COVID-19 Should Not Be the Only Memory of the World War II Veteran
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
This past summer, we all watched with growing alarm and deep sadness as the number of war veterans contracting and, worse, dying of COVID-19 at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo edged higher with each passing day.
I thought of Tech. Sgt. Yukio Okutsu, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran and World War II Medal of Honor recipient for whom the facility had been named. Would people remember the good, humble and honorable man he was to his family and friends, to the Hilo community and to his country? Or would his name only be associated with “deaths from COVID-19?”
I was blessed to have known Yukio “Yuki” Okutsu and his wife Elaine for many years. I met him for the first time in 1986 when I did a story for the Herald’s June 20 issue on several 442nd veterans, who, 40 years after returning from the war in Europe, still had each other’s backs — only now, in Hilo. My friendship with Yuki’s gang grew to include his wife, Elaine, a generous, gregarious and independent Nisei woman who overflowed with aloha.
After the war, Yuki, who had volunteered for the 442nd from his home in Köloa, Kaua‘i, decided to settle down in Hilo, where he would be close to the Fox Company guys he had trained with at Camp Shelby, Miss., and he had gone into battle with in Italy and France. They had become his hänai “brothers,” and he wanted them to be the friends he saw every day, not just at 442nd reunions. He wanted them to be the people he could count on whenever he needed help and also wanted to be there for them whenever they needed help.
But Yuki didn’t forget his home island of Kaua‘i. His son Randy said his father donated some of his precious Army medals to a museum there, likely the Kauai Veterans Center & Museum in Lïhu‘e, including his Distinguished Service Cross. (The facility is currently closed for renovations, so I could not confirm that.) Little known about this honor is the fact that a U.S. Department of Defense review of the DSC citation that accompanied that medal led to Yuki and 19 other AJA veterans being upgraded to receive the Medal of Honor 55 years after the war had ended.
Settling down on the Big Island, Yuki met and married Hilo native Elaine. They raised two sons, Wayne and Randal (Randy). Yuki started out doing watch repair work, but eventually went to work for the county government, overseeing the parking meter department. Elaine told me that Yuki also spent a few years working “down under.” It was likely a reference to the Marshall Islands, where many men about his age took dangerous jobs cleaning up nuclear waste from testing that the U.S. had conducted between 1946 and 1958. While he was away, Elaine negotiated the purchase of a large parcel of raw land in Kaümana and hired a contractor to build their home.
In the open space behind their house, Yuki grew anthuriums as a hobby and then as a small side business to earn extra money, although the couple probably gave away as many flowers as they sold. The altar of Hilo Hongwanji Mission was often decorated with blooms from their backyard.
Yuki spent his retirement years cultivating beautiful anthuriums of all varieties, shapes and colors. I never asked him whether he talked to them, but he and those flowers definitely had a love affair going. He came into the house only for coffee breaks and lunch.
The 1986 article entitled “A Lesson in Hilo Friendship,” which was about Yuki and his F Company Army buddies, has always been one of my favorites, because I came to realize how strong the bonds of brotherhood forged in battle could become, sometimes after only a few years of serving together. For the F Company boys, the ties would last a lifetime.
The story was about a handful of F Company veterans who pushed their quadriplegic Army buddy through the streets of Hilo in his wheelchair. Toshio “Hoxie” Nagami was struck in the head by flying shrapnel while evacuating injured men during a shelling attack in Italy in July of 1944. His younger brother, Hiroshi, also in F Company, was killed in that attack.
Hoxie returned to Hilo partially paralyzed, but was still able to drive and care for himself — until he suffered a massive stroke. At that point, his Issei mother stepped in to take care of him, until she died. Hoxie’s brother then moved him into his house and hired a nurse to help out.
Confined to a hospital bed with nothing to do but stare at the ceiling and walls of his room, Hoxie began to waste away. He grew depressed and his health began to decline.
His fellow F Company veterans grew concerned about their friend. So when Sadao Nishida and Hisashi Fujiyama retired, they decided to get Hoxie, who was a fairly big guy, out of his bed and into a wheelchair and began pushing him around Hilo town. They saw it as a win-win: It would get Hoxie out into the sunshine and fresh air, seeing different faces and places, and they, in turn, would get their physical exercise. In the ensuing years, other F Company veterans joined them as they retired — Yuki, Wataru Kohashi and Robert Honda.
