Editor’s note: The U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy faced each other on June 22 — but the venue was not a football field. Rather, it was the Pömaika‘i Ballroom at the Dole Cannery. The occasion was the 72nd anniversary of the formation of the 100th Infantry Battalion in June of 1942.
The 100th Battalion was the first Japanese American military unit to enter combat in Europe in World War II, landing at Salerno, Italy, in September 1943. The unit would suffer so many casualties that it came to be known as “the Purple Heart Battalion.”
Seventy-two years later, less than 150 of the original 1,432 soldiers and their replacements remain. Most of the originals are in their mid-90s. One of them, retired Judge Takashi Kitaoka, is 102 years old. On that Sunday in June, they came, 20 old warriors, joined by their brothers in service from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service. Together they had helped to change Hawai‘i and America for the better. A few arrived walking on the strength of their own two legs; others leaned on walkers or grasped canes, while still others were pushed in wheelchairs. Their keynote speaker would be, of all people, a Navy admiral. On this day, the career Navyman who is today one of the highest ranking Naval officers in the Pacific — and one of their own — could find only words of praise and respect and gratitude for the old soldiers.
Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. assumed command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet last October following his elevation from vice admiral to admiral. Harris was born in Japan to an American father and a Japanese mother. He was raised in Tennessee and followed the footsteps of his father into the Navy, rising to vice admiral and then admiral shortly after arriving in Hawai‘i.
As a vice admiral, Harris often served as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s military liaison on diplomatic missions.
The following is the text of Adm. Harris’ address to the 100th Battalion veterans. Due to limited space, his lighter comments have been edited out. If you would like to reach Adm. Harris’ speech in its entirety, it is online.
I’d like to extend a special thanks to all the 100th Infantry Battalion veterans of World War II who are with us today. It’s no exaggeration when I say that for me to be here, a Japanese American four-star admiral in command of the United States Pacific Fleet — the same fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz commanded as he fought the Imperial Japanese across the Pacific — well, that’s because of you and those trailblazers like you. The men of the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, of the MIS (Military Intelligence Service), the 522nd [Field Artillery Battalion], 232nd [Combat Engineer Company], the 1399th [Engineer Construction Battalion], and the 300 Nisei women who joined the Women’s Army Corps, or WACS — names and numbers that move mountains. I am humbled to be in your presence.
When I think about the sheer desperation in the world in the early 1940s, when I consider the power of the enemy you confronted, when I examine the insurmountable nature of the obstacles in your path and when I reflect on the results you achieved, I am awed, for I stand in the company of giants.
You helped achieve nothing less than the survival of the free world.
Fellow Flag and General Officers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it’s great to see each of you here today.
Folks, anyone who surfs the web, watches the news or reads the newspaper knows that Bob Dylan had it right, that times are a-changin’. Russia has taken Crimea, and the future of Ukraine is under threat. I-S-I-L (the Islamic State of Levant) is on the march in Iraq. And there are tensions between nations over territorial disputes throughout the Western Pacific.
Maybe Yogi Berra had it more right — “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
We are now well into the second decade of the 21st century, living in an age of constant change, where news of upheaval and overthrow travels round the world literally at the speed of light, where our iPhones inform us of change instantly — via a Facebook post, a tweet, a text or a KIK — and if you don’t know what a KIK is, you better ask the kids or grandkids — it’s the latest thing.
But I’m not here just to talk about change. I’m also here to talk about constants — those things that don’t change, those things we can count on, rely on and depend on during the good times, and during the bad.
Like those things we find at the very core of every man and woman who bravely dons the cloth of our nation to serve in our armed forces — the unconquerable spirit of the American warrior. I’m talking about undaunted courage in the face of daunting adversity.
Seneca once said that “fire is the test of gold, adversity is the test of men,” and I believe it. And the warriors of the 100th Battalion were tested, from Day One. They faced adversity on the home front, when their loyalty to our nation was under constant suspicion, yet they proved time and again that their dedication and devotion to America were without limits.
In the great history of the American profession of arms, the 100th Battalion occupies a special place of high honor — a place earned by their legendary exploits and by the blood of those who paid the ultimate price.
They were tested on the battlefield, in the heat of combat, where the friction and fog of war reveal the true character of each of us. And time and time again, the men of the 100th proved their mettle. When faced with mortal danger, they didn’t look for the exit. Instead they marched boldly toward the sound of the guns.
And they were tested at home, too. Just three years ago, I was in the audience as men of the 100th Battalion, and men from the 442nd Regiment and the MIS, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service to America. One speaker there said, “These remarkable men left a segregated nation to fight and defend an America with no guarantee that their own freedom would be defended in return.”
Talk about undaunted courage in the face of daunting adversity. And because of courageous action like theirs, they made a real difference in terms of outcomes and in the lives of others. Our nation has come so far in the past seven decades because of what they and other like-minded heroes did.
