Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Judge Vincent Okamoto: American Veterans Must Remain United
Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. I’m pleased to be here and I want to thank the 442nd Veterans Club, and president William Thompson for allowing me to join you today.
I must tell you when Bill contacted me several months ago, he said, “As a judge do you believe in free speech?” And I of course said, “Yes.” Then Bill said “good, because you’re going to give a speech for free at the 442nd anniversary lunch.”
Before we came into the banquet room I heard a veteran of the 442nd regaling some of his young listeners with war stories. He said during the Italian campaign, in the mountains, it rained continuously night and day. They were cold, wet, and miserable, and were kept on the line for weeks without any hot chow or change of clothing.
Then the division commander called them together and said:
“Men I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is you’re all going to get a change of underwear. The bad news is…Ito you change with Hayashi. Ige…you change with Yamamoto.”
Another veteran said that in the waning days of the war, often there weren’t enough trained medical personnel to treat all the wounded GIs. So they used captured German prisoners of war as hospital orderlies. Then one morning every single POW refused to leave the stockade. It seemed when they heard that several wounded soldiers of the 442nd were being brought to the hospital the Germans were afraid to show up for work.
… [T]he great Roman orator Cicero once said: “Poor is the nation that has no heroes, but poorer still is the nation that having heroes, fails to remember and honor them.”
Room Full of Heroes
I look around tonight and I see gathered here a room full of heroes. Today, we come together to remember, honor and commemorate the 66th anniversary of the founding of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
They were an unlikely band of heroes. They were young, many only teenagers. Their average height was 5 foot 5 inches; their average weight, 120 pounds. The unit did not have an auspicious beginning.
Initially, there was no love lost between the Nisei from Hawaii, and those from the mainland. They fought over real or imagined insults: they fought over differences in speech, they fought over differences in dress, they fought over differences in local customs, they fought over differences in diet, and often they fought each other just for the hell of it.
But ultimately, they were able to come together because despite all their perceived differences they shared two common traits…they were Japanese-American, and they were all determined to prove their loyalty in combat.
And in the killing fields of Europe, the soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team gained renown in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, and went on to become the most decorated unit in the annals of American military history.
It was a distinction purchased at a terrible and bitter price. The 442nd suffered heart-breaking causalities.
Every week the local newspapers published the names of the young Nisei soldiers killed and wounded in action, and Issei mothers quietly hung gold stars in their windows to symbolize their sons who had died fighting for their adopted country.
Courage and Sacrifices
But the courage and sacrifices of those young Nisei soldiers who shed their blood on a hundred different battlefields in Italy and France resonated throughout the islands of Hawaii, and in the grim confines of the internment camps, rekindling the pride and reaffirming the loyalty of an entire people.
Regrettably, some people have forgotten that, and do not understand just how profoundly war forever changed the lives of the men, and the families of the men who had to fight. Those fortunate enough to have never had their lives touched by war, and who take freedom for granted, may never truly understand. But perhaps they might gain some small insight by a letter written by a man who served as an infantryman in the Vietnam War, and he wrote:
“I was a soldier. I did what others feared to do. I went where others refused to go. I’ve seen the face of war, killed and watched friends die. I lived through times that other say are best forgotten. I ask for nothing from those who gave nothing. I remember and grieve, but am proud of what I was…a soldier.”
… [T]he men who gazed upon the obscene face of war pass through a door through which civilians may not follow. They emerge from the other side of that door, sadder, but wiser men.
Sadder because they’ve experienced the on-going pain of seeing close friends killed, and maimed. They witnessed the death of innocent women and children because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And they fought and killed other young men because they wore different uniforms, because they were told to do so, and because those others were trying to kill them.
But they emerged wiser men because the horrors of those war-time experiences taught them to appreciate just how fragile and precious life is. In the midst of violence and carnage they learned about themselves, for faced with the mind-numbing fear of death, they were able to overcome that fear by reaching deep down into the recesses of their souls to find courage they never before knew existed. And throughout it all were able to maintain their own humanity.
And they came to recognize and respect true valor and selflessness. On the battlefield they formed special friendships with their fellow soldiers, friendships forged in fire, and tempered in blood that can’t be duplicated in civilian life.
I’m pleased to be here because it provides me an opportunity to acknowledge a long standing debt of gratitude I owe to many of the men gathered in this room today. I’m the youngest of 10 children and the seventh son born to Japanese immigrants. All of my six older brothers served in the military. The two eldest brothers with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
They were my boyhood heroes, and I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to follow in their footsteps. I dreamed boyhood fantasies of going off to war and performing deeds of derring-do on some shell-swept battlefield. Then, having proven myself in combat, returning home, wise in the ways of the world, and having earned my right to stand with my older brothers as an equal.
I could be a poster boy for that old saying, “watch out what you wish for, because it may come true.” Fate granted me my wish in a strange faraway land in Southeast Asia. After college I went into the Army, and volunteered for Vietnam. And there all the naïve romantic concepts I had as a boy were quickly dispelled by the ugly realities of war.
