(From Left) San Diego residents Mas Tsuida and Frank Wada both were members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II. They were honored at the USS Midway Museum’s 70th anniversary celebration of the end of World War II in August. Photo courtesy of Scott McGaugh
By Scott McGaugh
Seventy-one years ago this month, Jim Okubo stood in the snow at the end of a densely forested ridge in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France. He was part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. One of 16 million Americans who
defended our nation in World War II. He was part of America’s “Greatest Generation.”
Regrettably, we are losing 500 of them every single day. Every three minutes, we lose a national treasure from World War II. Each is irreplaceable, and some are unique. Certainly, the legacy of the 442nd RCT is emblematic of not only the “Greatest Generation” but also of the American spirit.
Following Pearl Harbor, our vengeful nation incarcerated more than 100,000 Japanese American citizens only because of their ethnicity. They were sent to desolate internment camps after they were evicted from their homes, pulled out of school and forced to leave their businesses and family heirlooms behind — all to make the West Coast “secure.” Yet, less than a year later, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the creation of the 442nd RCT.
It was to be a unit of young Japanese American men, many of whom volunteered from behind barbed wire. They volunteered for an army combat unit that would be commanded only by white officers in a segregated military. America was stunned to see more than 11,000 Japanese Americans volunteer, given the way their country had treated them and their families.
Even more remarkably, the 442nd became the most-decorated unit of its size in World War II. Time and again, it was assigned some of the toughest battles in Italy and France, leading some to think it was regarded as little more than “cannon fodder” as their casualties rose. Ultimately, more than 18,000 men in the 442nd earned more than 18,000 medals for valor, including 21 Medals of Honor, 588 Silver Stars, 5,200 Bronze Stars and more than 9,500 Purple Hearts.
The legacy of the 442nd and all Japanese Americans who served in World War II reflects the American spirit. They were taught by their elders to serve in a spirit of kuni no tame ni (for the sake of our country). They served in a spirit of gisei, giri, meiyo, hokori and sekinin. Sacrifice, duty, honor, pride and responsibility. They rose above a hysterical America and stood tall as American citizens.
Today, too few of them remain so that we may show our respect and offer our thanks.
Jim Okubo, a medic, was one of those young men. A medic in the 442nd, he was part of a remarkable rescue of 275 trapped soldiers in the Vosges. The 442nd succeeded after other rescue battalions had failed. The 442nd suffered more than 600 casualties in five days . . . before Okubo and the others continued on in the winter push toward the German border in November 1944.
We cannot offer Jim a personal measure of thanks. He died in a car accident in 1967 after becoming a dentist. Thirty-three years after his death and 56 years after this remarkable mission, Okubo was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in the rescue. But we still have the opportunity to thank those “Greatest Generation” members who are still with us.
And that is critical, given how our military is “disappearing” in many ways. Less than one percent of America serves in uniform. The military’s share of the national population hasn’t been this low since the 1930s. Not since the Revolutionary War has a war like what we’ve fought in the Middle East been waged with an all-volunteer force. Yet, the overwhelming share of our country has no personal stake — no family member — in the uniformed defense of our nation.
As we lose more “Greatest Generation” members each day, we become more detached from our military. In 1988, 40 percent of Americans had a parent who served in uniform. By 2010, it had fallen to 18 percent.
Most grandparents today were born after World War II. A 45-year-old today (meaning nearly all parents) has no personal recollection of Vietnam. Military service and loss on the battlefield no longer are part of the American people’s mosaic.
This extends to the highest reaches of government. Only about 20 percent of Congress has served in the military, compared with 60 percent in 1969. For the first time in 80 years, all four of our nation’s candidates for president and vice president in 2012 had no military experience.
In other ways, the military is disappearing from the American landscape. More than half of military housing complexes of at least 5,000 residents have been eliminated in the last decade. Over the past 20 years, nearly 100 military installations in America have been closed.
And so it is critical that we pause to honor the “Greatest Generation” and say thank you at every opportunity. For some, we have waited far too long.
Twenty Japanese Americans who earned the Medal of Honor in World War II did not receive it until 2000. Their nominations had been downgraded to a lesser medal during the war. More than five decades later, it often was a widow who accepted the Medal of Honor on her husband’s behalf — including Mrs. Okubo.
President Harry Truman might have been talking to the entire “Greatest Generation” when he welcomed the 442nd home in 1946:
“You are to be congratulated on what you have done for this great country of ours. I think it was my predecessor who said that Americanism is not a matter of race or creed, it is a matter of the heart.
“You fought for the free nations of the world along with the rest of us. I congratulate you on that, and I can’t tell you how very much I appreciate the privilege of being able to show you just how much the United States of America thinks of what you have done.
“You are now on your way home. You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice — and you have won. Keep up that fight, and we will continue to win — to make this great Republic stand for just what the Constitution says it stands for: the welfare of all the people all the time.”
We should always honor the “Greatest Generation.” While we still can, we should shake the hand of very member we meet.
Scott McGaugh is the marketing director of the USS Midway Museum and a New York Times bestselling author. He is working on a book about the 442nd, “Honor Before Glory.”
For more information, visit www.scottmcgaugh.com.