May is Asian American and Pacific Islander History month. Composite by Kenna Lee/Coffee or Die Magazine.
As Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month draws to a close on Memorial Day, we decided to look back at the 33 Medal of Honor recipients belonging to that diverse group. Since the end of the Philippine-American War in 1899, 33 US soldiers with Asian or Pacific Islander roots have received the Medal of Honor, but only about a third received it during the time of their service. The bulk of the recipients — mostly from World War II — were upgraded to Medals of Honor from lesser awards after President Bill Clinton’s administration reexamined the military records of 22 soldiers (20 of whom were Japanese Americans).
Remarkably, 21 of the 24 recipients of the Medals of Honor awarded in World War II served with either the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the most decorated US Army regiment of its size in American history — or the 100th Infantry Battalion, which was known for its company motto of “Remember Pearl Harbor.”
The 100th Infantry Battalion was a separate unit that joined World War II attached to the 34th Infantry Division. It was only when the War Department recommended to form an all-volunteer unit of nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) called the 442nd Regimental Combat Team that the units combined into one on Feb. 1, 1943.
Notably, no Asian Americans received the Medal of Honor during World War I nor have any since the Vietnam War. Only one Asian American received the medal for his role during peacetime.
Telesforo de la Crux Trinidad was the first and only Asian American in the US Navy to receive the Medal of Honor. On Jan. 21, 1915, while steaming in the Gulf of California, the captain of the USS San Diego put the vessel through a four-hour full-speed endurance trial. At the end of the trials, one of the boilers failed, creating a chain reaction explosion that killed nine sailors and wounded several others.
“At the time of the explosion, Trinidad was driven out of Fireroom No. 2 by the force of the blast, but at once returned and picked up R.E. Daly, Fireman Second Class, whom he saw to be injured and proceeded to bring him out,” writes Our Navy, the standard magazine of the Navy, in its May 1915 (Vol. IX) issue. “While passing into Fireroom No. 4, Trinidad was just in time to catch the explosion in No. 3 Fireroom but without consideration for his own safety, although badly burned about the face, he passed Daly on and then assisted in rescuing another injured man from No. 3 Fireroom.” He became the first Filipino in the Navy to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He passed away in 1968 at age 77.
Note: Some illustrations in this story taken from historic or third-party sources refer to the “Congressional Medal of Honor.” Though the term “Congressional” is not part of the official name of the Medal of Honor, it has been used colloquially to refer to the medal through its history. The legal name of the award, regardless of military branch, is the Medal of Honor.
In 1911, Pvt. José Balitón Nísperos was severely wounded while serving with 34th Company, Philippine Scouts, in Lapurap, Basilan Island. During a melee involving a spear, Nísperos couldn’t stand due to several wounds. With his left arm lacerated and broken, he continued to repel the attack, firing his rifle with one hand to prevent his unit from being overrun. He became the first Filipino in the US Army to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He passed away in 1922 at 34.
Sgt. Jose Calugas served with the Philippine Scouts for 12 years and had a family in the Philippines before the Japanese invaded. On Jan. 16, 1942, Calugas had just served lunch in a field kitchen near the village of Culis located on the Bataan Peninsula when the first wave of Japanese soldiers attacked. Calugas, a member of the Army’s 88th Field Artillery Regiment (PS), noticed a nearby gun battery go offline. He scanned across a shell-swept area, then sprinted 1,000 yards and jumped inside to realize the gun crew were all wounded or killed. Calugas fired the 75 mm cannon, destroying 60 Japanese vehicles, all while dodging effective artillery and enemy gunfire.
He was recommended for the Medal of Honor on Feb. 24, 1942. However, when the Army surrendered at the fall of Bataan, many Americans, including Calugas, were forced to endure the Bataan Death March, a harrowing 65-mile route to Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. He survived the march, became a POW, and escaped to lead a guerrilla unit against the Japanese until the end of the war. Calugas died in 1998 at the age of 90.
Sgt. Rudolph B. Davila was awarded the Medal of Honor 56 years after he saved 130 American soldiers from being cut down by a German machine-gun position. On May 28, 1944, the 27-year-old led his machine-gun platoon over a hill near Artena, a town near Rome, and caught a German machine-gun position off guard as they took aim on an American platoon in a wheat field. While his platoon held back, Davila charged forward, throwing hand grenades, finally pushing into a building, and emptying three ammunition boxes while firing his machine gun to kill the enemy soldiers. He was wounded in the leg but prevented the ambush.