Twice a week — on Tuesdays and Thursdays — the guys met at the Nagami home located in a narrow lane across from the Kaiko‘o Mall. Hoxie’s nurse, Pua Delaries, would arrive a half-hour early to get him ready for his outing with the guys. By 8 a.m., they were on the road.
I walked with them a couple of times — the first time in 1986. Hoxie was dressed in shorts and a red and white aloha shirt. He wore a baseball cap with the insignia of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, of course. But the cap also concealed the scars on his head from the shrapnel wound.
Hoxie’s smile stretched wide across his face. Although his speech was slurred, he responded to my questions with “yes” or “no” answers. He said “yes,” he looked forward to seeing his buddies on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
It was always a two-way street with his F Company friends, however. Seeing Hoxie’s condition improve and the happiness it brought him lifted their spirits, too.
“He’s (Hoxie) really good because his attitude is good,” Yuki told me as we walked in 1986. “He doesn’t complain. He’s strong-willed. He has a good outlook on life,” he said.
The four guys took turns pushing Hoxie’s wheelchair. Their care for their friend put a smile on the faces of the people they met along their route. As they pushed Hoxie’s wheelchair, they also took care of their own errands — paying bills at the bank, buying knick-knacks and then catching up with the gang. They stopped in regularly at the Longs Drug Store on Kïlauea Avenue to check out the beer prices . . . and to enjoy the store’s “free” air conditioning. The clerks all welcomed them.
Their focus was always on cheering up and encouraging Hoxie. When their two- to three-mile walk was over, they took Hoxie back home, talked story for a bit and then met at Café 100 — a restaurant founded by nisei veteran Richard Miyashiro who served with the 100th Infantry Battalion — for coffee and a little more chit-chat before heading home. They did that for years. Hoxie died in January of 2000.
My friendship with the guys led to a long friendship with Yuki and Elaine, especially. On trips to Hilo for stories, I always spent time with them at their home — sitting at their kitchen table enjoying coffee and talking story with them while Elaine whipped up a batch of andagi (Okinawan doughnuts) or cascaron (Filipino doughnuts). She was a master in the kitchen — she could cook anything in a snap, and it was always ‘ono.
In those pre-cellphone days, if Yuki happened to pick up the phone when anyone called for Elaine, his standard line was: “I don’t know.” Elaine laughingly called Yuki her “I don’t know-man” — in other words, I don’t know where she went; I don’t know when she’s coming home . . . call back later. Yuki didn’t take messages.
On one occasion, I remember talking with him about his upcoming trip to Washington to receive the Medal of Honor. In the 1990s, the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka from Hawai‘i introduced a bill requesting that the Pentagon review the Distinguished Service Cross citations of 47 World War II veterans, most of them 100th Battalion and 442nd RCT soldiers. Akaka believed that racism had been a factor in only one AJA — Sadao Munemori, who was killed in action — being awarded the Medal of Honor during the war, in spite of the impressive battle record of the 100th and 442nd. After a nearly decade-long review, 20 veterans’ DSCs were approved for upgrades to the Medal of Honor — Yuki’s was among them. Always self-effacing, he tried to convince me that the citations were mainly a matter of good writing by the officer who had written it. I didn’t buy that, though.
Here is an excerpt from the Medal of Honor citation for his actions on Mount Belvedere, in the Apennine Mountains of Italy on April 7, 1945 — just a month before victory in Europe was declared. You be the judge.
. . . While his platoon was halted by the crossfire of three machine guns, Technical Sergeant Okutsu boldly crawled to within 30 yards of the nearest enemy emplacement through heavy fire. He destroyed the position with two accurately placed hand grenades, killing three machine gunners. Crawling and dashing from cover to cover, he threw another grenade, silencing a second machine gun, wounding two enemy soldiers, and forcing two others to surrender. Seeing a third machine gun, which obstructed his platoon’s advance, he moved forward through heavy small arms fire and was stunned momentarily by rifle fire, which glanced off his helmet. Recovering, he bravely charged several enemy riflemen with his submachine gun, forcing them to withdraw from their positions. Then, rushing the machine gun nest, he captured the weapon and its entire crew of four. By these single-handed actions he enabled his platoon to resume its assault on a vital objective. The courageous performance of Technical Sergeant Okutsu against formidable odds was an inspiration to all. Technical Sergeant Okutsu’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.
In June 2000, President Bill Clinton placed the coveted medal — the nation’s highest military decoration for valor in service — around Yuki’s neck in a White House ceremony. The presentation was witnessed by Yuki’s family, including his grandchildren and some of his siblings.
