By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Nov. 02, 2011) -- More than 66 years after hostilities ended in World War II, 40 Americans were given the Bronze Star medals they deserved for combat service in that conflict.
They were Japanese-American Soldiers who fought as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the Military Intelligence Service awarded the decoration during a ceremony Nov. 1 in Washington, D.C.
The Army decided all Soldiers who wore Combat Infantry Badges from World War II were owed a Bronze Star -- some, however, never received theirs.
Getting such an award, in many cases, depended on "how good your clerk was ... and some of the clerks were not that great," said Lt. Gen. Joseph F. Peterson, now retired. He said it's really a matter of paperwork that the Soldiers had to wait so long to get their Bronze Stars.
The general said he's organizing the three-day recognition of Japanese-American Soldiers in Washington. The highlight has some 800 of those veterans being honored with the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony Nov. 2 at the U.S. Capitol Building.
But for the Soldiers gathered at a posh Washington, D.C. hotel, Nov. 1, the day was about finally getting the Bronze Star they were owed.
At the event, 31 of those Soldiers were present to have the star pinned on their chest by Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno. Another nine Bronze Star medals were given to the family members of Soldiers who could not attend, or who had died.
"It's amazing to get a star like this," said Don K. Masuda, one of the recipients of the award. The former Soldier attended the event with his wife, his daughter, and two of his grandsons. He said following the Army he's led "a pretty good life," which he said included being a co-owner of a shipping business in his native Hawaii, and also working six years for the postal service.
He served as an infantryman in World War II, in both Italy and France, as part of the 442nd RCT. He earned two Purple Hearts during his service. He said he's been waiting "a pretty long time" to have a Bronze Star.
Fellow 442nd RCT Soldier, George Joe Sakato, was also at the award ceremony -- both as a recipient of the Bronze Star and as a speaker. Sakato is one of 21 Japanese-American Medal of Honor recipients to come out of the 442nd RCT and 100th Infantry Battalion.
On behalf of the 33,000 Japanese-Americans Soldiers who served in World War II, Sakato thanked Congress for the Congressional Gold Medal the Soldiers would be honored with Nov. 2. He also thanked his country for the opportunity to earn that honor.
"We also thank the government, which allowed us to serve in the U.S. Army, to defend our country, and to prove our loyalty to America," Sakato said.
A total of 40 Bronze Stars were presented to Soldiers or their family by the Army's chief of staff.
Odierno reiterated for those at the event the greatness of their service, like the service of all those who served in World War II. He called them "the greatest generation."
But the general also touched on the tragedy those Soldiers faced that other Soldiers did not -- many of their families, back home, locked away in camps and branded as enemies of America, even while their sons served to defend the country's ideals.
"From the shock of Pearl Harbor, and out of fear and prejudice, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were sent to internment camps," Odierno said. "But what's incredible to me as that many of them did not allow that grave injustice of the internment to stand in their way. They remained steadfast in their commitment to their country, and volunteered to serve a nation in combat -- a selfless act of devotion."
Those Japanese-American Soldiers, he said, served as infantrymen, linguists, military intelligence, and artillerymen.
"Over 33,000 Japanese-Americans served in the war," Odierno said. "And of those, over 13,000 served in the 442nd, and earned over 9,000 Purple Hearts."
The 442nd became the most highly decorated unit in the Army's history, Odierno said. The 442nd and the 100th Infantry Battalion together earned seven Presidential Unit Citations, two Meritorious Service Plaques, 36 Army Commendation Medals, and 87 Division Commendations. Individually, Soldiers earned 21 Medals of Honor, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, more than 354 Silver Stars, and more than 4,000 Purple Hearts.
Of those Soldiers, Odierno said, "together they define the ethos that we all live by today, 'never leave a fallen comrade."'
Odierno said a lesson was learned from the experience of World War II -- a lesson about tolerance.
"The lesson of the Japanese-American experience is that fear and prejudice make our country weaker, not stronger," Odierno said. "Japanese-Americans, like others, have more than earned their place in our country, in our Army, and in our society -- a melting pot to include African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and today, Arab-Americans."
About 240 veterans attended the Bronze Star event. Another 100 spouses of deceased veterans also attended, as did about 500 family members representing Soldiers.
Peterson, himself a descendant of Japanese ancestry, said the event was both to honor those Soldiers that served, and to educate America.
"It's educational for our nation to know that a group of Soldiers and a group of Americans, who because of the mass hysteria when the imperial military of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor -- were classified enemy aliens," Peterson said.
About 120,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up, Peterson said, and put into any of 10 internment camps across nine states.
"Out of those camps came a demand, by 65 percent of them -- 65 percent of 120,000 internees -- to serve their country in a time of war," he said.
It was those Soldiers who served in units like the 442nd RCT, the 100th Infantry Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service, Peterson said.
Among those three units, he said, the average number of individual awards per Soldier was three awards for heroism.
"They are the most decorated unit in U.S. military history of its size and duration of the conflict," he said.