He recalled a conversation with a commander from 3rd Infantry Division, to which he was assigned. “He told me: ‘If you hadn’t done that, we’d have all been slaughtered. I’m going to write you up for the Medal of Honor.’” Davila received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. In June 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Davila the Medal of Honor. He passed away two years later at 85.
On Oct. 19, 22, and 29, 1944, in the vicinity of Bruyeres and Biffontaine in eastern France, Pvt. Barney F. Hajiro displayed extraordinary gallantry in the face of extreme danger. On Oct. 19, he served as a sentry on top of an embankment and rendered assistance to Allied troops attacking a house 200 yards away by exposing himself to direct enemy fire. He maneuvered to assist the unit on his right and eliminated two enemy snipers. Three days later, he and another soldier held an outpost security position about 50 yards to the right front of their platoon and concealed themselves. An 18-man heavily armed enemy patrol approached and the pair killed two, wounded one, and took the remaining force prisoner.
On Oct. 29, in a wooded area near Biffontaine, France, Hajiro waded through a booby-trapped area and initiated an attack, running 100 yards through a hail of gunfire. He led the charge up a slope referred to as “Suicide Hill,” screaming “Banzai!” and drawing fire from camouflaged machine-gun nests. Single-handedly, Hajiro silenced two machine-gun nests and killed two enemy snipers. Hajiro epitomized the 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s motto “Go for Broke,” as he was shot four times during the fight but refused medical attention until 40 others received care. He received the Medal of Honor 56 years after his action. He died in 2011 at the age of 94.
Pvt. Mikio “Kio” Hasemoto served in Company B, 100th Infantry Battalion, where he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (before it was reexamined and upgraded to the Medal of Honor) for his actions in the vicinity of Cerasuolo, Italy, on Nov. 29, 1943. The 27-year-old from Honolulu, Hawaii, challenged two machine gunners who broke apart from a Japanese force of about 40 enemy soldiers attacking the left flank of his platoon. Hasemoto expelled four magazines at the approaching machine gunners until his weapon was shot and unusable. He responded by dashing 10 yards to the rear, secured another automatic rifle, and fired a wall of bullets in the direction of the Japanese until his weapon jammed.
To remain in the fight, he ran through an enemy machine-gun barrage to pick up an M1 rifle. Hasemoto and his squad leader killed 10 more enemy soldiers and advanced on the only three combatants remaining. Together they killed one, wounded another, and captured the final enemy combatant. The next day, Hasemoto was killed in action after repelling enemy attacks.
Joe Hayashi was born in Salinas, California, in 1920. He was a two-sport athlete who played football and baseball, loved the outdoors, surf fishing, freshwater fishing, hunting quail, and raising pigeons. He worked on his car, built his own boat, and even bottled his own root beer. When World War II arrived on America’s doorstep, his family were imprisoned in internment camps because of his Japanese heritage.
Still, he enlisted as a private to serve with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, where he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (later upgraded to the Medal of Honor), for his actions near Tendola, Italy, on April 20 and April 22, 1945. Joe Hayashi was ordered to attack a stronghold on top of a hill that commanded all approaches to Tendola. They reached within 75 yards of enemy positions before they were compromised. He dragged his wounded teammates to safety and returned alone to expose himself to direct mortar fire against the hostile emplacements. When he reached the objective, he realized his mortar teams had neutralized three machine guns, killing 27 soldiers and wounding many.
Two days later, while maneuvering his squad up a tall hill to within 100 yards of the enemy, Hayashi crawled through intense enemy fire to throw a hand grenade into an enemy machine-gun position. He killed one enemy soldier and forced the remaining gun crew to surrender. Hayashi then threw another grenade to knock out a machine-gun position and crawled to the right flank of another where he killed four soldiers and forced the rest to flee. While pursuing those who fled, he was mortally wounded.
