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Akira Horiuchi: A Reluctant Hero's Journey to the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony - Part 1

To be drafted by the Government, to serve your country in time of war under such conditions that existed at that time, incarceration of all persons from the west coast with the wrong color face by abrogating all constitutional rights, racist discrimination wherever you went…left me quite apprehensive about my future.

—Aki Horiuchi, testimony to the 1981 Los Angeles Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians

Akira and his wife at their home in Visalia, CA. taken by Don Wakida.

Of the three hundred and thirty-three Japanese American veterans of World War II that convened in Washington DC last November 2011, Aki Horiuchi felt that he “wasn’t like some of the guys who were in before me while the fighting was still going on.” In fact, his personal journey to the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony to recognize the more than 30,000 Japanese American World War II veterans was peppered with small doubts and memories of a war that had cost him so much.

He was eighteen years old when he was drafted into the Army—a mere two weeks after he had graduated from high school in Utah, and served in occupied Japan as a translator for the Military Intelligence Service. Having served his time in the Army, combat or not, Horiuchi qualified to partake in the prestigious award ceremony held in the nation’s capital.

For the first time in more than sixty years spent in a quiet, humble life, Horiuchi stepped into the national spotlight, even if just for a moment, wielding this triumph for the veterans with a humility and shoulder shrugging that almost suggests that he had nothing to do with the World War II quandary that has transformed every American of Japanese descent.

“Spry” was the word my father, Donald Wakida, used to describe 84-year-old Aki Horiuchi, upon meeting for the first time in Visalia, California. Wakida and Horiuchi were paired together as a part of the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit based in Virginia, whose mission is 'to transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices.' Out of the over 300 veterans who attended the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in DC, 156 were transported by Honor Flight on Southwest Airlines, with approximately 100 volunteer “guardians” who traveled with the veterans as their personal escorts.

Torrance-based National Veterans Network (NVN) first approached the Honor Flight program about the possibility of hosting the Nisei veterans very early on; before it was known what day, or even which month the ceremony would be held in. Once Honor Flight accepted the request, NVN appointed an Honor Flight Coordinator for each geographic region to contact veterans and coordinate efforts. According to recent statistics posted on the Honor Flight Network website, the nation is losing WWII veterans at the rate of approximately 900 per day, so in response, Honor Flight Network does whatever it can to fulfill the dreams of WWII veterans to travel to national memorials honoring our military, absolutely free. Even with the offer from Honor Flight, Horiuchi still hesitated.

It took the efforts of brother Edward Horiuchi, who lives in Chicago and is a Korean War vet to convince Aki to fill out the necessary forms and book an actual ticket. My father, who is in fact a Vietnam vet, had never met Aki before, but he took his responsibility dead seriously; emailing travel plans to him repeatedly and enthusiastically. 

Akira's escort, Don Wakida at the airport.

I was one of many family members who were at the Los Angeles International Airport at 5 a.m., but sure enough we were “cutting it pretty close” according to Nisei earlybird standards. Aki had already been at the airport two hours ahead of us. As his Honor Flight escort, my dad’s responsibility was to treat the war heroes as if they are family and ensure that the veteran he is in charge with had a safe and rewarding experience.

As it turned out, Aki needed absolutely no escort whatsoever—he turned out to be so splendidly in shape and had planned to meet his brother in DC where they spent the bulk of the trip touring together, which meant my dad was pretty much free to haul around 5 lb bags of almonds and pistachios from the Central Valley and socialize with buddies he’d met at annual Friends and Family of the Nisei Veterans reunions held in Las Vegas.

Still, since my father boarded the plane before Aki, he reserved a seat for him right up in front, which meant that Horiuchi was the very first veteran to deplane in Chicago where they changed planes. At every junction, Nisei were met with enthusiastic greeters donning green t-shirts, lining both sides of the gate, a sight our hesitant hero wasn’t entirely prepared for. When a gentleman gently stopped Horiuchi and asked him, “442?” Aki admitted that he just flushed through as fast as he could and said no, rushing past the brou-haha. It was no better for him in Baltimore, where a cluster of bearded veterans (Horiuchi guessed they might be Vietnam veterans) awaited to cheer on the Nisei envoy. “I took one look at this and took a breath… Oh boy, here we go.”

“You fought World War II on two fronts,” Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California reminded the veterans at the ceremony, quoting former President Harry Truman. “You fought not only your enemy; you fought prejudice, and you won.” Senator Boxer and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, were primary forces in pushing the Senate version of the bill forward in early 2011, granting the Congressional Gold Medal in the House of Representatives. However, upon first hearing about the ceremony in Washington DC, Horiuchi didn’t bother with ideas of participating. “I wasn’t in combat,” he insisted. By the time I was in the MIS, the war was over so, I just forgot about it.”

Despite his personal misgivings, Horiuchi’s contribution to the war effort cannot be underestimated; he was one of more than 5,000 Nisei who were recruited and specially trained to serve as an US military linguist, before, during and after WWII. Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers on August 14, 1945, thereby ending the war and changing the Army’s strategic application of much needed Japanese American interpreters.

In addition to keeping a lower public profile due to the nature of their intelligence work, the Military Intelligence Service interpreters who were involved in every aspect of the post-WWII occupation and reconstruction of Japan, might be perceived as less essential to the story of the heroic Nisei soldier, simply since they were no longer in the line of fire. However, the MIS were an essential piece of the US occupation of Japan, playing a significant role in facilitating repatriation, war tribunal, and counter intelligence functions, and immediately following surrender, they were among the first Americans to land in Japan. With their linguistic skills and cultural understanding, the MIS served as a vital link between the US General MacArthur’s headquarters and the citizens and government of Japan, helping to implement a peaceful transition to a democratic Japan and cementing a postwar alliance between the two countries.

Part 2 >>

© 2012 Patricia Wakida

442 442nd Congressional Gold Medal MIS veteran veterans World War II