America saw the defeat of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperial Japan on their watch. Since then, we’ve stopped the spread of communism as we fought hot wars in Korea and Vietnam and, ultimately, won the Cold War. We helped free Kuwait, Grenada and Panama. We put teeth into NATO’s efforts to tame the Balkan and Libyan crises. And we’re still at it in Afghanistan.
Looking eastward, today Germany and Italy — once bitter enemies of ours — are now alliance partners in NATO. In fact, in NATO’s 63-year history, not one country has pulled out, but we’ve seen 16 new countries join, with a long waiting list of countries wanting in.
And looking westward, we see more close allies, including Australia, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines and Japan. I think it says a lot about the U.S. and Japan that these once-bitter enemies are now such close friends. Our allies in the Pacific are part of the bedrock foundation for security, stability and prosperity in the strategically important and economically vital Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
Ladies and gentlemen, America remains a beacon of hope and freedom for people from all around the world. We lead the world in GNP (gross national product) and immigration. People risk their lives to come to America, not to escape from America. People come to America to be free and to have a fair chance at realizing their dreams and aspirations. In the marketplace of humanity, America trades not in despair, but in hope.
And that’s perhaps the greatest legacy of the greatest generation — the recognition that no select group, culture or race has a monopoly on patriotism, loyalty or courage.
Today there are 13 flag officers in the United States Navy of Asian descent, and there are dozens more general officers in the other services. And today there are tens of thousands of Asian Americans of all ranks in our combined armed forces. And all of us owe this in no small measure to each pathfinder, like the men of the 100th, who have gone before us and from whom we have drawn much of our strength.
As you may know, my father and four of his brothers served in World War II — enlisted men in the Army and Navy in the Pacific and European theaters. In fact, my father was on USS Lexington when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Thankfully, the carriers had pulled out of [Pearl Harbor] just a few days before. As you can imagine, growing up, I listened to their stories — they taught me the importance of serving our nation.
My mother had a different story. She’s Nihonjin. From Köbe. Maiden name Ohno. She lost her home, her school, many of her family and friends in air raids in the same war that her future husband was fighting. After surviving the devastation of wartime Japan, she married an American Sailor. Once settled in America, she adapted with grace and became an American citizen in 1974. She told me that her proudest accomplishments were jury duty and voting. I learned much from my mother. She taught me to be proud of my ethnic heritage. She taught me the twin concepts of giri (obligation) and gimu (duty).
So, when I turned 18, the decision to serve was easy. The Navy offered the same allure for me that it did for my father — service, adventure, education, good pay, and I jumped at it. Another one of those constants, the Navy still offers these things, and I’m still in.
I joined at the height of the Cold War and saw its end. I served at the beginning of our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and I’m around to see their ends. And now, I get to see our rebalance to the Pacific.
The United States is a Pacific nation. America’s fate is inextricably linked with this region, and Hawai‘i is uniquely positioned to be what I call “the Gateway to America’s Rebalance to the Pacific.”
And I’m proud that the United States Pacific Fleet is able to play such an important role as we lead our nation’s effort in that rebalance.
Another constant throughout history has been the struggle between good and evil, between right and wrong, where freedom is jeopardized by tyranny, where sovereignty is pressurized by revanchism and where societies are terrorized by extremism.
And throughout history, great nations have been delivered by the hands of those courageous men and women who were willing to stand up for what was right, who were willing to face adversity head-on.
I recently came upon something that Lieutenant Stephen Decatur — one of the Navy’s and our nation’s greatest heroes — said in 1804, when he led a small group of hand-picked volunteers into Tripoli Harbor to burn the captured frigate Philadelphia. Libya 1.0 perhaps.
On the eve of this raid — which was later called “the most daring act of the age” — he rallied his mighty warriors with these words:
“We are now about to embark upon an expedition which may terminate in our sudden deaths or our immortal glory.”
“Sudden death or immortal glory.” Today, this is the environment that our military operates, indeed, excels in!
Thankfully, our nation has always been blessed with mighty men and women of valor, who not only were willing to defend a nation, but able to take the fight to our enemies, even to the far corners of the globe, and win.
The Nisei warriors of the 100th Infantry Battalion — all mighty men of valor — answered that call, each willing and able to fight and defend our nation.
These mighty men were trailblazers and our nation is all the stronger for it. Their journey was truly one encompassing sudden death, and they achieved immortal glory.
Ladies and gentlemen . . . let me close with this thought.
Today our nation draws her strength from those who served before, and from those serving today. Our nation will also draw her strength from those who serve in the future — an unbroken chain linking Americans, generation to generation.
Our strength as a nation also comes from loyal citizens like each of you in the audience today — Americans who are aware of the challenges, the opportunities and the dangers we face. Those of us who serve are grateful for patriots like you, who help make us what we are today — the world’s strongest force for good on the face of the Earth.
May God bless the men of the 100th Infantry Battalion, and each and every one of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen, past and present, who have courageously faced adversity and passed the test.
May God bless this beautiful state of Hawai‘i.
And may God bless the United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave. Thank you.