It’s not often that one gets to shake hands with a Medal of Honor recipient, especially since there are only 78 in the country still living. I had that rare opportunity last week at the Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans (FFNV) Reunion in Las Vegas.
In 1953, Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura became the first living Japanese American to receive the coveted award. Before him, Sadao Munemori, who was killed in action, received the honor posthumously, and 20 other Nisei World War II veterans received their awards after them in 2000.
At the luncheon banquet, Miyamura, who had just celebrated his 90th birthday, told me he made the trip all the way from his home in Gallup, New Mexico, because he wanted to see the “last of his friends” who served, many of whom had already passed away.
Having received his medal for his military service during the Korean War, Miyamura also served during the final days of World War II. When the war ended, he was in the Army reserves for three years and re-enlisted for active duty in 1949, when the Korean War broke out.
According to the Medal of Honor citation that bears his name, Miyamura was a machine gun squadron leader who singlehandedly used both bayonet and machine gun to repel the enemy and protect his men from harm. Severely wounded, he was captured and remained in a Korean prisoner of war camp for 28 months. A detailed account of his story can be found in the book “Forged in Fire” by Vincent Okamoto.
There were few others his age at the sold-out luncheon. I counted only about a dozen, but the official count was 33 veterans. Many regular 100th/442nd attendees were not present, especially those that died in the past year. Among the missing was ever-present Mas Takahashi, whose recent death was undeniably felt particularly by his family members that included son Scott and his wife Susan. The news that another Los Angeles World War II stalwart, Tets Asato, passed away at home the night before the banquet was another loss deeply mourned by many in the room.
From left: Yuri Ogawa, Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura, and 100th Battalion C Company veteran James Ogawa, who turned 92 on Oct. 25.
In her keynote address, Anais Casin with the Bruyeres Tourist Office took note of the diminishing number of veterans. She spoke about the planned building of an interpretive center to honor those who helped liberate her native city in the Vosges area of France. She regretted that it has taken 71 years to properly honor the men of the 100th/442nd, but she added that her town has always been grateful for those men who came to be known as “Gentlemen Soldiers” for their kindness and generosity.
In an area surrounded by thick forests, French survivors recalled that Japanese American soldiers shared rations and befriended many of the people who still remember them today. With an estimated budget of $10.9 million, Casin said the elaborate center will hopefully be completed in time for some of the remaining veterans to visit it, though she noted that the anticipated opening will not be for several years.
Closer to home, the FFNV hopes to continue this annual gathering as long as there are friends and families around to support it. Originally begun as yearly event sponsored by E Company veterans and their families in Northern California, FFNV now attracts a large number of people from throughout the country, including a regular contingent from Los Angeles, arranged by 100th/MIS volunteers Steve Sato, Scott Takahashi, Cathy Tanaka and Robi Shibao-Martin (among others), as well as one from Hawaii organized by Ann Kabasawa.
It has become a FFNV tradition to honor the vets with a light-hearted tribute from all those in the room brave enough to get onstage and participate. This year, FFNV members entertained the veterans with their very own humorous rendition of the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song. The reworked lyrics included a statement about the passing of the guard from veterans to their younger friends and families: “The children grew up, but what about the kids? How will they remember what Grandpa did?”
The message from the “younger” folks was to continue to honor the sacrifices made by these Japanese American heroes and to pass on their legacy to future generations.
Hershey Miyamura underlined the importance of spreading the word about the 100th/442nd to keep this rich history alive. He regretted that he was not able to attend more of these reunions in the past because he felt it important to spend his time speaking to those people outside the Japanese American community who might not know their story. With the passing of time, however, he was happy to be at home among his Nisei counterparts. As his daughter Kelly Hildahl, who accompanied her father, reiterated, “Dad really wanted to be here.”
FFNV president and 442nd RCT veteran Lawson Sakai announced to the cheering crowd that the next reunion has already been scheduled in Las Vegas for October 16-20, 2016. The message was capped in song with the familiar refrain from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “You all come back now, you hear?”
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.