Pvt. Shizuya Hayashi was born and raised on a sugar plantation in Oahu, Hawaii, and was serving in the US Army when the Japanese launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The native Hawaiian — nicknamed Caesar by his Army buddies because they struggled pronouncing his name — wanted payback, only to be sent to Italy to fight with the 100th Infantry Battalion, 34th Infantry Division. On Nov. 29, 1943, Shizuya Hayashi single-handedly assaulted a machine-gun position near Cerasuolo. While flanking an assault on high ground held by the enemy, he fired his automatic rifle from the hip despite receiving enemy hand grenades and rifle and machine-gun fire. His assault killed seven men in the machine-gun nest and two more as they tried to flee. Hayashi’s platoon had advanced 200 yards when an enemy anti-aircraft gun opened fire on them.
Hayashi returned to fire at the hostile position, killing nine, taking four prisoners, and forcing the remainder to abandon their attack. Miraculously, he survived and his actions were taken while inside a minefield.
“I still remember that day and the battle,” he told the Honolulu Star Bulletin in 2000. “We were cut off in a minefield. There were mines all around. I remember a sniper bullet passing by my neck. […] A lot of boys got hit in that minefield. It was a rough time.” He died in 2008 at age 90.
Daniel Inouye, a second lieutenant, was a 20-year-old native of Honolulu when he was a squad leader with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team on April 21, 1945, in the vicinity of San Terenzo, Italy. Inouye led his company in an attack against a defended ridge guarding an important road junction. Directing his platoon through a wall of automatic-weapon and small-arms fire, he maneuvered to capture an artillery and mortar post and brought his men within 40 yards of the enemy. The enemy realized what was happening and halted their advance with crossfire from three machine-gun positions. Inouye then crawled up a steep slope within 5 yards of the nearest machine gun and threw two grenades, destroying the emplacement.
When enemy forces attempted to retaliate, Inouye stood up and incapacitated a second machine-gun nest. During the onslaught he was wounded by a sniper’s bullet but continued to engage hostile positions at close range until an exploding grenade peppered his right arm. Even in intense pain, he refused evacuation and directed his platoon until they broke from enemy resistance. During the attack, 25 enemy soldiers were killed and eight more were captured. Inouye was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000. He died in 2012 at age 87 after a long career as both a US representative and senator from Hawaii.
Yeiki Kobashigawa was born Sept. 28, 1917, in Hilo, Hawaii. “The plantation manager was upset because at the time all the plantations had a lack of men, so I could have gotten a deferment,” Kobashigawa told the Honolulu Star Bulletin in 2000. “But being from a family of nine, someone had to represent the family. I felt that’s the reason why I didn’t tell him I was going to the draft board. I wanted to represent my family in the American way.”
In the US Army, he served as a platoon leader for Company B of the 100th Infantry Battalion. On June 2, 1944, during the Anzio campaign in the vicinity of Lanuvio, Italy, his squad became pinned down by a machine-gun position providing suppressive fire. He observed an enemy machine-gun nest 50 yards from his position and crawled forward with one of his men, threw a grenade, and charged the enemy with his submachine gun while his teammate provided covering fire. Kobashigawa killed one enemy soldier and captured two prisoners. Meanwhile, another machine-gun position 50 yards away opened fire on them. He directed the remainder of his squad to advance to his first position and again moved forward with his other soldier to eliminate a second nest. He hurled a volley of grenades while his teammate charged the position, capturing four more prisoners.
Kobashigawa discovered four more nests and led his squad to neutralize two of them. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000. He died in 2005 at age 87.
Robert T. Kuroda was born Nov. 8, 1922, in Oahu and volunteered to join the US Army, serving as a staff sergeant and squad leader for Company H, 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team during the Rhineland campaign. On Oct. 20, 1944, near Bruyeres, France, Kuroda led his men to destroy enemy sniper and machine-gun positions. He received heavy enemy fire from an occupied wooded slope, and although he was unable to pinpoint exactly where the fire was coming from, he boldly advanced toward the crest of the ridge. As soon as he located the enemy machine-gun nest, he advanced to within 10 yards, killed three enemy gunners with hand grenades, and fired his rifle, killing or wounding at least three more enemy soldiers. When he ran out of ammunition he observed an American officer struck by enemy gunfire.
Kuroda found the machine-gun position located on an adjacent hill and rushed to his teammate’s aid, only to discover the teammate had been killed. He took his officer’s gun and advanced through continuous gunfire toward the second gun position and successfully destroyed it. When he assaulted more enemy soldiers, he was shot and killed by a sniper. Kuroda was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which was upgraded in 2000 to the Medal of Honor.
