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Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Friday, June 23, 2000

Saluting the
medal winners

IT was sweltering in Honolulu this week but, on Wednesday, I felt a chill on opening up the Star-Bulletin's special section, "Strength and Honor/Go For Broke." It was the chill of getting goosebumps or, as Hawaii natives like to put it, of getting "chicken skin."

The four-page, full-color commemorative edition was in celebration of the 22 Asian-Pacific military veterans -- 12 from this state -- who were heralded in Washington, D.C., for acts of heroism during World War II.

There were individual profiles and photographs of the dozen islanders, only five of whom were alive to personally receive their Medals of Honor from President Clinton.

Each wore it on a blue ribbon resting on his chest, which must have been heaving with mixed emotions of pride, sadness, gratitude, humility and a love for country.

That they (and representatives of the deceased) had gotten medals 55 years after the war only managed to heighten the magnitude of the moment.

Medal of Honor Special

What is it about the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team that brings this sansei to tears?

The first time was three years ago, in June 1997, when I was a guest at the battalion's 55th anniversary reunion at the Pacific Beach Hotel.

The highlight of the luncheon came when Club 100 members slowly stepped forward to sing their fight song, "One Puka Puka."

There were less than 800 of them in attendance, fewer than a third of the unit originally comprised of 2,500 vigorous young men from Hawaii.

But, as they sang, the sight of these gray-haired gentlemen -- swaying with their arms around each other's shoulders, some of them balancing on canes -- was so intense it caused me to weep.

The tears came again the following summer, in 1998, after viewing the Steven Spielberg movie, "Saving Private Ryan." The haunting war film moved the audience to gasps, sobs and shocked silence.

The opening battle scene, which realistically depicted the slaughter of soldiers landing on Normandy's Omaha Beach, was graphically gory. It resulted in some of us watching with fingertips covering lips or shielding our peepers from the screen.

Seeing through the eyes of World War II veterans -- albeit in a movie theater -- was a jarring experience. From that day on, I have had unabashed admiration for all who have served, are serving or are going to serve in our nation's armed forces.

This week, though, I bow in special reverence to the five living Medal of Honor winners from Hawaii and their fellow soldiers. Vicariously, I share their swirl of emotions.

I, too, feel pride -- as a fellow Japanese American and island resident; sadness -- for what they had to do during wartime and for the ones who didn't make it; gratitude -- for their sacrifice and hardship; and humility -- that those of my generation will never be able to perform as selfless an act in that oppressive, bigoted era.

Most of all, I join in their love affair with this country.

They cared for the U.S. so deeply and firmly, even when Hawaii wasn't even a state, that they offered their lives for those who would never be able to possibly thank them enough.

To thank them. All of them. Isn't our appreciation the least they deserve, whether they are Medal of Honor winners or not?

Here comes that chicken-skin chill again. Darn it, somebody pass the Kleenex box, please...

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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