Surviving soldiers honor the fallen World War II AJAs remembered
• Photo gallery: Oahu AJA Veterans Council Joint Memorial Service
By John Windrow
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hundreds of people gathered yesterday morning at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific for memory's sake.
The ceremony remembered Americans of Japanese ancestry who sacrificed for their country. Many of them came to the O'ahu AJA Veterans Council 4th annual Joint Memorial Service on walkers, with canes or leaning on a friendly arm.
They wore aloha shirts, campaign caps, patches, chest ribbons, medals or other insignia of the 100th Infantry Battalion; the 442nd Regimental Combat Team; the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service.
There was another presence yesterday, a larger one, a silent legion sleeping under simple granite stones and small American flags, row upon row, in the green, lush Punchbowl crater.
The service was a time-honored one: the invocation speaker reminding the assembled that they gathered to honor those who sacrificed so the present generation could enjoy the fruits of freedom; the national and state anthems; the posting of the colors; patriotic songs, presentations of wreaths and other tributes.
The ceremony was comforting in its traditions and its seamless ritual that stretches across time from generation to generation.
In his prayer of remembrance, the Rev. Donald Asman asked those in the crowd to repeat "We will remember" several times, and they dutifully did so.
The memorial address was delivered by retired Maj. Gen. Vern Miyagi, who reminded those present that the ceremony was held annually "on the Sunday closest to the 29th of September.
On that date in 1943, Sgt. Shigeo Takata became the first AJA soldier killed in action" in World War II.
Takata, called "Joe" by his friends, was from Waialua and went to McKinley High School.
He was felled by shrapnel during the Salerno to Cassino Campaign and is buried at Punchbowl.
Miyagi said that campaign was fought "under some of the worst conditions in U.S. military history."
And he recounted the saga that has become a revered part of Hawai'i military lore: the fierce fighting in Italy and France; the rescue of the "lost battalion"; the horrendous casualties that earned the "Purple Heart Battalion" nickname; the presidential citations; the Medals of Honor; the Distinguished Service Crosses; the Silver Stars; the Bronze Stars; thousands of Purple Hearts.
The sacrifice, he said, continues in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All of this heroism and suffering came in the wake of injustice born of fear and racism: loyal American citizens treated as enemy aliens, rounded up in detention camps.
But they proved their loyalty and their love of country with bravery and humility, Miyagi told the soldiers. "You did great things because they had to be done."
Finally Miyagi, who also attended McKinley High School, thanked them all for paving the way for him.
"You gave me a life where my aspirations were never challenged by the color of my skin or the shape of my eyes."
Then it was time for more songs; a 21-gun salute; the playing of taps; a helicopter flyover by the Hawai'i Army National Guard; and the benediction.
After the service, some of the old campaigners limped out among the gravestones and silently saluted fallen comrades.
At the refreshment tent, Thomas Nishioka, 88, who earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with the 100th in Italy, talked about Joe Takata.
"He was a very good soldier," Nishioka said. "He took care of his squad. Too bad he had to die. He was the first."
Asked what Takata would think of yesterday's memorial service, Nishioka said: "He would enjoy it very much. The general made a very good speech. Joe would think it is wonderful to have this every year, for us to meet each other again."
His gravestone at spot D142 has a small cross and reads: Shigeo J. Takata, Hawaii, SGT 100 INF BN World War II, April 29, 1919, Sept. 29, 1943.
Takata was 24 when he died.