Kaoru Moto was born April 25, 1917, in Makawa, Maui. The Hawaiian native volunteered to join the US Army and served as a rifleman in Company C, 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, during the Rome-Arno River campaign. On July 7, 1944, near Castellina, Italy, while serving as a first scout, Moto observed a machine-gun nest that pinned down his platoon’s advance. He moved alone to within 10 feet from the hostile position, killed the enemy machine gunner, and immediately took cover while the assistant machine gunner fired at him. He crawled to the rear of his position and surprised the enemy soldiers and took them prisoner. Moto brought his prisoner with him to a position within a few yards from a house to deny the enemy use of an observation post.
While he guarded his prisoner inside the house, he observed an enemy machine-gun team moving into position. He engaged them until they withdrew. An enemy sniper located in another house took aim and fired, seriously wounding him. He applied his own first aid, then charged the position to elude being killed by the sniper. He remained at his position until he was relieved and made his way to the rear for treatment. While crossing a road, he spotted an enemy machine-gun nest and opened fire, wounding two of the three enemy soldiers. He crawled forward to a better position and ordered the enemy soldier to surrender. When the enemy didn’t, he fired a warning shot, which forced his surrender.
“The day the news was to appear that these men were to receive the Medal of Honor, my son Eric went to buy lunch and the paper,” Kaoru Moto’s wife, Violet Moto, recalled. “When driving back to work, he stopped at a traffic light and the car in front of him had the name ‘Kaoru’ on the license plate. My husband passed away in 1992, but my son immediately thought it was a sign. ‘Daddy knows he got his Medal of Honor.”’
Sadao Munemori was born Aug. 17, 1922, and raised in the nisei community in the city of Los Angeles. His father died in 1938. A month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pfc. Munemori enlisted in the US Army, serving during the Italian campaign with the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team. On April 5, 1945, near Seravezza, while his squad leader was wounded, he assumed command as a squad leader and made a lone assault to knock out two enemy machine-gun positions with hand grenades. His advance immediately drew intense enemy fire and he became the target of enemy hand grenades. He retreated into a shell crater where two of his soldiers were when an unexploded hand grenade bounced on his helmet and rolled between the soldiers. Munemori, with complete disregard of his own life, smothered the hand grenade with his body and was killed by the blast, thus saving his two teammates.
He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and in 1948, for the first time in the Army’s history, a ship at the Brooklyn Army Base was rechristened as the USAT Pfc. Sadao Munemori.
Pfc. Kiyoshi Muranaga was born Feb. 16, 1922, and raised in Gardena, California. He volunteered with the US Army and joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team as a mortar man. On June 26, 1944, while serving during the Rome-Arno River campaign near Suvereto, Italy, Muranaga’s company encountered a strong enemy force. An enemy 88 mm self-propelled gun opened fire on his position, causing men to disperse for cover. The mortar squad was ordered to action, but the terrain was unfeasible to set up a mortar position. Instead his squad leader moved them away from the gun position — yet Muranaga attempted to neutralize the 88 mm weapon on his own. He loaded the mortar himself and opened fire on the enemy gun at a range of 400 yards.
“As we lay half-crouched, I told Muranaga to ‘fire one,’ which landed behind the house; ‘fire two,’ which landed close to the gun, ‘fire three,’ a dud!” recalled Ronald Oba in the book The Men of Company F: 442nd Regimental Combat Team. “Muranaga then sat up to look for the safety pin to see if he had really pulled it or not. Just then, an 88 shell exploded. I asked Kiyoshi, ‘Are you all right?’ Kiyo died in my arms soon after.” He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000.
Pvt. Masato Nakae was a veteran of three war campaigns — the Rome-Arno campaign, the Ardennes campaign, and the Rhineland campaign — but his valorous actions came in Italy. The native Hawaiian was born on Dec. 20, 1917, and joined the US Army in 1942, serving as a rifleman with Company A, 100th Infantry Battalion. On Aug. 19, 1944, near Pisa, Italy, Nakae reacted instinctively when an overwhelming enemy force attacked his position. His submachine gun was damaged by a shell fragment, and he immediately picked up a wounded teammate’s M1 rifle and fired rifle grenades at the advancing enemy force. He threw an additional six hand grenades to pause their assault. When the enemy launched a concentrated mortar barrage, a mortar shell fragment seriously wounded him. Despite the injury, he refused to surrender his position, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy and forcing them to withdraw. In 2000, his Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. He passed away in 1998 at the age of 80.
