Honolulu, Hawaii--For their heroic actions in combat, and steadfast loyalty in the face of ethnic discrimination, more than 450 Japanese American Soldiers of World War II were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award for service given out by our country.

Medals were presented during a luncheon Dec. 17 at the Hawaii Convention Center following a parade through Waikiki.

Veterans, all in their 80s and 90s, served in units of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service, and 1399th Engineer Battalion.

A medal presentation ceremony was held in November in Washington D.C. but only a few of the aging veterans attended.

The presentation in Hawaii was held to present the medals to those who were unable to travel to due to health issues.

United States Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki, a Japanese American, who grew up in a small town on Kauai, Hawaii, and rose to be the Army Chief of Staff, delivered the keynote address.

"I'm honored to be here to pay my respect, our respect to these patriots. Distinguished in battle, unique in American history and yet humbled nearly to a fault," said Shinseki.

Shinseki further praised the honored veterans.

Stories of their heroics on the battlefield, while family members were being held in internment camps back home, gave him the inspiration to become a Soldier and former top ranking Army officer, said Shinseki.

The 100th Battalion, 442nd RCT, and MIS comprised of Japanese Americans from the mainland and Hawaii. They served to prove their loyalty after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

"After December 7, we use to wear black labeled identification of enemy alien. This Gold Medal is like I was liberated from that," said veteran Kakuto Higuchi who served with the 100th Battalion.

The Nisei (second generation Japanese) fought relentlessly in campaigns in Italy and France. For actions in combat, Soldiers from those units received 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguish Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, over 4000 Bronze Stars, and over 9000 Purple Hearts. It was the most decorated unit of its size in the history of the United States Army, said Shinseki.

Nisei Soldiers serving in the highly classified intelligence service intercepted enemy messages and broke secret codes that helped shortened the war in the Pacific, historians believed by two years, said Shinseki.

In addition to the presentation of Gold Medals, 7 veterans were awarded Bronze Stars for combat actions they did not receive over 60 years ago.
Pinning the medals on the veterans, some of whom could not stand because of declining health, was Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski, Commander, U.S. Army Pacific.

"It was probably the most honorable thing I've ever done in my career. To see men received their medals, to see the look in their eyes, priceless. It was an incredible moment and it was an honor to be here to present them with it," said Wiercinski.

Wiercinski went on to say the actions of these warriors can never be forgotten, and that their stories of courage and valor should continue to be told and imparted on the Soldiers of today and those of the future.