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A Tardy Honor for Asian WWII Heroes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

High in the mountains of Italy on June 24, 1944, Pfc. Kiyoshi Muranaga single-handedly held off German troops firing a fearsome 88-millimeter self-propelled gun. He was finally killed, but not before his actions allowed his fellow soldiers to escape.

Muranaga’s heroism is all the more remarkable considering that, at the time he gave his life for his country, his Japanese American family was burdened with the stigma of life in an internment camp in Amache, Colo., forced from home in Gardena, Calif., by the U.S. government.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jun. 23, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 23, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Veterans ceremony--A U.S. Army officer was misidentified in the caption for an A1 photo Thursday. Maj. Gen. Robert R. Ivany was the officer shown at a ceremony honoring Asian American and Native American Pacific Islanders who served in World War II.

A member of the 442d Regimental Combat Team, Muranaga had volunteered to stay and face the enemy alone on that June day, maneuvering the cannon and firing it while the rest of his squad sought safety.

At a White House ceremony Wednesday, he and 21 other Asian American and Native American Pacific Islanders who served in World War II were honored for their sacrifices, many posthumously. Only two Asian Americans had been awarded the Medal of Honor previously.

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President Clinton, who three years ago gave similar awards to African American veterans, made clear that he hopes the nation can right the wrong of racial prejudice that denied these men the medal many years ago.

“Rarely has a nation been so well served by a people it had so ill treated,” he said.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered thousands of Japanese Americans relocated to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. For the duration of the war, many Americans treated citizens of Asian descent as potential spies or traitors.

“There was concern that wartime conditions--the bitter feelings about Pearl Harbor and the suspicion of all Japanese Americans--had prevented Japanese American soldiers who made extraordinary contributions in combat from being properly recognized,” said Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera, who formerly represented the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles as a California assemblyman.

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The Medal of Honor was established by Congress just after the Civil War and is the nation’s highest military decoration. It is usually granted within three years of the time of service, but an amendment to the 1996 Defense Authorization Act provided for delayed presentation of the medal to Asian American World War II veterans who had won the Distinguished Service Cross.

Before a crowd of about 300 Cabinet, Pentagon and congressional leaders, as well as family and friends, the honorees entered a tent on the White House grounds in a procession led by the president. As Clinton placed the gold medal on a blue ribbon around the necks of living recipients, a description of the aging heroes’ feats was read.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), a platoon leader who lost his right arm after being hit by a grenade, was among the honorees. Only seven medal winners were present. The others, honored posthumously, were represented by surviving relatives, who were given framed medals.

A nephew of one of the deceased honorees, Pvt. Joe Hayashi of Pasadena, remembered that even as an enlisted man his uncle felt the sting of anti-Asian American sentiment. Hayashi, who volunteered to fight in May 1941--a few months before Japan’s entry into the war--had to be transferred from his post at San Francisco’s Presidio after the bombing of Pearl Harbor because his superiors feared he would be hurt by other soldiers.

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After Hayashi was transferred, his nephew said, his parents and siblings were sent to an internment camp in Wyoming, where they remained from August 1942 until August 1945. Hayashi visited them there at least once a year until he left for combat overseas in November 1944.

On April 20, 1945, Hayashi led a charge up a strongly defended hill in Tendola, Italy. Hayashi’s sister recalled that after several of his comrades were wounded, Hayashi dragged them to safety and then returned to storm the hill alone. Using hand grenades, he killed several enemy soldiers and forced others to surrender or retreat before he was fatally wounded.

Rudy Tokiwa, who attended the White House ceremony to see his former comrades honored, was in the same company as Hayashi. Tokiwa’s family also was interned in the United States. But Tokiwa, who described Hayashi as a quiet man, said that neither he nor his friend brought up the subject of family very often.

“We didn’t talk too much about home,” said Tokiwa, who is now 71 and lives in Sunnyvale. “It was sort of a sore subject.”

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Tokiwa said he thought Wednesday’s ceremony would go a long way toward soothing the feelings of Asian Americans who are still upset over their treatment during and after the war.

Caldera agreed.

“This recognition for many Japanese Americans helps wipe away much of the stigma that was associated with those wartime suspicions,” he said, “and it helps set the record straight for all time.”


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