Pvt. Shinyei Nakamine was drafted into the US Army on Nov. 14, 1941, a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Born in Waianae, Oahu, on Jan. 21, 1920, he served as an automatic rifleman with Company B, 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, during the Anzio and Rome campaigns. On June 2, 1944, near La Torreta, Italy, Nakamine’s platoon was pinned down by intense enemy machine-gun crossfire from a small knoll 200 yards in front of them. Nakamine took action and crawled toward one of the hostile positions and reached within 25 yards of the enemy. He charged the machine-gun nest, firing his submachine gun, killing three enemy soldiers and capturing two. In the afternoon, he discovered an enemy soldier on the right flank of his platoon’s position. He crawled 25 yards from his position and ambushed the soldier, killing him before he could attack his teammates.
Approximately 75 yards away, he noticed a machine-gun nest and gathered his platoon to lead an automatic rifle team toward the enemy. While his teammates provided covering fire, he crawled to within 25 yards and threw hand grenades into the position, wounding one and capturing four more. Another machine-gun position was 100 yards on the rifle flank. Nakamine led the automatic rifle team toward this position to destroy it but was struck by a burst of machine-gun fire and killed. He was only 24 and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross before it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
“I remember a picture of Shinyei and his buddy in Las Vegas with two lovely Japanese girls,” recalled his sister, Anita K. Korenaga, adding her older brother, a lover of motorcycles, said his goodbyes from his motorcycle at her elementary school. “How did he get there? Before he passed away, he sent me a beautiful cameo in a simple envelope and it arrived unscratched! I was the beneficiary of all his War Bonds. They financed my education at the University of Hawaii (which gave me a wonderful career and life).”
William Nakamura was born Jan. 21, 1922, in Seattle, and served with Company G, 442nd Regimental Combat Team. On July 4, 1944, near Castellina, Italy, Pfc. Nakamura crawled 20 yards toward a hostile machine-gun nest that had his platoon pinned down from a concealed position. He reached a position 15 yards from the emplacement, rose to a kneeling position, and threw four hand grenades inside, killing or wounding at least three enemy soldiers. After wiping out the position, he crawled back to his platoon. Later, when his company was ordered to withdraw from a crest of a hill so a mortar barrage could be placed on the ridge, Nakamura remained in position to cover their withdrawal. His platoon became pinned down by an enemy machine gun as they moved to cover. Nakamura belly-crawled to reach a position in which he could effectively fire on the position. His platoon escaped without casualties, but he was tragically killed during the firefight.
Pfc. Joe M. Nishimoto was born Feb. 21, 1919, in Fresno, California, and drafted into the Army to serve as a rifleman and squad leader with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team. For three days near La Houssiere in France, the soldiers fought their way across a ridge in an attempt to dislodge a fortified enemy. They faced bullets, hidden mines, booby traps, and artillery. But as spirits sagged, Nishimoto turned into a one-man army.
On Nov. 7, 1944, he crawled forward through a minefield and spotted an enemy machine-gun position, where he moved to silence it. He fired his submachine gun at point-blank range, killing one gunner and wounding the other. He pursued two enemy riflemen, killing one. Nishimoto continued his assault and drove another machine-gun crew from their position, forcing their withdrawal. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross until it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000.
Sgt. Allen M. Ohata, a native of Oahu, Hawaii, was drafted into the US Army and served as a squad leader in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during the Naples-Foggia campaign. Between Nov. 29 and Nov. 30, 1943, near Cerasuolo, Italy, Ohata, his squad leader, and three soldiers were ordered to protect his platoon’s left flank against an assault of 40 enemy soldiers armed with machine guns, machine pistols, and rifles. He positioned one of his automatic riflemen 15 yards from his own position to fire effectively against the advancing enemy. The automatic rifleman’s weapon was shot and damaged, and he called for immediate assistance. Ohata left his position through a hail of gunfire to reach him, and killed 10 enemy soldiers while covering the withdrawal of his teammate to replace his weapon.
Ohata and the automatic rifleman held their position and the pair killed 37 enemy soldiers. When the enemy force was nearly decimated, both Americans charged the remaining three enemy combatants, forcing surrender. On another occasion, his tandem stopped an attacking force of 14, killing four and wounding three, while the others escaped. Ohata was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000. He died in 1977 at age 59.
