Honolulu Star-Bulletin Local News
M E D A L _ O F _ H O N O R

Honor overdue

Asian Americans who fought in WWII
are getting a second chance at a
Medal of Honor

By Gregg K. Kakesako


Some call it a debt of honor.

Others feel it's a tribute long overdue . . . a case of justice delayed.

Of the 432 American servicemen who received the Medal of Honor in World War II, only one was an Asian American.

And until recently, not one African American had received the country's highest award for valor although 1.2 million blacks served in that war.

With the passage of a special congressional waiver this year, seven African Americans were recognized by Congress and President Clinton for their sacrifices.

Now Asian Americans are hoping for similar results from a review by military historians to see if any other World War II heroes were denied the Medal of Honor based on race.

Under a two-year $500,000 appropriation, the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center is identifying Asian-American, Hawaiian or Pacific-Islander soldiers who received the Army's Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor, to see if they should be upgraded.

By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin
Barney Hajiro with wife, Esther, in Pearl City. Hajiro was
recommended for the Medal of Honor but never received it.

The Navy Awards Branch is conducting a similar review of the 3,400 sailors and Marines who received the Navy Cross during the World War II. So far, the Navy hasn't come up with any candidates.

Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka obtained the time limitation waiver for the awarding of the World War II medal. Akaka also authored another law that gives military intelligence veterans the opportunity to be reconsidered for awards and medals they never received because of the covert nature of their wartime duties.

Fifty-two members of the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team fighting in Europe and one nisei member of the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific earned the Distinguished Service Cross.

U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who refrained from participating in drafting Akaka's legislation, lost his right arm while leading the attack on Mount Nebbione in Italy on April 20, 1945. In the assault that earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, Inouye, wounded twice, killed 25 German soldiers and captured eight others, knocking out at least two machine gun emplacements.

Because the nisei warriors were members of one of the most decorated Army units in World War II, their exploits are well-documented. But Debra Wada, an Akaka aide who helped draft the legislation, said it will be harder to track down Asian Americans in the Marine Corps and Navy who received the Navy Cross.

Domingo Los Banos, an adviser for a documentary film on the exploits of the 7,000 Filipino Americans who served in the Pacific and helped the Allies retake the Philippines, says he doesn't believe any of his comrades received the DSC.

But Army historian James McNaughton said he has found names of soldiers who may have been Filipino Americans and earned the DSC early in the war.

The only Medal of Honor awarded to an Asian American went to Private 1st Class Sadao Munemori of Los Angeles. He was posthumously awarded the medal for attacking the last stronghold of Hitler's army in Italy on April 5, 1945.

Munemori was an assistant squad leader in Company A of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team's 3rd Battalion during the Po Valley campaign.

A prewar draftee, Munemori had been promoted to sergeant at the Military Intelligence Service Language School, but took a "bust" to volunteer for combat duty. He was among the first batch of replacements from Camp Shelby, Miss., after the Battle of Cassino and fought through the Battle of Bruyeres.

Thrust into command when his squad leader was wounded, Munemori attacked two German machine gun nests that had pinned down his squad in a minefield. After withdrawing because of heavy enemy fire, Munemori took refuge in a shell crater already occupied by two of his men. When an unexploded hand grenade bounced off his helmet and rolled toward his companions Munemori jumped on it, absorbing the blast.

Private 1st Class Barney Hajiro, 80, of Puunene, Maui, was recommended for the Medal of Honor for leading the third and last assault on Oct. 29, 1944, in France in the rescue attempt to save the "Lost Battalion."

As a member of 3rd Battalion, I Company, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Hajiro had been recommended for both the Medal of Honor and the Victoria Cross by his commanding officer, Capt. James Wheatley. He has been credited as one of the key soldiers in the operation which nearly decimated I Company. Fully staffed, Hajiro's company had 205 soldiers before the rescue attempt. When the battle was over only eight riflemen and a few in the weapons platoon remained.

Badly wounded during the assault, Hajiro said, he wasn't allowed to rejoin his unit because of the Medal of Honor recommendation and was assigned to a segregated all-black unit.

While recuperating at a convalescent hospital in Battle Creek, Mich., Hajiro said the military awarded him the DSC. In 1948, the British government gave him the British Military Medal aboard the Canadian destroyer Cayuga.

On Oct, 26, 1944, the 442nd RCT's 3rd Battalion was called upon to rescue the 1st Battalion, 141st Regiment, 36th Division, a Texas unit which had advanced too far and was trapped for seven days by the Germans near Biffontaine.

On the third day of the intense battle, Hajiro, carrying his Browning Automatic Rifle on a sling and firing from the hip, rallied the nisei soldiers who had been pinned down and led the charge up a hill destroying two machine gun nests singlehandedly.

To this day, Hajiro doesn't know why the award was downgraded. "Maybe it was because I was Oriental."

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