Joint Memorial Service Speaker Honors Nisei Veterans
Maj. Gen. Suzanne P. Vares-Lum
Published with Permission
Editor’s note: The following is the text of the memorial address delivered by Maj. Gen. Suzanne P. Vares-Lum at the 14th annual Joint Memorial Service, which was held Sept. 29 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. Maj. Gen. Vares-Lum is the mobilization assistant to the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and previously served in various leadership roles. We thank her for sharing the text of her speech with you.
The Joint Memorial Service is a project of the Nisei Veterans Legacy and was chaired this year by Reid Mizue.
Aloha mai käkou . . . Governor and Mrs. [David] Ige, Governor and Mrs. [George] Ariyoshi, Senator [Brian] Schatz, Mayor and Mrs. [Kirk] Caldwell, retired General and Mrs. [David] Bramlett, Major General and Mrs. [Joe] Logan, retired Major General Bob Lee, Consul General Koichi Ito, state and national government leaders, members of the diplomatic and consular corps, fellow flag and general officers and senior enlisted leaders, fellow service members and veterans, family and friends and, most importantly, our distinguished guests — our honored Nisei veterans and their loved ones.
What an honor it is to be at this hallowed place among a class of warriors who have left a legacy on Hawai‘i, the United States and the world. I am humbled to stand here among legends — our Nisei veterans — who will be remembered for generations to come for their courage, bravery under conditions that most can never imagine and their loyalty to their country, the United States of America.
It has been 78 years since December 7, 1941, when the world changed for a group of young men and women of Japanese ancestry who could not have predicted that their lives would fundamentally change and they would be part of what we often refer to as “the Greatest Generation.”
The men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Battalion, the Military Intelligence Service, the 522nd Field Artillery, the 232nd Combat Engineer Company, the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion and, as Admiral Harry Harris — now-U.S. Ambassador Harris to the Republic of Korea — recognized in previous ceremonies, the 300 Nisei women who joined the Women’s Army Corps: They all raised their hands at a time when their family members were being interned, property confiscated and their loyalty questioned. These soldiers ensured that, at any cost, they would not bring shame to their family and their communities and their country.
Their actions are evident in the fact that the 100/442 is still the most highly decorated unit of its size, mostly because of their heroic fighting inside the 36th Texas Division in the battle of Bruyéres, rescuing the “Lost Battalion,” which is considered one of the major battles in American history.
As Maui author and veteran John Tsukano recalled the incident in his book, “Bridge of Love”:
“The exhausted men of the 100/442 were in deep sleep when they are awakened and alerted for an emergency rescue operation. The 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment is hopelessly surrounded and in grave danger of being annihilated. Two regiments had tried to break through a determined enemy, the freezing weather, incessant rain, rugged terrain, mist, sniper and interlocking machine gun fire, heavy mortar and artillery barrages, tree bursts, bouncing betties and land mines, solid road blocks, fox holes, slit trenches, barbed wires and the pitch black night, the high lifts . . . made rescue seem extremely difficult, if not impossible.”
Suguru Takahashi in I Company remembers the night. “We broke through, Barney Hajiro led the charge. We went down, contacted the ‘Lost Battalion.’ The first guy I come to is in tears. Portuguese name. He thought they would all be killed. I gave him my water, rations, cigarettes. We rescued two hundred men and ours — killed and wounded — was over eight hundred. Lots of my friends died.”
There are many stories like this . . . of bravery and courage in the face of peril. Because of their actions, American Japanese veterans came home vindicated, and they were determined to play a greater role in a country that so many had given their lives for. Many went back and got their education, started businesses and, like Senators Inouye and Sparky Matsunaga, made a commitment to public service to make life better for others.
For me, growing up in Wahiawä and spending summers and holidays on Maui, I was always inspired by the stories I would hear from our Hawai‘i Nisei veterans. I think of Uncle Sam Morikawa, who served on the gun lines in Europe in the 522nd Field Artillery. He used to let me see his pictures and review some of his letters he sent to Aunty Marion Morikawa whenever my grandparents visited during New Year’s. While everyone grinded out on the ‘ono local mochi, sushi, somen salad, I would spend hours going through Uncle Sammy’s World War II pictures and ask him questions. The pictures showed him with the people of Italy, France and Germany and many happy children and young ladies after he gave them some goodies. He had pictures of himself with his buddies from his battery, but he never went into much detail.
Then, one day, I bought this book called “Dachau, Holocaust and U.S. Samurais — Nisei Soldiers First in Dachau.” In the credits, I saw Uncle Sam Morikawa’s name as a contributor of photos. Funny . . . he never told me about that and, in fact, he rarely told me about anything unpleasant, because I think he wanted me to see the good — the people, the children, his buddies, people smiling. He came home to Pukalani, Maui, after the war to be an incredible husband, father, raise awesome children, work as a premier plumber, serve as an active member of his Buddhist church, made the most ‘ono pies.