James “Jim” K. Okubo joined the US Army from a Japanese internment camp a week before his 23rd birthday. Okubo dreamed of being a dentist, but the US government declared him an “enemy alien” and his dream had to wait. World War II had an impact on his family, both stateside and overseas. His cousin, Isamu “Eke” Kunimatsu, was killed in action on July 12, 1944. Okubo, serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, experienced his own horrors during actions between Oct. 28 and 29 and Nov. 4, 1944, in the Foret Domaniale de Champ near Biffontaine, in eastern France. On Oct. 28, while serving as a medic, he crawled 150 yards to within 40 yards of enemy lines. He left cover to retrieve two wounded teammates and was targeted with two enemy hand grenades. He personally treated 17 men under constant barrages of small-arms and machine-gun fire and treated eight additional American soldiers on Oct. 29.
On Nov. 4, Okubo ran 75 yards under grazing machine gun fire and evacuated and treated a seriously wounded crewman from a burning tank. If it wasn’t for his actions, these men would have certainly died. Okubo received the Silver Star, the third highest award for valor, upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000. He died in 1967 at age 46.
Tech. Sgt. Yukio Okutsu, a native of Koloa, Hawaii, volunteered to join the US Army in 1943. He served as a platoon leader of Company F, 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, when he went to war fighting the Po Valley campaign. On April 7, 1945, on Mount Belvedere in Italy, his platoon paused because of crossfire from three enemy machine-gun positions. He crawled within 30 yards of the nearest emplacement and killed its three gunners with a pair of hand grenades. He scrambled from cover to cover and hurled another hand grenade, destroying a second position, wounding two enemy soldiers, and forcing two more to surrender. Okutsu saw a third machine gun and moved to eliminate it but was momentarily stunned by rifle fire glancing off his helmet. He charged several enemy riflemen with his submachine gun and captured a crew of four. He single-handedly enabled his platoon to advance during the assault and as a result was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000. Okutsu died in 2003 at 81.
Frank H. Ono was born June 6, 1923, in Delta, Colorado, and volunteered to join the US Army in 1943. He served as a BAR rifleman and squad leader with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, during the Rome-Arno River campaign. On July 4, 1944, near Castellina, Italy, Pfc. Ono and his squad were pinned down by a well-entrenched enemy. He personally eliminated one machine gun located 300 yards to his right with his BAR. He then advanced through incessant fire, killed a sniper with a burst of fire, and defended a critical position single-handedly. His weapon was shot from his hands by an enemy holding a machine pistol as they closed in on him. Ono pulled the pin on his hand grenades and forced the enemy to abandon their attempt in overrunning his position.
He found a wounded teammate’s weapon and joined his platoon in their assault, killing two more enemy soldiers as he sprinted across terrain swept by automatic, small-arms, and mortar fire to render first aid to his platoon leader and a seriously wounded rifleman. His team was in danger of being surrounded, and he volunteered to cover their withdrawal. He drew fire while engaged with an enemy machine gun on an adjoining ridge and enemy snipers. He only left when his teammates were safe and descended down the hill, firing his rifle to keep the enemy at bay, before returning to his unit. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000. Ono died in 1980 at 56.
Staff Sgt. Kazuo Otani was born in Sanger, California, June 2, 1918, and volunteered for the US Army, serving as a platoon sergeant with Company G, 442nd Regimental Combat Team. On July 15, 1944, near Pieve Santa Luce, Italy, Staff Sgt. Otani’s platoon became pinned down while advancing to attack a hill objective. He left his cover and shot and killed a sniper who was firing at his platoon. He dashed across an open wheat field toward the foot of a cliff and directed his men to crawl to the cover of the cliff. When his platoon’s movement drew enemy fire, he moved along the cliff toward the left flank, exposing himself to enemy fire. His movements enabled the men closest to the cliff to reach cover. He organized these men to guard against a potential enemy counterattack.
Otani scrambled across the open wheat field again, shouting instructions to the stranded men while keeping the enemy drawn to his position. He then sprinted to the rear of the platoon’s position and directed covering fire from a shallow ditch. One of the soldiers was seriously wounded moving to his position, and Otani ordered his men to remain under cover while he crawled to the wounded soldier. He dragged the wounded soldier to a shallow ditch and rendered first aid, but he was mortally wounded by machine-gun fire. Otani posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross, upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000. He died at 26.
