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Medal of Honor list recalls valor of Japanese-American battalion
Emmett Watson / Times Staff Columnist
There is something out of kilter, in a way, to be writing about a noncelebrity, someone you never knew and who died nearly 57 years ago.
His name, among 20 others, was printed in tiny type in The New York Times a week ago. The names should have been on billboards.
The Times listed 21 Asian Americans - 19 of them Japanese Americans - who earned this nation's highest military award, the Medal of Honor.
After scanning this list, I called my friend Budd Fukei. He said he had seen the same list.
"Any of our people in there?" I asked, meaning Seattle kids.
Budd said, yes, there was one. "William Nakamura. He was from Garfield High School. He was a student at the UW when he was interned."
"Is he posthumous, or is he still with us?"
"No, he's dead," Budd said, "He was killed in Italy in 1944."
Of course, we were both talking about the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team. No fighting unit in American history was quite like it.
Its members volunteered while incarcerated in internment camps with their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and friends. That was the infamous Executive Order 9066, which put all people of Japanese descent behind barbed wire after Pearl Harbor.
William Nakamura came out of what was euphemistically called the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. Like thousands of other Japanese-American kids from various camps, he volunteered for the 442nd.
He was born Jan. 21, 1922, in Seattle. His parents were Mr. and Mrs. George Takichi Nakamura. He had a sister and an older brother, George Eitaro Nakamura, who died recently.
George was a Garfield High football star; he also served in the 442nd.
What made these kids, scorned and reviled by their own countrymen, volunteer to fight for the U.S.?
The easy answer always has been, "Well, they had something to prove."
Prove what? That they were loyal Americans? Perhaps. To prove they were patriots? Maybe.
But why? Their families and friends were looked down upon. Some hated them. Probably it was a complex alchemy of emotions, a mixture of resentment, pride, even love of country. But here they came.
The 442nd was "the Purple Heart battalion," the "go-for-broke" kids. No fewer than 8,500 battle casualties. They fought in eight major campaigns - Italy, France and Germany. The most decorated unit in U.S. military history. Incredible valor.
Here is Capt. Orville Shirey, of the 442nd, author of "Americans: The Story of the 442nd Combat Team," describing the heroism of one Seattle kid:
"Private First Class William L. Nakamura, in the initial attack, crawled to within fifteen yards of an enemy machine gun that had pinned down his platoon, silenced the gun, and killed the crew with hand grenades.
"Later, when the platoon was being pulled back it was again pinned down by fire from concealed machine guns. Private First Class Nakamura crawled to a point from which he could observe the guns and fired clip after clip of ammunition with his rifle, keeping the enemy gunners down until his platoon reached cover."
That was on July 4, 1944, at Castellina, Italy. In that same engagement, Nakamura was killed by a German sniper.
Nakamura was highly decorated - the Combat Infantryman Badge, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross. Along with 20 others, Nakamura's Distinguished Service Cross has been upgraded to the Medal of Honor, which will be presented by President Clinton at a White House ceremony on June 21.
On reflection, I knew a few Japanese kids on the UW campus at the time of Pearl Harbor. I remember one of them was selling his Model A Ford because he was being "sent away."
We had a pleasant conversation, but I couldn't afford the $250 he was trying to get. Because I was too young, too dumb or too insensitive, I also didn't understand what he must have been going through, that he was being "sent away" with all his family.
Corny as it is, meaningless as it seems, I like to think that Japanese-American kid could have been William Nakamura.
© 2000, by The Seattle Times Company
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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News From The Past
May 28, 2000
Medal of Honor for a fallen hero 56 years later
by Alex Tizon
Seattle Times staff reporter
He was killed by a sniper's bullet, his body found at the edge of a wheat field on the outskirts of a town named Castellina, Italy. He was still clutching the M-1 rifle he fired so relentlessly that Fourth of July afternoon 56 years ago.
For more than a half-century he has occupied his narrow plot at the Veteran's Memorial Cemetery in Seattle, his birthplace, the hometown that never knew him.
William Kenzo Nakamura would likely never have been heard of again were it not for last week's announcement that he will be given the nation's highest award for valor - the Medal of Honor.
Nakamura, it seems, committed acts of extreme courage, the stuff of war movies. His commanding officer at the time recommended him for the Medal of Honor, but soldiers with names like Nakamura simply did not receive that distinction. A "biased racial climate" existed back then, the Army admits.
Now, after a long review, the military will award the medal to 20 other Asian-American soldiers of World War II. Only seven are still alive to accept the award, which will be presented by President Clinton in a White House ceremony June 21.
