For two old soldiers, a day of thanks and reflection
By Frank Oliveri
Advertiser Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON Shizuya Hayashi and Barney Hajiro are old now. They walk slowly, speak softly and their hands are gnarled and creased just like thousands of other World War II veterans.
Gannett News Service
Gene Airheart, a member of the Lost Battalion, and Medal of Honor recipient Shizuya Hayashi were reunited at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Gannett News Service
Among the crowds of veterans, politicians and amateur historians visiting Washington, D.C., this week to dedicate the new World War II Memorial tomorrow, Hayashi and Hajiro are walking testaments to the thousands of young men who died on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.
"I come here to represent my buddies," Hajiro said yesterday.
Hayashi and Hajiro traveled from Hawai'i to take part in dedication activities.
Smiling slightly, one man with a smooth, broad face and the other more angular, they were late for an event in their honor.
Hayashi, 86, of Pearl City, and Hajiro, 87, of Waipahu, were the calm center amid turbulent, milling crowds. Observers approached and respectfully asked for autographs, shook their hands, or simply said thanks.
One man who'd just received an autograph said, "This is unbelievable."
This is nothing new for Hayashi, who said he's approached often for autographs.
In October 1944, the 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment was cut off from its unit in eastern France. Two of their sister battalions tried to save them; both were turned away with heavy casualties.
So the order was given to the 442nd to save at all costs 221 soldiers from annihilation. In succeeding, the 442nd suffered 800 casualties.
"I am so appreciative," said Gene Airheart, of Scottsboro, Ala., who was a member of the Lost Battalion. Slightly built and frail, Airheart placed his left hand on Hayashi's shoulder, his right gently patting Hayashi's stomach.
But it was Hajiro who earned his medal in the battle to rescue the Lost Battalion over several days of heroism the likes of which movies are made.
On three days in October 1944, he pounded enemy snipers with his Browning Automatic Rifle, ambushed units and captured 19 enemy soldiers. He personally destroyed two machine gun nests and uncovered two more.
His medal citation notes he purposefully drew enemy fire to expose their positions and used his weapon to kill four snipers.
Of his extraordinary feats, Hajiro said, "I don't feel bad about it."
He speaks with gravity about the buddies he lost on the so-called Suicide Hill.
"I didn't do this by myself," he said. "We all did this."
When asked how he earned his Medal of Honor, Hayashi shrugs his shoulders modestly and says, "I was just doing my job."
He was 26 years and one day old on November 29, 1943, near an Italian town called Cerasuolo, in a mountainous region, where he said it felt like he was always fighting uphill.
Amid the staccato hammering of machine gun fire, crackling rifles and bursting grenades, Hayashi rose and fired his automatic rifle from his hip. He overran a machine gun position, killing nine men.
Advancing another 200 yards, Hayashi's unit began taking fire from a German 88mm anti-aircraft gun. With his weapon, Hayashi killed nine enemy soldiers in the gun pit and captured four more. The Germans were forced to withdraw.
"I was lucky," he said.
He said his wife tells him he flinches and flails often when he sleeps.
"I guess you've got to live with it," he said.
They had come a long way to commiserate, share their stories, and accept the accolades of a nation.
As Hayashi spoke, a video of Sen. Daniel Inouye, another Medal of Honor winner from the 442nd, played on a giant screen nearby. The Hawai`i Democrat recalled his own experiences in battle and in receiving the medal from President Clinton.
After shaking another veteran's hand, Hayashi said, "You don't remember their names, but you remember the faces."
Tomorrow, America will remember their deeds.