KAILUA-KONA — Today we honor patriots who served our country, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.
Established originally as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I, Veterans Day pays recognition to the millions of soldiers who served and fought for freedom across the world.
But one group of vets who stand out in our state’s conscious — as well as the nation’s — were honored last month for their valor.
In the wake of World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nisei were not allowed into the military until political pressure forced the Army to establish a single regiment of the second-generation Japanese-Americans, forming the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat.
Those two teams were later combined, forming a unit whose valor is forever stamped in American history.
The segregated 100th was mostly comprised of members of the Hawaii National Guard, while the 442nd included volunteer soldiers from Hawaii, the mainland and those who were sent to internment camps.
The 442nd became the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history. Between 16,000 to 17,000 Nisei US citizens served in the war.
Their achievements are all the more profound considering the sacrifice the troops displayed fighting for freedom came at the same time that they were suffering from prejudice and unfair treatment at home.
Seventy five years ago a group of Nisei from the 442nd liberated the towns of Bruyères, Belmont, and Biffontaine, France, from the occupying Nazi forces. They also rescued the “Lost Texas Battalion,” 275 Lone Star state soldiers who were cut off by German forces in the Vosges Mountains.
The mission to rescue them was seen as a death trap. But the 442, which carried with it a reputation that they were fighting to prove their patriotism to America, was up to the challenge.
Historian Tom Graves explained that after five days and nights of combat, sometimes hand-to-hand, the 442nd reached the surrounded soldiers, but at a high cost in dead and wounded. One 200-man infantry company had only eight men still able to fight; another had but 14.
“You fought not only the enemy, you fought racism — and you have won,” President Harry Truman told the remaining soldiers upon their return home.
It was an act of heroism that should never slip away from our nation’s memory.
In October, a group of people, including Kona District Court Judge Margaret Masunaga and her husband, travelled to France to ensure it wasn’t.
They were on hand to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberating battles.
Their uncles Kiyoshi Masunaga and Jack Taniguchi were members of the 100th Battalion and the 442nd.
“My Uncle Jack served in the 442nd while his sister, my mother, Lillian Taniguchi Kuroda, was interned in Jerome, Arkansas, for committing no crime,” said Masunaga.
They visited Epinal American Cemetery and Lorraine American Cemetery, the largest American cemetery in Europe where over 10,000 American soldiers from World War II are buried.
Nestled in an undergrowth clearing near Bruyères is a monument dedicated to the members of the 442nd and the 100th, which the group also visited.
In Bruyères the group was met with a parade and temporary museum for the 442nd.
“They loved us,” said Masunaga of the locals. “They (the 442) rescued their citizens.”
The locals have volunteers who will come and place flowers at the graves of the Nisei on every anniversary in October.
“When we were at these graves they introduced me to somebody from the town that said this person takes care of this grave. That gave me chicken skin,” she said.
In a speech Masunaga gave about the 100th Battalion in Bruyères she talked about “Uncle Kiyoshi,” a Konawaena graduate who was a paniolo on Greenwell Ranch.
“We honor and remember Kiyoshi and everyone who died in military service for the United States of America,” she said.
She said hearing the French band playing The Star Spangled Banner and seeing everyone with their hands over their heart renewed her patriotism.
“We will remember what happened 75 years ago,” Yves Bonjean, mayor of Bruyères, said in a speech.
“We will remember the terrible fights and the courage of all those fighters who liberated us from the enemy while sacrificing their lives.”
Family members of Erwin Blonder, one of the Texas Lost Battalion rescued by the 442nd, also attended the anniversary and delivered a speech full of gratitude for the brave men who saved him.
“If not for the bravery and courage of the 442nd, I would not be standing here today,” one of the Blonder children said. “Without the determination of the Band of Brothers, the Lost Battalion would have perished at the hands of the Germans. Our family wants to thank those who fought so bravely. We want to acknowledge the wrong that was done to the Japanese American community during WWII. We regret that it took so long for the heroism of the 442nd to be recognized by our country.
“Dad’s lifelong sense of gratitude, compassion, and philanthropy lives on in us and in our children. We owe our very lives to the heroes who ‘went for broke’ on these mountains 75 years ago.”
In his book, “Just Americans,” Robert Asahina said that by segregating Japanese Americans in the 100th and the 442nd, the Army had “unwittingly created what amounted to elite fighting units.”
“Most of them were volunteers, older and better educated than the average troops, and they were highly qualified with even the most qualified serving as riflemen because they had been barred from transferring to specialized units elsewhere in the service,” he explained.
Seventy-five years later, the results of that elite squad lives on, here in Hawaii, across America, and thousands of miles away in France.
“Long live peace! Long live freedom,” said Bonjean. “Long live the United States! Long live Hawaiian Islands!”