Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr.
Commander, U.S. Pacific Command

Editor’s note: One of the events of last month’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan was a grand tribute to the Nisei soldiers who stepped forward to serve their country in the dark days following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on O‘ahu. The luncheon tribute at the Hawai‘i Convention Center on Dec. 5 was aptly titled, “Fighting Two Wars: Japanese American Veterans Tribute.” Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Command and the highest-ranking Japanese American serving in the U.S. military today, delivered the keynote address at the luncheon. The following is the text of his speech.

Adm. Harris’ text is followed by those of the day’s two other speakers — former Gov. George Ariyoshi, a World War II Military Intelligence Service veteran and America’s first governor of Japanese ancestry, and Hawai‘i’s current governor, David Ige, the Sansei son of a World War II 100th Infantry Battalion veteran.

The banquet’s presenting sponsor was Central Pacific Bank, which was established in 1954 by many of the Nisei veterans who had returned home from the war, determined to build a more equitable society than the one they had left behind. Among the founders were 100th Battalion veterans Sakae Takahashi and Mike Tokunaga; 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran and future U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and Military Intelligence Service veteran Elton Sakamoto.

Photo of Adm. Harris and President Barack Obama, on Dec. 27 aboard the USS Arizona Memorial as Obama and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe honored those killed in Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor
Adm. Harris (far right) stood beside his commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama, on Dec. 27 aboard the USS Arizona Memorial as Obama and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe honored those killed in Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor with a flower tribute. Assisting Obama and Abe was Yeoman 2nd Class Michelle Wrobley. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Thank you very much for that introduction, (emcee) Leslie (Wilcox). Before getting to my formal remarks, I want to recognize some folks: Of course, Governor Ige and Governor Ariyoshi — it’s great to share the dais with you both to pay tribute to the Nisei veterans here. Mayor Caldwell and other state and national government leaders; Admiral Fargo; Admiral Fallon; General Bramlett and my classmate Admiral Dan Holloway; fellow flag and general officers; distinguished guests — and most of all, of course, a special welcome to the Nisei veterans and their loved ones who are here with us today. Folks, let’s give them a round of applause.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Nisei warriors literally shaped our military and our nation. They’re all heroes in my book. In fact, they’re heroes in any book. So I’m honored to participate in this tribute to Japanese American World War II veterans.

As I’ve often said, the most important event in my life is World War II, and I wasn’t even born until the mid-1950s. You see, my father and four of his brothers fought in that war — enlisted men in the Navy and in the Army. Their sea stories and foxhole tales formed some of my earliest memories and they shaped the boy I was and the man I became. Through them, I learned of the tremendous sacrifices of “the Greatest Generation.” Those who fought for victory helped achieve nothing less than the survival of the free world. Through them, I was inspired to serve. Everything my father and uncles went through, the Nisei warriors went through and more, because they also had to deal with discrimination, distrust and outright hostility from the very same country they were defending with their very same lives — from our country, yours and mine.

So it’s no exaggeration for me to say that I stand on the shoulders of giants. For me to be a Japanese American four-star admiral in command of all the joint forces across the Indo-Asia-Pacific, well, it’s because of these Nisei trailblazers — the men of the 100th Battalion; the 442nd Regimental Combat Team; the Military Intelligence Service, or MIS; the 522nd; the 232nd; the 1399th and the 300 Nisei women who joined the Women’s Army Corps.

At PACOM (Pacific Command) headquarters, there’s a wall of photos and citations that remind us of the sacrifices of some of our nation’s bravest individuals — those who received the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry under fire. In all, as Governor Ige said, 21 Americans of Japanese ancestry received our nation’s highest award for heroism during World War II, including Senator Dan Inouye.

And consider Ben Kuroki’s story. Despite Army Air Corps prohibitions — first, on Nisei serving overseas, and later on Nisei serving in combat in the Pacific — Mr. Kuroki flew 58 combat missions in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific as a gunner on B-24 and B-29 aircraft. After the war, he said, “I had to fight like hell just for the right to fight for my own country.”

Consider 1st Lieutenant Seiya Ohata, who still lives on Maui. He was a doctor in the Army Medical Corps and is recognized as the only Japanese American to have served in Operation Overlord, the Allied landings on D-Day in 1944. He cared for the heavy casualties resulting from the largest amphibious assault ever conducted. In 2015, when asked what he would like future generations of Americans to learn from the experiences of Americans of Japanese ancestry in World War II, he replied, quote, “That they were true Americans!” What a humble hero.

Consider Major Mits Fukuda, the highest-ranking Nisei infantry officer of World War II. Only three other Nisei achieved the rank of Major during the war — a glass ceiling if there ever was one. He served in the 100th Battalion and was appointed as its commander during the final Po Valley campaign in Italy. He was the first American of Japanese ancestry to command an infantry battalion in the history of the U.S. Army, a monumental achievement.

Consider Chito Isonaga. She went to school in Japan for six years, but lived on Kaua‘i when the war began. The Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, wouldn’t take Nisei women until late in the war. Chito volunteered as soon as she had the opportunity. She knew Japan would lose the war and she wanted to use her language skills to help her family and friends in Hiroshima. Her service, both as one of the first WACs into Japan after the war and then a 30-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency that followed, is a testament to her personal impact.