He lived three more years after that momentous day and died of cancer in August 2003 at the age of 81.
By then, plans were already in the works for Hawai‘i’s first state veterans home. Construction of the 95-bed, long-term care facility on the grounds of the Hilo Medical Center began in 2005 and finished in 2007. The home, named in honor of Hawai‘i Island’s only Medal of Honor recipient, was dedicated that November.
It was standing-room-only for the ceremony, which was held under a tent in the facility’s parking lot. Then-Gov. Linda Lingle and Hawai‘i County Mayor Harry Kim attended, along with other dignitaries. Randy stood at his mother’s side as state adjutant general Robert Lee presented the Medal of Honor flag with its 13 stars to Elaine. By then, she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. (Elaine passed on in 2013.) Also in attendance was Wataru Kohashi, one of Yuki’s best friends from F Company. He and Yuki were kin in spirit.
Those attending the opening ceremonies were invited to tour the facility, which the Hawai‘i Health Systems Corporation would manage before the present administrator, Avalon Health Care Inc., came to operate it. Residents hadn’t yet moved into the facility. A portrait of Yuki with his Medal of Honor around his neck hung in the lobby, along with his actual medal and its accompanying citation, all of which the Okutsu family donated to the home.
I last talked with Randy Okutsu by phone in 2015 after a 4th of July reunion of the Okutsu ‘ohana that was attended by 60 family members, including the last of Yuki’s surviving siblings and even youngsters like Randy’s own grandchildren. He said everyone was looking forward to visiting the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home. It was the first time Randy would visit the facility since it opened eight years earlier. He said he had driven past it countless times, always meaning to stop in and see it with veterans now living there. But with his mother’s care and grandchildren to help tend to, the years had flown by before he even knew it.
The 2015 reunion brought together family from Hawai‘i and California and even as far away as Nebraska and Kansas. Fifteen years had passed since the last Okutsu family reunion, in 2000, in their old hometown of Köloa. Yuki and Elaine had still been alive then. Yuki came from a huge family — he was the fourth of 10 children. By the 2015 get-together, however, only three siblings were left. Yuki’s last surviving sister, Margie Shinn, passed earlier this year.
“One of my cousins decided to plan something because everybody is getting older and the last reunion was such a long time ago,” said Randy, who was 58 at the time of the 2015 reunion.
That cousin, Cynthia Shigemasa, said visiting the care home was a reunion priority. She and her cousins were all very proud of their Uncle Yuki, and no one was prouder of him than her mother, Margie Shinn. They all wanted their children and grandchildren to know what Uncle Yuki had done for his country in World War II.
Randy was excited about seeing the facility, as well — and this time with veterans actually living in it.
“It was different seeing it occupied. It was good,” he said. He got chicken-skin as he gazed at the framed photograph of his father in the lobby, remembering their time together as a family and realizing what the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home meant for the veterans and the community.
Although he didn’t know any of the residents when they visited in 2015, he knew of a few who had convalesced there for a time. When we spoke in 2015, Randy said it felt good to know that veterans, like his dad, were being cared for at his father’s namesake.
“Everybody felt the same, that it was something nice and it was for the veterans . . .” In small groups, the Avalon staffers led family members through the home. Cynthia said touring the home was the “highlight” of their four-day reunion.
Randy’s four children were old enough to have enjoyed time with their grandfather. They spent many after-school days and weekends with him and their grandmother. And, they were with him in 2000 to see President Clinton place the Medal of Honor around his neck.
But the fifth generation of Okutsus never knew their great-grandfather. They’re still too young to understand what his wartime valor meant to his fellow soldiers and to America. Even if his dad were alive today, Randy knows that it’s not the kind of story his dad would have shared with his great-grandchildren. That just wasn’t Yuki Okutsu. . .
On Sept. 25, Hawaii Health Systems Corporation — the public authority that oversees Hilo Medical Center and several other state-owned medical facilities — announced that the East Hawai‘i Region of the Hawaii Health Systems Corp. would assume management and operations of the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home, replacing Avalon Health Care. The decision was reached following a thorough review of the home and its policies and procedures by a team of health professionals who were flown in to Hilo by the Veterans Administration. By that date, 26 residents had died, and 71 residents and 35 staffers had tested positive with COVID-19.
Karleen Chinen is a former Hawai‘i Herald editor and writer.