PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii –
Hiroo Endo offered a concise synopsis of World War II on Wednesday afternoon.
“I lost some cousins. I lost some friends,” he said in a voice made frail by his 91 years. “That’s what war is about. You kill them or they kill you.”
Endo and five other Japanese-American veterans of the Army’s famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team were presented France’s Order of the Legion of Honor aboard the French ship Prairial, which was docked in Pearl Harbor for the monthlong Rim of the Pacific exercise.
The 442nd was largely comprised of Nisei, children born in America of parents who emigrated from Japan. Most Nisei served in the European theater, even as the United States enacted a policy of rounding up and confining Americans of Japanese descent in internment camps.
The Legion of Honor award was founded by Napoleon and is considered a true soldier’s medal, said Rear Adm. Ann Cullere, French Naval Commander, French Polynesia, who presented the ribbons to the men on the deck of the Prairial. After pinning on each red medal, she kissed each man on both cheeks.
Receiving the honor were Endo, Shiro Aoki, Albert Brum, Yasunori Deguchi, Ed Ikuma and Yoroku Ito. Aoki was unable to attend, and his award was accepted by a close friend.
Asked afterward about his thoughts on receiving the award, Deguchi struggled to find the right words.
“How can you explain what this feels like?” he said, as though speaking to himself.
“I feel really honored. But I still think it’s not what I did personally but it was the collective effort of the unit that you might say accomplished some of the things that we thought should be done.”
Cullere said the “little iron men” had earned “France’s eternal gratitude” for their part in battling the Nazis in France. War correspondents had dubbed the soldiers of the 442nd as “little men of iron” because of their fierce fighting in Italy. Their intensity earned them another nickname: “the Purple Heart Battalion.”
The unit is known for its fabled rescue of the Lost Battalion in the Vosges Mountains in France in October 1944. Soldiers from the 141st Texas Regiment were surrounded behind enemy lines with little food or water, and men of the 100th Infantry of the 442nd battled almost nonstop for six days to eventually rescue 211 men.
They lost almost as many men in the rescue attempt, according to some accounts.
Perhaps not surprising for a combat unit whose motto was “Go for broke.”
“Simply, don’t hold back,” Deguchi said of the motto, emblazoned on his shirt. “Give it all.”