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100th Infantry: Cane fields to Congressional Gold Medal

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Nov. 01, 2011) -- Mitsuo Hamasu will receive the Congressional Gold Medal Nov. 2 for his service in the Army during World War II as part of the all-Japanese-American 100th Infantry Battalion.

Hamasu, born in Hawaii in 1919 to Japanese parents, is a Nisei -- the second generation, born in a new country to parents who were Japanese by birth.

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Hamasu was excited to join the Army -- even by force in 1940, as a result of the first draft in Hawaii -- because it got him off the rural sugarcane plantation he worked as a young man.

"I was happy, to get out of the country," he said of his rural home on the north side of Hawaii's largest island. "That's a country place. It's sugar cane. We were working for a plantation, a sugar plantation -- cane farming."

Hamasu had actually been lucky to help his uncle as a carpenter's assistant -- the same uncle, he said, who had told him he'd never get into the Army, even if he wanted to.

"I was five foot two," Hamasu said. "And I thought that was too short. I worked for my uncle, and he used to tell me you can't get in. They won't take you. You are too short."

But in 1940, the Army came anyway and Hamasu was drafted into the Hawaii National Guard, 299th Hawaii Infantry Regiment.

His parents and friends were happy for him, Hamasu said.

"They were happy to see one of their children get into the military," he said. "It was the first draft, and we never had this thing before. Friends were happy because I got in."

Just one year after he was drafted, on Dec. 7, 1941 -- the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Immediately after his enlistment, Hamasu had been in a mixed unit -- white Americans mingled with Japanese. But after Pearl Harbor, military life changed for Hamasu.

"They called us in, the 299th Regiment -- I was in F Company," he said. "They called the company together and said all the Japanese Soldiers turn in your weapons and ammunition. That's when they segregated us and sent us to a place called Schofield Barracks. We were curious to what was happening, because they don't tell you. They just said to turn in your weapons -- then they pick all the Japanese Soldiers and send them to a place, isolated, as far as Schofield Barracks is concerned. And they said we're going to make a unit out of it."

Others might have felt slighted, angry or ashamed. Hamasu said he wanted to do what he was told -- what his country asked of him.

"I felt that since I was in the military -- whatever the military tells you to do, you have to do it," he said. "So, we took it as it came."

Did he have to work harder to prove himself? Yes. "They didn't say you have to, but it happened that way. You have to -- you know, you have to do more than your share to be accepted by the other Soldiers."

In early June 1942, Hamasu's unit left Hawaii for the United States -- though they didn't know where they were going at the time. Shortly after their arrival at Fort McCoy, Wis., they were christened the 100th Infantry Battalion -- an all-Japanese-American unit that would fight the Germans in Italy.

By September 1943, the 100th had finished training in the United States and sailed for Africa. By the end of the month, they were in Salerno, Italy. They fought for nine months from Salerno to Rome -- a distance of about 140 miles. Their heaviest fighting came in late January 1944, at Monte Cassino. The 100th landed in Italy with about 1,300 Soldiers. They started at Monte Cassino with around 800. They finished that battle with about 500.

It was at Monte Cassino where the Nisei Soldiers earned the nickname the "Purple Heart Battalion."

The 100th received reinforcements after Monte Cassino, from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team -- another all-Nisei unit -- and pressed on to Rome. The 100th fought for a total of 18 months in both Italy and France.

The 100th Infantry Battalion earned three Presidential Unit Citations, 1,703 Purple Hearts, 8 Medals of Honor, 16 Distinguished Service Crosses, 147 Silver Stars, 2,173 Bronze Stars and 30 Division Commendations.

"Serving overseas in Italy -- it's mountainous," Hamasu said -- reluctant to recount any details about his combat actions in the country. "It was a terrible thing, as far as the war is concerned. I think they should stop all wars -- I feel that way."

He did say he thought the actions of his unit merited recognition though -- and was appreciative of the recognition he and his fellow Soldiers are going to receive from the U.S. Congress.

"It's very nice of Americans to do this," he said.

On Nov. 2, Hamasu and fellow Soldiers from the 100th, as well as Soldiers from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service will be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Hamasu left the Army after World War II, only to re-enlist again in time to serve in the Korean War. He served in the U.S. Army until his retirement in 1963 as a staff sergeant. He and his wife have seven children. Following his military retirement he served as a Department of the Navy civilian until his civilian retirement in 1986. He resides in Hawaii.

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