Nakamura's only surviving sister, June Oshima, 73, of El Monte, Calif., plans to accept the award on her brother's behalf. Nakamura's widow, Hisako Funai, 80, of Bothell, has been sick and unable to speak publicly about their brief marriage nearly six decades ago.
Not much remains of Nakamura's 22 years of life. He had no belongings to speak of. And memories of him are scant. It did not help that the Japanese-American community was uprooted and dispersed at the start of the war.
The sibling to whom he felt closest, George, died two years ago. And most of his contemporaries have either passed or moved away, which is why hardly a flutter registered in the city last week when the announcement was made.
A Garfield High grad
Nakamura was in every way a native of Seattle, but he was not a native son. In his time, men of Japanese descent did not become sons of American cities. Stepsons, maybe. Tolerated outsiders, more likely.
He was born and reared in what is now the International District. He attended Washington Elementary School and graduated from Garfield High School in 1939. He went by Bill at school. In the neighborhood, he was called Kenzo.
In photographs, he displays a shy, closed-mouth smile that cannot seem to decide whether to open up or close tighter. In person, according to friends, he was short and stocky with a quietly confident manner. He had a hot head and a tender heart. He was impetuous, solid, fearless.
"He had a bit of a swagger about him," said Hiro Nishimura, 80, who worked in the same Alaskan-salmon cannery as Nakamura for three summers.
When he wasn't canning salmon, Nakamura picked berries in what was then the countryside, Renton, to supplement the family's income. His father, a former sword-maker in Japan, worked as a barber, and his mother, a picture bride, cut hair too, along with tending the family garden and tracking her four children.
For 74-year-old Jim Mayeno, a neighbor, the image he most remembers is of a young Nakamura flying down a steep hill on his bicycle with no hands and a look of utter exhilaration on his face.
His sister, Oshima, recalls a softer side, the side he showed when their mother died of cancer. Nakamura was a great comfort, often putting his arm around her and holding her without saying anything.
The mother died in January 1942, a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and two months before the Nakamuras and all other Japanese Americans in the Puget Sound area were evacuated to relocation centers. In all, at least 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced into the centers.
The Nakamuras, still grieving over the mother's death, were shipped to the Minidoka Relocation Center near Hunt, Idaho. Nakamura was attending the University of Washington at the time of the evacuation.
After the move to Minidoka, the specifics of his life blurred into the general chaos of the time. While in the camp, older brother George volunteered for the Army, and Nakamura, against the wishes of his family, followed soon afterward.
"They thought if they joined they could get rid of the prejudice," said their sister, Oshima, in a telephone interview. "They wanted to show that Japanese Americans were not the enemy. It makes me sad to think of it."
At some point before he went overseas, he met and married a woman two years older than himself, Hisako Deguchi. The marriage, too, went against the family's wishes. But that was the Nakamura they knew; he did what he wanted.
Hisako and Nakamura were married less than a month.
Account of bravery
The most complete document of any aspect of Nakamura's life, ironically, is the detailed report describing his actions just before he died. The report gives three corroborating accounts by officers who took part in the battle.
Nakamura was a private first-class, a foot soldier in the fabled 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up almost entirely of Japanese Americans. In the first days of July, 1944, the regiment was sweeping north along Italy's coastline, heading for the seaport town of Livorno.
Along the way, on the afternoon of July 4, just outside Castellina, the soldiers hit what was known on military maps as Hill 140, where one of the war's bloodiest battles took place.
As Nakamura's platoon approached the crest of the hill, a concealed nest of German machine-gunners 35 yards away opened fire "with deadly effectiveness."
Capt. William Aull described what followed:
"Without waiting for orders, Pfc. Nakamura crawled for 20 yards under concealment of scattered shrubs, while the fire from the enemy machine gun barely cleared his body, to a point only 15 yards from the nest. Pfc. Nakamura raised himself to kneeling position and threw four hand grenades.
"His aim was good."
The explosions wiped out the nest. Nakamura's platoon advanced to within 10 yards of the crest but was later ordered to withdraw into a gully so that artillery units could barrage the hilltop with mortar fire. German snipers still occupied the crest.
As the platoon began withdrawing, another German machine-gunner, this time from a nearby farmhouse, opened fire on the soldiers, trapping them. Again without orders, Nakamura crawled toward the farmhouse, to the edge of a wheat field, and fired clip after clip of his rifle, silencing the machine-gunner as his platoon withdrew to safety without further casualties.
