Joseph S. Oshiro and Albert K. Nakama Helped to Liberate French Towns in World War II
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai’i Herald
In what may be the last public ceremony, the French government honored six Japanese American soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team for their role in liberating two small French towns in World War II. The ceremony was held on Monday, Nov. 8, at the National Cemetery of the Pacific 77 years after the bloody French campaign where Japanese American soldiers fought and died to prove their loyalty to a country that had branded them as “enemy aliens.”
Only two — Joseph Seichi Oshiro and Albert Kankichi Nakama — of the six Nisei veterans, who were publicly recognized at the Legion of Honor awards ceremony, are still living. Both are 98 years old but were unable to attend. Family members videotaped the ceremony.
Five of the recent honorees were members of the 442nd RCT’s 3rd Battalion: Pvt. First Class Hideo Nakayama, Sgt. Joseph Oshiro, and Tech. Sgt. Albert Nakama served in L Company. Pvt. First Class Minoru Tamashiro was a member of Headquarters Company, while Technician Fifth Grade Takashi Shirakata was a member of the 206th Army Ground Forces Band. Technician Fifth Grade Hajime Miyamoto was a medic attached to G Company in the 442nd RCT’s 2nd Battalion.
In 2001, the French government decided to award the Legion of Honor, its highest civilian award, to all servicemen who participated in the liberation of France, this included the 4,500 AJA (Americans of Japanese ancestry) soldiers of the 442nd RCT and the 100th Battalion. In October 1944, the Nisei “Go For Broke” Army unit liberated the French towns of Bruyeres and Biffontaine, located less than 45 miles west of the Rhine River on the German border which had been occupied by the Germans since 1940.
The unit was formed of Nisei Japanese Americans, volunteers from Hawai‘i and mainland incarceration camps. West Coast Japanese families were forced by the U.S. government to abandon their homes and farms with only what they could carry after the Japanese attack on the Pacific fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
All the surviving Nisei warriors are now approaching or have surpassed the century mark in age. There has never been any official roster of Hawai‘i 442nd RCT and 100th Battalion soldiers. So, a current census of surviving AJA veterans is elusive. Past numbers are conflicting, but at least 169 Nisei veterans have received the French medal.
But for the aging Nisei soldiers the application process is very difficult and takes at least a year for the French government to approve the application. A few of the veterans have died while awaiting approval by the French government.
Fifty-six Hawaii 442nd veterans have been aided by Jeff Morita, 64, who has been assisting any World War II soldier since 2016 with the process of collecting and validating their combat tour in France. His volunteer efforts were recognized by the 442nd Legacy Center during the Punchbowl ceremony.
The application for the Legion of Honor and the rank of Chevalier or Knight must be filed while the veteran is still living. There are 11 applications from Hawai‘i still pending.
Grace Tsubata Fujii, long-time leader of the 442nd Sons and Daughters, said that the 442nd Veterans Club “was organized as a social club by the returning Hawai‘i veterans,” who, after the war, spent their time focusing on “their careers, education, hobbies and families.” She said there have been estimates that about one-third of the returning vets never joined the 442nd Veterans Club in Hawai‘i.
Last year, COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions complicated the process forcing the French government to mail the medal to several aging veterans and their families last year like Albert Nakama, Hideo Nakayama and Harold Nakasone, who died in 2019 at the age of 99.
Because Albert Nakama has been hospitalized at a Käne‘ohe care home since 2019, he was represented by his daughter, Iris Chang, at the Punchbowl ceremony. “He (Nakama) is a very humble man,” said Chang of her father. “Like everyone else in his unit, he doesn’t think he did much.”
Like so many AJA veterans, Chang’s father never talked about fighting in France and Italy. That all changed two years ago when a museum curator with Seattle’s Nisei Veterans Committee Memorial Hall returned to Nakama a faded olive-green trench coat that a French farmer near Bruyeres had owned. Etched on the back of the GI coat was “A Nakama.” A search of the listing of 442 soldiers available to museum curator Chris Sketchley found only one Nakama.
“If it wasn’t for the jacket,” said Chang, whose father will celebrate his 99th birthday in December, “our whole family would have never known what he had done.” It seemed that seeing and donning the jacket unlocked memories for Nakama. In an Aug. 31, 2019, Honolulu Star-Advertiser story Nakama started to talk about the war. “It was wintertime. The Vosges mountains were really cold. You know like the Pali coming from Honolulu …lot of wooded area. That’s the kind of place the Vosges Mountains was.”
“It was like a miracle,” said Chang, noting he seemed to be more alert after that visit and she has since been able to piece together her father’s wartime service with his recollections and other sources. “It’s an amazing story.”
Nakama still doesn’t recall losing the jacket. But he did tell a television reporter his memories of fighting in France. “We were advancing in the open field, and we realized we made a big mistake, we getting exposed, they shot at us. Because (there was) nothing to protect us then, we pull back and rested for a while. Then we advanced into Bruyeres.”
Nakama’s parents emigrated from Okinawa. He was awarded three Bronze Star medals and two Purple Hearts — one in France and another in Italy. After leaving the service he worked for the U.S. Customs Service, retiring in 1980.
