From the Historian: DLI and the Medal of Honor Project

By Cameron Binkley, DLIFLC Command HistorianMay 25, 2023

From the Historian: DLI and the Medal of Honor Project
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – During a White House ceremony on June 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to 22 Asian-American Soldiers from World War II. Out of the 22, 20 were Japanese Americans, collectively known as the Nisei. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
From the Historian: DLI and the Medal of Honor Project
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – From left, Barney Hajiro, Shizuya Hayashi and Ed Ichiyama pose in front of a C-17 Globemaster III named “The Spirit of ‘Go for Broke’” during an arrival ceremony at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, June 14, 2006. The aircraft was named in honor of their unit, the 442nd Combat Regimental Team. Hajiro and Hayashi were among 22 Japanese American Soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor after a Defense Language Institute command historian review. (Photo Credit: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo) VIEW ORIGINAL

During a White House ceremony on June 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to 22 Asian-American Soldiers from World War II. Conferring the nation’s highest award to multiple recipients during a large ceremony implies extraordinary circumstances. Most of the men were Japanese American, collectively known as the Nisei, and they had endured strong racially based discrimination during the war by the very country for whom they were fighting. Nevertheless, proud and determined to prove their patriotism, many had willingly risked or lost their lives through acts of undoubted heroism. They were even recognized at the time, most with the Army’s highest award for valor – the Distinguished Service Cross. Over time it had become clear, however, that then prevalent racial attitudes may have prevented many of these men from standing as candidates for the Medal of Honor.

When Dr. James McNaughton arrived at the Defense Language Institute in 1987 as the school’s first command historian, he had no inkling of the brewing whirlwind of politics, history, and activism by veteran’s groups and social justice advocates that would steer, if not dominate, his work. Most field historians are typically involved in historical issues of interest only to the local command and community. The institute’s history is tied, however, to the Japanese language programs of WWII and thus forever linked to the Japanese American experience during that conflict.

For some time prior to McNaughton’s arrival in Monterey, veteran’s groups in Hawaii and Northern California had actively lobbied Congress, especially Hawaii’s two U.S. Senators, Daniel K. Inouye, himself a Nisei WWII veteran, and Daniel K. Akaha, another WWII veteran, to award the Medal of Honor to one Richard Sakakida. Speaking fluent Japanese, Sakakida served as an Army counterintelligence agent in the Philippines prior to the war. He later joined American forces fighting at Corregidor and was captured alongside Gen. Jonathan Wainwright while serving as his interpreter following Japan’s surprise attacks against U.S. bases across the Pacific in late 1941. The Army review determined that Sakakida was ineligible for the Medal of Honor and awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal instead, an important award, but not the one many felt Sakakida deserved. Disappointed Nisei veterans and their advocates then persuaded Congress to call for an overarching Asian American Medal of Honor review in the 1996 National Defense Authorization Act. As passed, Section 524 of the NDAA charged the Army with carrying out a records review of Asian Americans and Native American Pacific Islanders, including Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, and Filipinos who had served with American forces. An earlier review for African American holders of the DSC from WWII had resulted in seven new Medal of Honor recipients.

McNaughton was known to historians at the U.S. Army Center of Military History and to Nisei veterans’ groups because he had begun writing papers about the Nisei linguists in WWII. Indeed, he had also just secured a Secretary of the Army Research and Study Fellowship that enabled him to begin writing a book about the Army’s WWII-era Japanese language programs. (CMH published his book, “Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II,” in 2006.) When the Department of the Army tasked CMH to conduct the Asian American Medal of Honor review, the CMH Chief Historian, Jeffery J. Clarke, knew who to ask to lead the project.

In early 1997, McNaughton assembled a team composed of four historians, a Washington, D.C.-based contractor, and administrative staff to conduct a planned two-year project. It was more complicated than one might imagine. The plan was to review the Army’s existing list of DSC holders to see if these could be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. But the list was not complete and original recommendations and general orders had to be found. They could be in many places, because Army awards were neither generated by a centralized process in the beginning nor later preserved in that way. The research strategy thus included not just a review of archival records and secondary sources but outreach to various veterans’ groups, federal and state offices, and ethnic organizations. The team also hoped to use national news outlets to reach veterans or their families who could themselves supply vital information. Such outreach came with a cost, namely military sensitivity to discussing awards prior to approval and the fact that the project was inextricably bound up in the issue of racism. For example, one conservative newspaper called the Medal of Honor project the “latest experiment in affirmative action.” Such reactions led to restrictions by Army Public Affairs that hampered the investigative team. But once the word about the project got out, it took on a life of its own in Asian-American newspapers, magazines, and community organization newsletters. According to McNaughton, the team ultimately received much useful information from its outreach.

The team faced a difficult challenge – to find “incontestable evidence” to present to the Senior Army Decorations Board whose flag officers would independently decide on whether to approve the team’s evaluations. Unfortunately, many personnel records were destroyed during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines while many more were wiped out by the St. Louis military records center fire in 1973. Without hard evidence, referrals could not be made for many who might have qualified. The board was also apparently rigorous in making decisions based upon whether the case at hand contained original DSC recommendations. If the historians had not found them, they denied the upgrade request. In the end, the board approved 22 Medal of Honor nominations, and all but two for Soldiers who had served with the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, units composed almost entirely of Nisei Soldiers who had seen hard fighting in Europe. The 442nd was already recognized as the most highly decorated military unit of its size in Army history, so the new accolade seemed entirely appropriate.

In fulfilling its mission, McNaughton’s team had not sought to evaluate prejudicial practices or norms of the past or even the present. It had also not sought to reevaluate yesterday’s Soldiers by today’s standards. Indeed, criteria for the Medal of Honor are no more precise than that an individual has displayed conspicuous gallantry in combat beyond the call of duty. The team believed its only goal was to apply rigor and historical acumen in obtaining sufficient documentation to allow a review board to judge a group of men by the timeless standards for heroic accomplishment that the medal symbolizes. The team’s efforts allowed 22 Soldiers to pass that hire bar, an accomplishment that did bring greater focus to how much Asian Americans gave to help the United States win WWII.

To learn more, see