His platoon later found him at his last position with a bullet wound to the head. A sniper shot. Nakamura probably died instantly.
The platoon had suffered dozens of casualties on Hill 140. Two other soldiers who fought in the battle, Pfc. Frank Ono and Sgt. Kazuo Otani, will receive Medals of Honor next month. Both men are now dead.
The 442nd fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany, suffered more than 8,800 casualties and became the most decorated unit in American military history.
More than a hundred members of the 442nd, including Nakamura, received the Distinguished Service Cross, the military's second-highest award. After reviewing the records, the government, 55 years after the end of the war, decided that 21 of those men deserved the highest distinction.
Fifteen million Americans served in World War II; only 462 were awarded the medal, a gold medallion set against a star spangled blue ribbon. Added to the list will be William Kenzo Nakamura, and it will say so on the skinny white stone that marks his grave in North Seattle. Maybe now the city will consider him a native son.
"Better late. . . ." said his sister, who for the past five decades had been resigned to never.
© 2000, by The Seattle Times Company
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Related Story Below
by Alex Tizon
Seattle Times staff reporter
The late William Kenzo Nakamura, rousted from obscurity this year after being posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, may soon have a major government building in downtown Seattle named after him.
The William K. Nakamura Federal Courthouse.
His supporters like the sound of it.
Seattle City Councilwoman Jan Drago on Monday plans to introduce a resolution asking Congress to name the federal courthouse after the 22-year-old war hero killed in action at the end of World War II. The full council will vote on the resolution Sept. 4.
"It took the United States government 56 years to acknowledge that military racism had deprived Nakamura and many other soldiers of color the honor they deserved," Drago said. "Now the City Council has the opportunity to ask our federal government to take the next step, to honor . . . Nakamura and to acknowledge the incredible pain inflicted upon our Japanese-American community by naming a federal courthouse after him."
Drago and the residents behind the resolution said they were inspired by a May 28 Seattle Times' story on Nakamura.
"I can see William's face now. He'd be shocked," said Hiro Nishimura, 80, one of a handful of local men still alive who knew Nakamura. Nishimura remembered his old friend as confident and fearless, even cocky.
Nakamura, who would be 78 today, grew up in "Japantown" in what is now the Chinatown International District. He attended Washington Middle School, graduated from Garfield High School and was attending the University of Washington in 1942 when he and 110,000 other Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps.
To prove their patriotism to the U.S., Nakamura and his older brother, George, enlisted in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which went on to become the most decorated military unit in U.S. history.
Pfc. William Nakamura was killed July 4, 1944, by a sniper's bullet outside Castellina, Italy, as he provided cover for his retreating platoon. Earlier the same day, he had crawled to within 15 feet of an enemy machine-gun nest and destroyed it with four hand grenades.
His commanding officer nominated him for the Medal of Honor. But the racial climate at the time, the Army admits, prevented Nakamura and other soldiers of color from receiving the nation's highest award for valor.
In June, after a long review, the government bestowed the medal to Nakamura and 20 other Asian-American veterans of World War II. Included on the list was James Okubo of Bellingham, who died in the same battle. Only seven of the 21 honorees were alive to receive their medals.
The idea of naming a local government building after Nakamura came from Steve Finley, who was an aide to then-Gov. Mike Lowry and a longtime supporter of the local Nisei Veterans Committee, a group of Japanese-American veterans.
The nisei veterans, delighted with the idea, began gathering local support and spreading the word until the proposal found itself on Drago's desk.
The resolution is considered a shoo-in at the City Council, but what happens after that is uncertain. It asks that either the existing courthouse or soon-to-be-built new one be named after Nakamura.
Barbara Clemons, legislative aide to Drago, said she knows of no local precedent for naming a government building after a war hero. Clemons says if it is passed by the council, the resolution would be sent to the state's congressional delegation. Congressmen Jim McDermott and Norm Dicks reportedly have both expressed interest in sponsoring the necessary legislation, according to Finley.
While there may not be local precedents, there certainly are national ones, Finley said. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport was named after a 29-year-old medal-of-honor awardee named Lt. Cmdr. Edward "Butch" O'Hare, a native of Chicago who was killed in action in 1943.
"Nakamura deserves it," Finley said. "Here was a guy who in the last year of his life was denied justice, was hauled off to an internment camp, was killed in action for his country and then was denied recognition for 56 years. What better thing to name a courthouse after a hero who was denied justice?"
© 2000, by The
Seattle Times Company
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