Joseph Oshiro’s parents also were from Okinawa. He attended Maui High School and was wounded in France and Italy and was awarded the Purple Heart medal and a Bronze Star medal. After the war he worked for the U.S. Postal Service, retiring in 1980 as chief maintenance foreman at the Airport District Post Office. He was represented by his son, Thomas.
Takashi “Bolo” Shirakata was 99 years old when he died last year. Kyle Shirakata represented his father, Takashi. Shirakata graduated from McKinley High School and worked for Bank of Hawaii before the war. Initially, Shirakata was assigned to Headquarters Company 2nd Battalion, but was transferred to the 206th Army Ground Forces Band. He was rehired by the bank when he returned to Honolulu and later was employed by City Bank, retiring in 1986. He also was a member of the Club Nisei Orchestra, a post-World War II band specializing in Hawaiian and Japanese music.
Minoru Tamashiro was 97 years old and passed away a week before the ceremony. Mark Tamashiro represented his uncle at the ceremony. Tamashiro was born in Hilo and was a recipient of the Purple Heart medal. He earned bachelor and master of science degrees from the University of Hawai‘i and a doctorate in entomology from the University of California at Berkeley. A world-renowned expert on termites, Tamashiro patented a nontoxic barrier system to eradicate termites. He retired as UH entomology professor in 1989.
Also honored were medic Hajime Miyamoto, who was 100 and Hideo Nakayama, 97, when they died in 2019. Miyamoto, whose parents were from Wakayama, was born on the Big Island. He was wounded in Italy and was awarded the Silver Star medal for fighting in Bruyeres. He returned to the Big Island after the war and worked for the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association, retiring in 1984. His daughter, Susan Yoshitomi, represented her father.
Nakayama’s parents were from Okayama, Japan. Nakayama grew up in the Moanalua area, graduating from Farrington High School in 1940. He owned and operated Kuhio Florist in Waikïkï. He was represented by his daughter, Reiko.
Speaking at his first Hawai‘i awards ceremony since he was appointed the Counsel General of France in San Franciso, Frederic Jung said there is “a very long history” of friendship between the countries. “In fact, France is the oldest ally of the United States,” fighting alongside of the Americans since 1777.
Jung said France maintains a strong military presence in the Pacific with its ships and submarines doing periodic lay overs in Hawai‘i. The two allies have renewed their ties, Jung said, after a “period of crisis” between the two countries in September when France recalled its ambassadors to protest President Joseph Biden’s surprise decision to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia which was supposed to buy French submarines. Biden later said he had thought France had been informed of the contract cancellation before the U.S. announcement and said that the handling of the new security agreement had been “clumsy.”
Speaking at the top of the staircase in Punchbowl’s Court of Honor beneath the statue of Lady Columbia, Jung said the soldiers of the 44nd RCT fighting in the Vosges mountainous region, where he is from, had “to cope with mud, rain, fog and eventually heavy fighting.”
“The Nisei combatants also had to struggle with additional challenges like discrimination, distrust and outright hostility. They fought bravely despite the fact that for some of them, their family members were subject to internment in the U.S. The heroes we are honoring today saved France and Europe from hell. Without them, I would not stand in front of you today to tell you that France, that the French, did not and will never forget the sacrifice of the extraordinary men of the 442nd and some 77 years ago.”
Jung said two centuries ago Napoleon Bonaparte created the Legion of Honor in 1802 “to honor these values of courage and bravery” and to recognize “exceptional individuals (soldiers and civilians).”
In descending order of distinction, the ranks of the medal are Grand Cross, Grand Officer, Commander, Officer and Chevalier. The color of the ribbon is red. The badge is a five-armed Maltese asterisk hung on an oak and laurel wreath. On the front side, is the symbol of the Republic with the inscription “République française” on the other side, a flag and a banner intertwining one another with the circular inscription “Honneur et patrie” (Honor and Fatherland). Today there are approximately 93,000 Legion of Honor recipients.
The only World War II Nisei veteran to attend the hour-long ceremony was 100th Infantry Battalion survivor Jack Seitoku Nakamura, 98, who received his French medal in 2015.
During its time in the European Theater the 100th and 442nd earned the distinction in World War II of being the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service, earning 18,000 individual medals for valor, including 21 Medals of Honor and seven presidential unit citations which is equivalent to the Army’s Distinguished Service medal that ranks just below the Medal of Honor as an individual soldier’s combat award.
In this year’s History Channel’s Veterans Day tribute, retired four-star Gen. David Bramlett, who is committed to telling the story of the exploits and heroism of AJA soldiers, said, “The Nisei soldiers who fought, died and bled and their families, who persevered in those horrible camps, they in a sense redeemed us.”
“As a soldier I revere in their record,” said Bramlett, who led the Army’s largest command from 1996-1998, in the one-hour documentary ‘Hidden Heroes, The Story of the Nisei Soldiers In WWII.’ “I study it as do other soldiers for what it teaches us. How to lead. How to persevere. What obligation means. What cohesion means. What camaraderie means.”
“Their story is the stuff of movies.”
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service as a congressional correspondent and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.