THE 442ND REGIMENTAL COMBAT TEAM
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
World War II veterans George Kanatani, left, Shigeo Iwamasa and Lawson Sakai, along with Sakai's wife, Mineko, greeted one another yesterday after the Remembrance Service for 442nd Regimental Combat Team members. The service, held at the Disabled American Veterans Hall, honored members who died during the past year.
65 years, 1 legacy
Weekend activities honor the WWII service of Japanese Americans
A little more than 65 years ago, 2,600 young Japanese-American soldiers stood in formation in new khakis bedecked with orange leis and gas masks hanging from their shoulders in front of Iolani Palace just before they left for the battlefields of Europe.
They had all volunteered to join the Army's segregated unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which eventually would become one of its most decorated, winning 21 Medals of Honor, 53 Distinguished Service Crosses. 580 Silver Star, 4,000 Bronze Stars and 12 French Croix de Guerres. Twenty of the Medal of Honors were awarded only eight years ago after the Army was forced to review the wartime records of the unit.
Today, when Lt. Col. Michael Peeters, who commands the Army Reserve unit that took the 442nd's battle flag into Iraq three years ago, calls the roll, nearly 300 of the same soldiers will march into a Waikiki banquet hall.
They will be joined by other World War II nisei warriors, second-generation Japanese Americans, who served in the 100th Battalion, the Military Intelligence Service and the 1399th Construction Engineers.
Each of the 300 soldiers, all in their late 80s, will be presented with a gold ilima paper lei. The leis are similar to ones they wore on March 23, 1943, which bore the message: "From the people of the Territory to the volunteers of the combat unit of the U.S. Army."
William Thompson, who is serving his second term as president of the 442nd Veterans Club, recalls standing in formation on that Sunday 65 years ago.
"I think after the ceremony was over," recalled Thompson, who volunteered to fight from Hilo, "we marched to the train station in Iwilei and took the train back to Schofield Barracks."
Robert Katayama, in the book "Japanese Eyes American Heart," recalled having to get up early on March 28, 1943, and marching to the train depot at Schofield Barracks. "The train ride was very uncomfortable," said Katayama, who headed the 442nd Veterans Club in 1998. "From the (Iwilei) depot we marched to the palace grounds to be given a farewell ovation. About 17,000 to 20,000 people were there. Our farewells were very heartbreaking."
The nisei soldiers assembled on the makai side of Iolani Palace to be formally inducted into the Army. Newspaper accounts of that day said family members, friends and others filled the palace grounds and spilled into King Street. Nearly 10 percent of the soldiers who stood in formation that Sunday would never see Hawaii again.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
William Thompson presented flowers during yesterday's ceremony. He is serving his second term as president of the 442nd Veterans Club.
After the ceremony, the soldiers returned to Schofield Barracks. On April 4, 1943, they took the SS Lurline, which had been converted into a troop ship, to the mainland.
More than 1,200 people are expected to attend today's luncheon banquet, themed "65 Years and Still Going for Broke." The "Go For Broke" motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion is pidgin for "shoot the works" or "go all-out."
The annual banquet caps a weekend of festivities that included recognition by both houses of the state Legislature on Friday and a family fun day yesterday at Keehi Lagoon's Disabled American Veterans park. Yesterday's activities began with a ceremony honoring the 442nd veterans, including Medal of Honor recipient Shizuya Hayashi, who died March 12.
The keynote speaker at today's luncheon will be Medal of Honor recipient and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who lost his right arm while serving with the 442nd RCT's E Company.
The 442nd doesn't hold the distinction of being the first Army unit composed of Japanese Americans. That distinction falls to the 100th Battalion, which left Hawaii on June 5, 1942, for training at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. It went into battle in Salerno, Italy, on Sept. 26, 1943. Both units comprised Hawaii and mainland nisei volunteers.
When the call went out for volunteers in 1943, more than 6,000 Japanese Americans in Hawaii volunteered. Nearly 3,000 were accepted. An additional 1,500 volunteered from behind the barbed-wire fences of mainland internment camps. Designated as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the special Army unit participated in major battles at Sasseta, Belvedere and Po Valley-Gothic Line, the rescue of the Lost Battalion from Texas and the invasion of Southern France.
On June 15, 1944, the 100th became the first battalion of the 442nd RCT.
In his book, "Americans: The Story of the 442nd Combat Team," published in 1946, author Orville C. Shirley listed 8,256 soldiers from Hawaii and the mainland as belonging to the two groups.
Eileen Sakai, president of the Sons and Daughters of the 442nd RCT, said that it is believed there are only 1,900 surviving nisei soldiers today who once were members of the 100th Battalion and the 442nd RCT.
Sakai acknowledges that the task of perpetuating the legacy of the 100th Battalion and the 442nd RCT falls in part to her generation, and planning is under way to determine what should be done.
"What will happen to the veterans club once there are no longer sons or daughters is what is being explored," Sakai said.
The aging soldiers of the 100th Battalion and the 442nd RCT are still fiercely loyal to their unit. They maintain separate clubhouses in the McCully-Moiliili area.
However, as their numbers have dwindled in recent years, the nisei warriors have combined activities. Three years ago, they decided to hold a joint memorial service annually in late September to honor the death of the first nisei soldier, a member of the 100th Battalion.
Donald Shimazu, who headed the 442nd Veterans Club in 2000, said there are plans to develop a history and learning center, which could be housed at the organizations' current Wiliwili Street address.
Thompson, 84, said the veterans club also is working with the University of Hawaii Foundation to fund a scholarship program.