to rob Robert Kapuniai of his proud link to the 100th Battalion
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In what could be the last big gathering for many, about 80 World War II veterans of the widely known 100th Infantry Battalion attended a luncheon yesterday at the Hilton Hawaiian Village commemorating the unit's 65th anniversary.
Among the majority who are nisei, or second generation Japanese Americans, is Robert Kapuniai, believed to be the last of the few Hawaiians who served in the volunteer battalion.
Kapuniai, who just turned 90 and has Alzheimer's disease, has sons who pass on his stories. That is the solemn mission of succeeding generations, said speaker Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya.
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Robert Kapuniai's Alzheimer's disease does what he tried to do for years with alcohol. It makes him forget his pain.
It makes him forget when he stood for days in the river, unable to move, because the Germans were near. Forget the pain of shrapnel as pieces pierced his body, permanently damaging his legs and back.
But deep down, as the disease approaches its third stage, he remembers a little. When he hears "100th Battalion" or its nickname, "One Puka Puka," for the group of Japanese-American volunteer soldiers who fought in World War II, he remembers vaguely that he was one of them.
At yesterday's celebration of the activation of the 100th Infantry Battalion 65 years ago, Kapuniai smiled at those around his table, leaned in and said proudly:
But his fellow veterans remember Kapuniai for a different reason. Out of the estimated 450 survivors of the 100th Battalion -- including about 80 who attended yesterday's event at Hilton Hawaiian Village -- they believe Kapuniai is the only living veteran of Hawaiian descent.
"Robert Kapuniai, for us, has been like a legend," said Amanda Stevens, the office manager for the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans. "The 100th Battalion legacy transcends race and culture. As minorities, we all benefit from their legacy."
Soldiers of the 100th Battalion remember there were about five soldiers who were part-Hawaiian and two Korean Americans in the 1,400-member infantry unit from Hawaii made up of mostly nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans.
They remember the young Kapuniai dancing hula in a grass skirt as men played the ukulele behind him. He was "kolohe," a troublemaker, who always had a cigar in his mouth, they recall.
At 90, Kapuniai can't share his stories anymore and relies on his sons, Ben and Lester, to do it for him.
Kapuniai, a Kauai native, joined the National Guard when he was in his 20s, along with his friends. Many of them were Japanese, and Kapuniai didn't want to be left behind.
"The military then was all segregated," said Steve Takushi, a volunteer who helped with the oral history of the 100th Battalion. "A lot of them grew up together in Hawaii. They were friends from the plantation camps. They wanted to stick together."
Kapuniai, half Japanese, fought in the 100th Battalion's famous battles, including at Cassino, Italy, in January 1944, and was a part of the "lost battalion" rescue mission later that year that won the group a second Distinguished Unit Citation.
Coming back from the war, Kapuniai suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for many years. Growing up, his sons learned from an early age never to mention the war.
"I remember him, sitting in a chair, just shivering," said Ben Kapuniai, 51. "He saw so much death and suffering that he didn't want to talk about."
But he was proud to be a part of the 100th Battalion. His sons remember going to the clubhouse on Kamoku Street and watching their dad play cards and drink with friends.
About 20 years ago, they had a big reunion, with some veterans coming from the mainland, to watch a University of Hawaii football game together at Aloha Stadium.
But beginning in 2000, Alzheimer's disease began slowly stealing Kapuniai's memories.
Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, the event's Hawaii-born keynote speaker, promised the aging veterans that their descendants will carry the honor and burden of spreading their legacy.
As a young girl placed a gold 65th anniversary medallion around Kapuniai's neck yesterday, he smiled at all the familiar faces around him. His pain is gone.