And then there’s Norman Kikuta from Maui who was declared physically unfit for ROTC at the University of Hawai‘i. The 442nd also rejected him, so he volunteered and was accepted into the MIS. It turns out that Norman was fit enough to complete parachute training and then deploy to the Philippines with the 11th Airborne. He was fit enough to make the division’s combat jump at Tagaytay Ridge. He was fit enough to participate in the liberation of Manila. In fact, he’s so fit that he’s here with us today. Please raise your hand Norman. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a round of applause for this American hero.

I know there are more stories in this audience of American heroes today that deserve our applause — stories of patriotism and courage in the face of adversity. And there was a lot of adversity. So let me be candid here. Our country hasn’t always dealt minorities and immigrants a fair shake — even those who are American citizens. That said, the many cultures resident in the American experience share a common underpinning of honor, pride and perseverance that has added immeasurably to our strength as a nation. In 1946, President Truman, at a ceremony awarding the 442nd its seventh Presidential Unit Citation, said, “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.” Unquote.

The Nisei warriors — before they were veterans, when they were still young men and women — volunteered to fight for their country, to wear the cloth of our nation, despite our nation’s bigotry and prejudice. They were tested at home and in combat on battlefields from Europe to the Pacific. At home, through their deeds and examples, the Nisei veterans continued the fight, this time against the injustice of discrimination. Thanks in part to their efforts, today, our nation and our military embrace diversity — and we are stronger for it.

These brave Americans paved the way for me to serve. My own background isn’t near as interesting as the stories of the Nisei veterans, so I’ll keep it short. We’ve all heard Shakespeare’s words that brevity is the soul of wit, and I’d rather you remember me as someone witty than as someone who kept you too long after lunch.

I spent much of my childhood growing up on a tiny farm in Crossville, Tennessee. But my roots are here in the Pacific. My mother was Japanese. I was born in Japan, and I’ve spent almost half my career in the Pacific.

I said earlier that my father and my uncles inspired me to serve. But, it was my mother who taught me the true meaning of service.

While my father served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington and other ships throughout the Pacific during World War II, my mother experienced the cruelties of war in Japan. She was from Köbe — maiden name: Ohno. She lost her home, her school, some of her family members and friends in air raids. After surviving the destruction that war brought to Imperial Japan — as well as the postwar depravations of the late ‘40s in Japan — she met and then married an American Sailor, my father.

Once settled in America, she adapted with grace and became an American citizen in 1974. Her proudest moments were voting and serving on jury duty!

I learned much from my mother. She taught me to be proud of my heritage and she taught me the twin concepts of giri and gimu — obligation and duty. These concepts have served me well throughout my career.

The 21st century is often called the Pacific Century, and America is surely a Pacific nation, a Pacific power and a Pacific leader. Today the world is interconnected and interdependent in ways that were unimaginable at the end of World War II. And we’re also facing complex security challenges and threats. Secretary of Defense [Ashton] Carter has rightly called the Indo-Asia-Pacific the single most consequential region for America’s future. He’s identified five strategic and very real global challenges to U.S. security that will drive our defense planning and budgeting for the next decade: North Korea; China; Russia; violent extremism, including ISIL; and Iran. And guess what? Four of these challenges are resident in the PACOM area of responsibility today. We can’t turn a blind eye to any of these challenges. And we can’t give any nation or insidious non-state actor a pass if they purposefully erode the rules-based security order. President Reagan once said, “We cannot play innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent.” I think that’s exactly right.

So how do we protect and defend the interests of the United States in the vast and challenging Indo-Asia-Pacific region? Well, first and foremost, we must be prepared to fight tonight. But I think we all agree that it’s better to deter aggression proactively than to respond to aggression reactively. Deterrence is a combination of capability, resolve and signaling — and a big part of this is building alliances and partnerships. To continue along the prosperous and peaceful path that has served the Indo-Asia-Pacific so well for over 70 years, we must expand partnerships among like-minded nations to uphold the rules-based global operating system that arose after World War II. This helps build what Secretary Carter has called a principled security network.

Today, Japan is a critical part of that network and a staunch defender of the global operating system. And for those who may not have heard this morning’s news, President Obama will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Abe in Honolulu on December 27th. The meeting will be an opportunity for the two leaders to review our joint efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance. President Obama will also accompany Prime Minister Abe to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor and showcase the power of reconciliation that has turned former enemies into the closest of allies, united by common security interests and shared values. This reconciliation is part of the great legacy of the Nisei veterans.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve spoken too long. So I’ll conclude by saying that the banner of freedom advances in our world only when brave souls take it up. That’s what the Nisei did. For those of us who stand the watch today, we’ll continue to follow in your wake. We won’t let you down.

May God bless those veterans, and the brave men and women of our armed forces — each and every one of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen and DoD (Department of Defense) civilians — past and present — who have stepped forward to defend our nation. May God bless this incredibly beautiful state of Hawai‘i. And may God bless this land of liberty we call America. Thank you very much.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here