Pvt. George T. Sakato, a native of Colton, California, volunteered to enlist in the US Army in 1943. The 22-year-old served as a rifleman with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, during the Rhineland campaign. On Oct. 29, 1944, on Hill 617 in the vicinity of Biffontaine, France, his unit had become pinned down after they had just destroyed two enemy defense lines. Sakato personally killed five enemy soldiers and captured four. Sakato rushed alone, which encouraged his platoon to join his charge to destroy the enemy strongpoint. When his squad leader was killed, he inspired his squad to halt a counterattack on their left flank. He assumed command as the squad leader and used an enemy rifle and P-38 pistol to stop another enemy assault. During the entire battle, he personally killed 12 enemy combatants, wounded two, captured four, and assisted his platoon in taking 34 prisoners.
“How I got the medal, I don’t know,” he recalled to The Honolulu Advertiser in 2000, after his Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. “I saw only 90 days of actual combat. Others deserve this much more. But I’ll take it for the guys who didn’t come back.”
He passed away in 2015 at the age of 94.
Tech. Sgt. Ted. T. Tanouye, a native of Torrance, California, was drafted into the US Army when he was 21. His family’s home was raided by the FBI and his family relocated to internment camps housing Japanese-Americans. Still, Tanouye served the country that had turned its back on him.
Tanouye served as a platoon leader for Company K, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, during the Rome to Arno campaign. On July 7, 1944, near Mulino a Vento, Italy, Tanouye led his platoon in an attack to capture a strategically important hill. The hill had little cover, but Tanouye crept forward a few yards and opened fire on the position, killing or wounded three and causing two enemy soldiers to flee. An enemy soldier fired his machine pistol at him, but Tanouye returned fire and killed or wounded three more enemy soldiers. He advanced forward and was severely wounded in the left arm by a grenade burst. He discovered an enemy-held trench and raked the position with his submachine gun and wounded several enemy fighters within close range. With his ammunition running low, he crawled 20 yards to obtain ammo from a comrade on his left.
Tanouye reloaded and crawled forward a few yards to throw a hand grenade to silence an enemy firing a machine pistol at his men. He shifted his fire to an enemy machine-gun position firing down the slope of the hill and killed the gunner. He distracted a machine-gun pistol nest located above him, wounding three enemy soldiers inside. When Tanouye finally took the objective, he organized a defensive position on the reverse slope of the hill before accepting medical treatment and evacuation. He died five years later. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000.
Francis B. Wai, a native of Honolulu, joined the US Army, reaching the rank of captain while serving with the 34th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Regiment. On Oct. 20, 1944, his division was combined with the 1st Cavalry Division and two additional divisions, landing on Red Beach at Leyte located in the Philippine Islands. Wai landed as part of the fifth wave, and in the face of intense and accurate enemy fire, he took charge of a disorganized group of American soldiers from the previous four assault waves, to continue the assault. He ignored heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and moved inland through rice paddies without cover, inspiring his men to follow his lead. He deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire, and as he was leading the search-and-destroy mission of the last remaining Japanese pillbox in the area, he was shot and killed. Wai posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 2000.
US Army Cpl. Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura’s award for the Medal of Honor was at first classified as top secret to protect him. The son of Japanese parents was serving as a machine-gun squad leader for Company H, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, when his position in Taejon-ni on April 24, 1951, was attacked.
“I was positioned between two other machine gunners, I had two cases of grenades, an M1 [rifle], a carbine and a pistol,” he said. “I don’t recall how long the guns were firing, but pretty soon, the first gunner came by and said it was getting ‘too hot.’ I fired as long as I could until [the machine gun] jammed on me, then both gunners were gone. I was there by myself.”
He threw hand grenades and fired his weapon to cover the retreat of his men. Then, without regard to his own safety, he engaged with 10 Chinese soldiers with his bayonet in hand-to-hand combat. On the next assault, he manned a vacant machine gun until he ran out of ammo. “When last seen he was fighting ferociously against an overwhelming number of soldiers,” his citation read.
Miraculously, Miyamura survived, single-handedly killing more than 50 enemy combatants. He was taken prisoner when he ran out of ammo and was forced to march 300 miles to a POW camp, where he lived for the next 28 months. The reason why the military classified his Medal of Honor was because officials didn’t want the information leaking to his POW camp, where his life would be in imminent danger. It was the first time the award was considered a secret.
