Hawaii war hero remembered
Barney Hajiro, Medal of Honor Recipient, Dies at 94
By DOUGLAS MARTIN, New York Times
After Barney Hajiro, an Army private, single-handedly wiped out two German machine gun nests and killed two snipers in a gallant charge in World War II, his superiors recommended him for the Medal of Honor.
As part of a regiment composed entirely of Japanese-Americans below the officers’ ranks, Private Hajiro epitomized the unit’s brash motto, “Go for Broke!” His commanding officer’s report said that in October 1944 in eastern France, he had run 100 yards through a stream of bullets, walked through a booby-trapped area and led the charge up “Suicide Hill” screaming “Banzai!” before taking out the machine gun nests.
He was shot four times — then insisted that 40 other wounded men be evacuated first.
But he, like Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who was also a member of the regiment, did not initially receive the Medal of Honor for which he was recommended. Only in 2000, after 56 years and a belated Pentagon review, did President Bill Clinton present the medal, the nation’s top military honor, to Mr. Hajiro, Senator Inouye and 20 other Asian-American soldiers. Racial prejudice, Mr. Clinton said, had prevented such a ceremony after the war.
“I nearly gave up hope,” Mr. Hajiro said at the time.
“Barney was a good man,” Senator Inouye said in an interview on Wednesday. “He didn’t go around blowing his own horn. He would just say he was doing something he was supposed to do.”
Mr. Hajiro, who had battled cancer, died on Jan. 21 in Honolulu at 94, his family said. He had been the nation’s oldest Medal of Honor recipient. His background was modest: born in Hawaii, he dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work for 10 hours a day, at 10 cents an hour, on a sugar plantation. He was a dockworker when he was drafted into the Army in 1942 and assigned to dig ditches. He resented not being allowed to carry arms.
“I didn’t bomb Pearl Harbor,” Mr. Hajiro said in an interview in 1999. “Why did they blame us?”
As angry about Pearl Harbor as anybody, many Japanese-Hawaiians were eager to fight. Mr. Hajiro was one of the first to volunteer, in March 1943.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a newly formed unit, would go on to be called the most decorated regiment for its size and length of service: its 14,000 men earned 9,486 Purple Hearts, 8 Presidential Unit Citations and 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, the second-highest individual honor in the Army. Mr. Hajiro received three of those.
He and many of his comrades were decorated for the regiment’s most celebrated operation, known as “the rescue of the Lost Battalion,” in which they saved 211 fellow soldiers trapped in southern France while suffering more than 800 casualties.
One regiment member, Pfc. Sadao S. Munemori, actually did receive a Medal of Honor, posthumously, in 1945, after the Japanese American Citizens League persuaded a Utah senator to take up the soldier’s cause. A Filipino-American also won the medal in World War II. But they were the rare exceptions for Asian-Americans.
The battlefield exploits of Asian-Americans came under review by the Pentagon beginning in 1996, after a similar examination, prompted by the Congressional Black Caucus, had begun looking into why no blacks had been awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II. Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii, had sought the review of Asian-Americans.
(In the review of African-Americans, seven were awarded the medal in 1997, six posthumously. The seventh, Vernon Baker, died last July.)
Some criticized the reviews of both blacks and Asian-Americans as political pandering, noting that similarly qualified whites were not part of the review. But President Clinton said that facing racial slurs and forced internment, Japanese-Americans had not gotten a fair deal.
James C. McNaughton, the Defense Department historian who led the Asian-American review, said in 2000 that the very fact that the 442nd was segregated amounted to “institutional discrimination.” But he said he could find no instance of white officers deliberately ignoring the valor of Asian-American troops.
Of the 22 Asian-Americans whose decorations were upgraded to the Medal of Honor, all but two were Japanese-Americans and members of either the 442nd or the 100th Infantry Battalion, which the 442nd absorbed in 1944. (Of the two others, one was of Filipino heritage and one of Chinese heritage.)
Senator Inouye, who lost his right arm in fierce fighting in Italy, said he and his former comrades had been modest about finally receiving the medal. “Why did we get recognized when there are hundreds of others who did the same thing?” he asked.
Barney Fushimi Hajiro, the oldest of nine children, was born on Sept. 16, 1916, in Puunene, on the island of Maui, where his parents had immigrated from Hiroshima during World War I. The family was so poor that the children were given a bottle of soda only on New Year’s Day. Barney left school as a teenager and would later say his biggest regret was not pursuing his dream of running track.
He fought in Italy, then moved with his unit to eastern France, where he was cited for bravery on Oct. 19 and Oct. 22, 1944, in battles in mountainous terrain.
On Oct. 29, in the fighting that brought him the Medal of Honor, the 442nd was pinned down, its soldiers picked off one by one by Germans on higher ground. Private Hajiro suffered wounds in his face, shoulder and wrist in leading the counterattack.
“I couldn’t run backward,” he said. “I had to run forward. That’s the job of a soldier.”
Mr. Hajiro, who lived in Waipahu, on Oahu, and refused to buy a Japanese car, is survived by his wife, Esther; his son, Glenn; his brothers, Tokuro and Umeo; his sister, Pearl Yoshikawa; and a grandson. The family asked guests to wear “aloha attire” to his military burial.
The oldest living Medal of Honor recipient is now Nicholas Oresko, 94, of Cresskill, N.J.
Though Mr. Hajiro came to be revered — accepting the French Legion of Honor, serving as grand marshal at county fairs — he never forgot where he had come from. On the day the Medal of Honor was pinned to his chest, he said, “Even after the war, they still called me a Jap, you know.”