I also have to tell you that Uncle Sammy is not my blood uncle, he is a close friend of my grandparents, Adelino Vares and Lei Kiakona, who were not of
Japanese ancestry. My grandpa was Portuguese American and Catholic, and Uncle Sammy was Japanese American and Buddhist. Yet, they were like family; they were Boy Scout leaders together.
After the war, my dad was stationed in Tökyö and married my Japanese mom and she had to live with my grandparents while he was in Vietnam. It was Uncle Sammy and Aunty Marion who helped to provide translation/transition support for my Portuguese and Hawaiian/English grandparents and my Japanese mom.
My experience shaped the pride I had when I deployed with the 100/442 Infantry during Operation Iraqi Freedom III. I deployed to Iraq as part of the 29th Infantry Brigade as the S-2, senior intelligence officer. The 100/442nd Infantry was one of the four battalions. General Bob Lee, a former 100/442nd commander, was the adjutant general at the time, and General [Vern] Miyagi was the Hawai‘i Army Guard commander, Brigadier General Ken Hara was the 2-299 Infantry Battalion commander then. Colonel Colbert Low was the 100/442 Infantry commander in Iraq.
The 100/442 was comprised of a mix of Hawai‘i boys from all ethnic backgrounds: American Samoa and Saipan and other fills from the Mainland, and some females attached from the 29th Infantry Brigade while in Iraq for search teams. Soldiers who belong to the unit did not and have not forgotten the legacy of our Nisei veterans, and I recall in the moments of some feeling beaten down and having experienced a loss of a soldier and then hearing the harmonizing voices of the soldiers singing . . .
We are the boys of Hawai‘i nei
We will fight for you
And the red, white and blue
And will go the front
And back to Honolulu-lu-lu
Fighting for dear old Uncle Sam
Go for broke we don’t give a damn . . .
And somehow the warrior spirit of the downtrodden would return. I believe it is because they could hear the voices who came before us tell the soldiers to stay strong, remember why you do this, and when you feel like giving up, remember the example.
All of the Nisei veterans, Governor Ariyoshi, the parents of Governor and Mrs. Ige, and many of you in the audience I see today have a multitude of stories you have that inspire, and I believe that the many in this audience who have done much to preserve the legacy should be applauded. Nisei veteran stories have reminded me that no matter who you are, what ethnicity you are or what gender you are, you can achieve the seemingly impossible in this country.
If I would have listened to people who told me that I could not, or I am not capable, I certainly would not be standing here today working for the commander of the largest and oldest combatant command, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, that spans 52 percent of the earth’s surface, where we deal with a multitude of security challenges and engage with over 36 nations.
So, how can we ensure the legacy is passed on through generations? In addition to the fine work of the Nisei Veterans Legacy team, we all can do our part to educate. Recently, retired LTC Bob Takao and the Pan-Pacific American Leadership Mentorship Program brought Junior ROTC cadets to the 100th Club to learn about our Nisei veterans. Some of the students had just recently learned that they had family members who had served and beamed with pride and desired to learn more.
[In the] spring of this year and every year, the UH Army ROTC holds a memorial golf tournament that remembers the fallen, and included are those who left college to serve. And there are countless other examples, including the wall of the pictures of the Nisei Medal of Honor recipients that line the halls adjacent to my office at USINDOPACOM.
Our next generation, I heard, are idealists who believe in a just world — they may well be our next “greatest generation.” Many have stepped up to the plate to raise their right hand to protect and defend over the past 18 years of sustained conflict in the Middle East.
To our next generation: I urge all of you to follow the values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, personal courage that our Nisei veterans have shown us, especially in the face of adversity.
As we depart today, I would like to close with a few thoughts.
To our Nisei veterans, words cannot express our gratitude for your inspiring us all to stand up for what is right. You stood up when you heard the internal call to lay your lives down on the altar of freedom.
As one Nisei veteran said in an interview: “You never know how bad war is until you participate in it.” This is a stark reminder that we must maintain peace through strength in our military by building and maintaining a force that deters those who would threaten our security and freedom and that of our allies. We need our next generation of leaders to gain strength and inspiration from the path blazed by our Nisei veterans. I know I have.
Our message to the world is that we are not a country based on ethnicity, but are united by our values of liberty, equality, justice and democracy. I believe it is our duty to:
• Remember the sacrifice — share the stories so that we never forget.
• Honor the memory of those who bravely and faithfully served.
• Our generation and generations to come should not forget what our Nisei veterans have done.
Mahalo nui loa for allowing me to be a part of today’s Joint Memorial Service. May God bless our veterans and the brave men and women of our armed forces — each and every one of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen, past and present, who come from every background on earth and defend our nation and values. May God bless the state of Hawai‘i and our great nation.