Racial discrimination was soldier's enemy
By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By James Gonser
About 150 members of the famed 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team who fought in World War II — along with Korean War veterans — gathered to say goodbye to one of their own yesterday in classic local style, with lots of food, song and talking story.
Young Oak Kim, who died Dec. 29 in California at 86, was one of only two American of Korean ancestry in the "Go for Broke" unit during World War II. Lt. John Y. Ko was also of Korean ancestry.
Kim was laid to rest at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl with full military honors including a 21-gun salute, playing of taps and an American flag presented to his family.
Kim was born in Los Angeles, but his niece, Dyanne McMath, said her uncle wanted to be buried here with his comrades. "His choices were military cemeteries," said McMath, who lives in Las Vegas. "Either Arlington Cemetery or here. This was his first choice because of his roots with the 100th."
More than 400 members of the 100th and 442nd killed in combat are buried at Punchbowl cemetery along with many others who died later.
Kim enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 1941 and was selected to attend the Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga., the only Asian-American in his class.
In February 1943, then-2nd Lt. Kim was assigned to the 100th Infantry Battalion, a segregated unit of Japanese-Americans. He was asked by his commanding officer if he would like a transfer, given the historical conflicts between Koreans and Japanese.
"And I said, 'Sir, they're Americans and I'm an American,' " Kim said in an interview archived on the www.goforbroke.org Web site. " 'And we're going to fight for America. So I want to stay.' "
Those who fought along with Kim say his bravery and leadership will never be forgotten.
Under cloudy skies, with a chill wind blowing yesterday, Tokuji Ono, a 100th Infantry veteran, leaned on his cane and talked about Kim. "When he first came to us at Camp Shelby (in Mississippi), we all remembered him not because he was Korean, but he was a typical what we called a '90-day wonder,' " Ono said. "Just out of officer training school, very rigid, and we had to take it. Hawai'i soldiers are not the neatest. We don't button up and don't tuck in the shirts, and we caught heck from him all the time.
"But it wasn't too long, once we got into the combat area, most of us changed our minds. He was a combat soldier. He was a daredevil on patrol, whether day or night."
In June 1942, the 1,400-member 100th Infantry Battalion was formed of men of Japanese ancestry. People of Japanese ancestry had been subjected to hatred, degradation, insults and loss of their civil rights. But the soldiers rose above the racism, forgave those who treated them unfairly, and served their country with valor.
In September 1943, the battalion landed in Italy, where it fought in numerous battles. When the newly activated 442nd Regimental Combat Team arrived in Italy in June 1944 and joined the battle-tested 100th, they formed the legendary "Go for Broke" unit.
Kim later served during the Korean War and became the first Asian-American officer to command a U.S. infantry battalion in combat. He retired as a colonel and earned 19 medals, including two Silver Stars, the Distinguished Service Cross, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. He also was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the Italian Cross of Valor.
Immediately after yesterday's ceremony, everyone moved to the 100th's clubhouse on Kamoku Street. Veterans from the Mainland and Hawai'i who hadn't seen each other for years hugged and reminisced about Kim and the war.
Sam Fujikawa, president of the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans (Mainland), said it is hard going to so many friends' funerals every year.
"Every year, more die, and they (others) are hobbling around with canes," Fujikawa said. "It's sad, but what they have done helped change the country, for not only the Japanese community but for all Asian-Americans. They showed we could be trusted."
Three tables filled with local food were served buffet style as family members performed for the crowd, which included Korean dignitaries and media.
Only about 500 of the original 100th Battalion members are alive, all in their 80s and 90s.
Christine Sato-Yamazaki, executive director and president of the Go For Broke Educational Foundation, said Kim was the driving force behind organizing the Go For Broke Monument in Los Angeles and educational programs to preserve the story of the Japanese-American World War II veterans.
The foundation has developed educational materials and training programs on the Mainland and plans to open a Honolulu office in a few months.
Sato-Yamazaki said it is critical to talk to the veterans to preserve their stories on film. "We really want to increase the number of oral histories we do here in Hawai'i," she said. "It's very urgent. We feel we only have about three years left. It is not only their age, but health and mental capacity. I know Col. Kim is smiling down knowing we are doing his work."
Reach James Gonser at email@example.com.
Correction: John Y. Ko, who was an American of Korean ancestry, was in the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. He had the rank of lieutenant. A previous version of this story incorrectly said Young Oak Kim was the only American of Korean ancestry in the "Go for Broke" unit during the war.