US Army Pfc. Anthony Kahoʻohanohano of Wailuku, Maui, was in charge of a machine-gun squad near Chup’a-ri, Korea, on Sept. 1, 1951, when he single-handedly committed to a one-man final stand against several Chinese assaulters, expending all of his ammo and grenades. When the US launched a counterattack, they discovered 11 enemy soldiers killed in front of his position, two of which Kahoʻohanohano beat to death with his entrenching tool.
Kahoʻohanohano posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross before President Obama upgraded the award in 2011 to the Medal of Honor.
“He couldn’t hurt a fly” was what his teammates from the US Army’s 23rd Infantry Regiment thought about Herbert K. Pililaʻau. The 22-year-old Hawaii native who enjoyed playing classical music, singing, and strumming his ukulele shifted from his laid-back island personality to a deadly warrior. On the morning of Sept. 17, 1951, Pililaʻau volunteered to cover the 200-yard withdrawal of his troops to avoid the imminent threat of being overrun.
He beat back waves of advancing North Korean soldiers with his M1918 Browning automatic rifle. There were just too many of them, so that when he ran out of ammo, he began pulling pins on his hand grenades to toss them. After his last grenade was used, he switched to rocks until they were on top of him — and Pililaʻau switched to his trench knife. His troops watched helplessly from afar in total disbelief. In his final stand, he single-handedly killed 40 enemy combatants. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, which made him the first Hawaiian to receive the award, prior to the upgrades of World War II-era medals.
The 19-year-old was the 183rd Hawaiian native to die in the Vietnam War. Pfc. Terry Teruo Kawamura was killed in action March 20, 1969, at a base near Binh Dinh. He was attached to the US Army’s 173rd Engineer Co., 173rd Airborne Brigade when he discovered an enemy sapper team infiltrating the unit quarters area and opening fire with automatic weapons. Kawamura ran toward them just as a violent explosion tore a hole in the roof. He regained his composure, acquired a weapon, and ran toward the door to return fire. The enemy sappers threw another explosive charge through the hole in the roof, and it reached the floor. Although in position to escape, Kawamura dove onto the explosive charge and absorbed the impact, saving two nearby soldiers. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to corporal.
Platoon Sgt. Elmelindo Rodrigues Smith of the US Army’s 4th Infantry Division, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry, C Company, was caught in a three-sided ambush on Feb. 16, 1967, in Vietnam. His unit put together a small defensive perimeter as the enemy began firing mortar rounds on their position. Instead of hiding behind cover, Smith moved through the kill zone along the defensive line, positioning soldiers, distributing ammo, and encouraging his men to keep fighting, until he was struck by enemy fire in the shoulder. He regained his feet, killed the enemy soldier, and continued ordering men on the battlefield.
During the firefight, he was wounded twice more in the shoulder and the stomach, but continued moving on his knees until he couldn’t any longer. The enemy amassed at a weakened point on the perimeter, and Smith crawled into the open, firing a ferocious barrage into their position. While on the ground, he was struck by a rocket and knocked unconscious. When he awoke he crawled from man to man until he lay in his final position in the open to warn his teammates from approaching combatants. Smith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Staff Sgt. Rodney Yano, a native of Hawaii, was on his second tour with the US Army in Vietnam when he joined an aircrew with the 11th Air Cavalry Regiment. On Jan. 1, 1969, Yano served as the acting crew chief and one of the two door gunners on his company’s command-and-control helicopter. Yano fought the enemy entrenched in the dense Vietnamese jungle near Bien Hao, dropping white phosphorus grenades onto the heads of enemy combatants to mark their positions for artillery.
However, one of those grenades exploded too early, covering Yano with chemicals and severely burning his skin. Fragments of the grenade set fire to ammo and hand grenades inside the helicopter. The white smoke filled the chopper, and his pilots had no visibility while they were in the air.
Despite the grenade blast that temporarily blinded him and incapacitated the use of one of his arms, Yano kicked and threw all of the fiery pieces of detonating equipment out of the helicopter. Yano succumbed to his wounds, and another soldier also died, but if it weren’t for his selfless courage, the pilots and other aircrew wouldn’t have made it. He was posthumously promoted to sergeant first class and presented the Medal of Honor on April 7, 1970, by President Richard Nixon.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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