Combat was nothing like I imagined it would be. Vietnam was a different world; a special universe with its own rules, heroes and villains. There was no glory or glamour in the no-quarter fighting in the jungles and hedgerows of Vietnam. It was a lethal unforgiving land where nightmares became a reality, and I learned the true meaning of fear.
After ten months of prolonged combat, having been wounded several times I was physically exhausted, afraid and sick at heart.
I desperately wanted to live and to go home. At times I wanted to pull my helmet down over my face and block out the violence and horror around me. I wanted to just give up and quit.
But when I began to feel sorry for myself I remembered that in a previous war, other young Japanese-American soldiers had it just as tough as or tougher than me, and they never gave up. They never quit.
Their example of courage and commitment gave me the strength to do what needed to be done because I felt I could not betray that standard. So to the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, I say thank you.
… [E]very day of our lives we walk unknowingly among quiet heroes. The aging Nisei, who at 20 years of age went to war as a young medic, and in the assault on the Gothic Line, time and again exposed himself to enemy fire, trying to save the lives of wounded GIs and on many nights quietly cried himself to sleep feeling guilty over the young men that couldn’t be saved.
A veteran is a former hot-shot, high school pitcher who turned down a chance for a college baseball scholarship to instead volunteer to fight and won a Silver Star for four hours of extraordinary heroism in the battle for Bruyeres. And today is a member of the Disabled Veterans of America, and every Memorial Day pins on his campaign ribbons with a prosthetic hand.
A veteran is the old guy, holding up the checkout line in the supermarket, now palsied and aggravatingly slow; but who once stormed the bloody heights of Monte Casino, and helped liberate Italy. And today spends most of his time wishing his wife was still alive to hold him when the nightmares come.
A veteran is an aging Nisei, who returned from the war irrevocably changed, who never told his grandchildren why he needs a cane to get around, and never spoke to anyone about the time his unit suffered over 800 casualties to rescue 211 Texans of the “Lost Battalion” in the Vosges Forest in France.
Veterans are many of the men in this room today, each with their own compelling story. Each of whom left their homes, families, and loved ones and went off to war with no expectation of reward or even thank-you, but went because they felt it was their duty, and went because someone had to go.
In our society some men are lionized for their great wealth, or their political power, or their social position. Some are renowned for their athletic ability. Others are accorded celebrity status as film stars or rock icons. But of all the titles in the world, I believe the proudest is that of veteran, because it refers to an individual who was willing to give up everything for America.
‘Band of Brothers’
In William Shakespeare’s play “Henry the Fifth,” the king of England on the eve of the last great battle of the One Hundred Years War, stood before his beleaguered and out numbered soldiers and said to them:
”We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he who sheds his blood with me this day until the ending of the world is my brother.”
The veterans who wore the uniform of this country are a brotherhood. They represent less than seven percent of the population making them members of the most exclusive fraternity in America; forever connected by a shared sense of duty, commitment and willingness to sacrifice their lives that set them apart and make them different from everyone else in our society.
To the young people…I say remember and honor those who fought, bled, and died for you. Remember that the blessings and unlimited opportunities we Japanese-Americans enjoy today are ours in large measure because we stand on the shoulders of giants; men small in stature, but titans in courage, the soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Legacy of the 442nd
What they did allowed and prepared us their beneficiaries to live in a larger and better world. Most of those who fought in that long ago far away war remain with us now only in memory, taken by the one relentless implacable enemy that cannot be stopped: time.
Those fortunate enough to have survived the war and return to their homes and families now experience the aches, pains, and infirmities that come with age, and are now old soldiers.
So I close in honor of those old soldiers with a quote from the Bible, from the 2nd Book of Timothy 4:12, and it reads:
“The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith.”
Although that passage was written more than 2,000 years ago, it accurately describes the soldiers of the 442nd, for they too, fought the good fight, finished the race and kept faith with America in peace and in war.
What they did bequeathed to this nation ideals that unite all of us Americans. What they endured speak to the values that sustain us during times of trial and crisis. What they achieved speak to the dreams that inspire ordinary people to perform extraordinary acts of courage and self-sacrifice. They speak to us of the value of loyalty, courage, fundamental fairness and personal dignity and are a testament to the glory of the human spirit.
This is the legacy of the 442nd.
This is our inheritance.
To the veterans…I tell you that old soldiers though we may be, there are still wars for us to fight. Not with guns and bayonets but against bigotry and prejudice, against racism and corruption, against ignorance and poverty. We’re still needed to fight that war.
So before memories dim, before the bygone epic events, and heroic deeds of the past slip out of focus, and fade into the pages of history, until the last bugles sound taps and we assemble once again at that final formation after the last patrol, let us as veterans resolve not to permit petty differences to divide us.
Let us remain friends and stay united as veterans, and extend one to the other, the mutual respect earned by men who stood together in defense of America.
“Let us, we few, we happy few, until the ending of the world, remain a band of brothers.”
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company