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A Historic Time for Our Community: Celebrating The Congressional Gold Medal

On a rainy Washington DC day in July 1946, President Harry S. Truman presented the Presidential Unit Citation to members of the segregated 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team with the words, “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice, and you have won.”  Now more than 65 years later, in a ceremony on November 2, 2011, Congress will award its highest civilian honor to these same brave men by granting the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service. With the awarding of this honor, a whole new generation will learn about the heroism of this group of Nisei soldiers—many of whom gave their lives to prove their patriotism to a country that had forsaken them and their families by forcing them from their homes and putting them in American concentration camps.  It is an honor that is coming not a moment too soon: like all Nisei who experienced first-hand the traumas of World War II, many are no longer with us.

President Truman reviewing Japanese American troops on July 15, 1946 (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Former 100th Infantry Battalion (Company C) member Osamu “Sam” Fujikawa, 84, is among the few still living who was present at both commemorative events. One of the longtime color guards who carried the 100th/442nd flag in the Nisei Week Parade every year, Fujikawa was recently reminded of the parade in which he participated more than 65 years ago.  “There were about five hundred of us who marched down Constitution Avenue in Washington before President Truman. I had just come back from overseas the month before. I remember that it was pouring down rain.” Asking not to call attention to himself even though he received one of five Presidential pens used to sign Senate Bill S. 1055 that granted the Congressional Gold Medal, Fujikawa attended the October 2010 signing as a humble representative of those fellow soldiers who died—not only during the war but in the decades since.
It is a celebratory time for all of us in the Japanese American community, but also a time to pause and remember all those who have died since the war’s end.  That number is growing increasingly large.  In honoring the veterans in a special Nisei Week tribute in August, Rev. Mark Nakagawa noted, “As a pastor I have officiated many services for Nisei veterans during my 27 years in the ministry, and I know how important it is to honor those who are still with us.”

Noticeably absent from this year’s Nisei Week parade was longtime color guard and former 442nd RCT (E Company) soldier Robert S. Ichikawa, who marched in a record 43 Nisei Week Parades carrying the U.S. flag.  A tradition since 1951, the color guard composed of Nisei veterans marched in every parade, and Ichikawa was the last of the original group.  The eldest of ten children, Ichikawa and each one of his seven brothers served in the U.S. military. Volunteering out of the concentration camp at Amache at the age of 18, Ichikawa returned from France and Italy to resettle in Long Beach and the South Bay with his wife of 61 years, Christie (Ozawa).  Still an active volunteer at the Go For Broke National Education Center, Christie remembers that her husband, who was first given the choice of carrying either the 100th or 442nd  ceremonial banner in the parade, insisted on hoisting the Stars and Stripes. He had carried it proudly in both the Nisei Week and the Torrance Armed Forces Day Parades until about five years ago when it was decided that the veterans were unable to continue this arduous job. Ever committed to making things better for his country and his family, sadly, but appropriately, Ichikawa died on July 4 of this year.

The tribute to the Nisei veterans could not come at a more crucial time. Just in the months since the Obama signing, many have passed on, among them four from Southern California alone: Ben Kitagawa, Taro “Tommy” Uchizono, Yukio “Yuk” Hibino, and Ichikawa.  As former MIS and longtime Go For Broke volunteer Ken Akune comments, “Our people are passing away fast, and I’m so grateful that this recognition is coming before the guys are all gone.  The guys who fought made a sacrifice not only for ourselves but for the whole Japanese American community by opening doors for all of us. How do you thank people like that for all that they did? ”

President Barack Obama talks with his guests before signing S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II, in the Oval Office, October 5, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

© 2011 Sharon Yamato

100th 100th Infantry Battalion 442nd 442nd Regimental Combat Team Congressional Gold Medal Military Intelligence Service MIS Osamu “Sam” Fujikawa president obama President Truman Robert S. Ichikawa Senate Bill S. 1055 veterans