By ROBERT HORSTING
No matter how well you feel you know someone, hearing the stories of other people’s relationships and encounters can give you a broader sense of who that person is and their impact.
This past weekend I traveled with Ken and Colleen Hayashi to Gallup, New Mexico to attend the funeral service for Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura, a 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team member during WWII, and a Korean Conflict (War) veteran who was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action while covering the retreat of his unit.
People making this pilgrimage for Hershey’s service flew or drove in from all over the United States. Most to honor and celebrate the life of a friend, and others to pay their respects to a fellow veteran whose courageous decision in action earned the recognition of the president of the United States.
A testament to his religious conviction, Hershey said in an American Veteran Center interview, “Before entering my first combat area…I asked the Lord to help me, to guide me…There was a calm after that.”
Corporal Miyamura was the leader of a machine-gun squad, with Co. H, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment, 3rd Division. The banging of pots and pans, and the sound of their bugles and whistles, announced the advance of the Chinese Communist troops. After a momentary silence, the anticipation was broken as the sky lit with flares showering light on the waves of charging soldiers. Hershey and his men opened fire with their .30-caliber machine guns.
The enemy upon them, he charged forward, engaging the invading soldiers with bayonet thrusts and rifle fire, then returned to fire his machine gun until it jammed. Making his way to another machine-gun placement, he again opened fire, ordering his men to withdraw while he covered their retreat, killing at least 50 men in total.
Seeing the white phosphorus mortar rounds landing around him, Hershey knew the “brass” thought all Americans had cleared out, so he decided to get out of there too! On his way down the hill, Hershey recalled running into “the biggest person I ever saw in my life…and we met face-to-face…in the same instance I stuck him with the bayonet and shot him.” Hershey realized the man was holding a hand grenade when it hit his leg, so he kicked away and it went off.
Wounded but carrying on, he spotted a tank. Trying to get their attention, he didn’t notice he ran into a barbed-wire barrier and got cut up, then dropped to the ground to crawl under it. Clear, he ran until he dropped and passed out, only to awake to the sound of troops moving past him. Playing dead until all was quiet, he thought he was safe, until he heard a voice tell him in English, “Get up. You’re my prisoner.”
Wounded and now a prisoner of war, Hershey was one of many soldiers on a forced march to a POW camp. Helping a fellow soldier who was wounded too badly to walk on his own, Hershey was ordered at gunpoint to leave him at the side of the road. The soldier’s name was Joe Annello, a friend Hershey had trained with.
President Harry S. Truman signed off on the recommendation to award him our nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor (MOH), having received the account of Miyamura’s heroic actions. News of this award had to be held in secrecy due to concern that if his captors knew the details of his action and the high esteem he had been held in, they might kill him.
After the armistice was signed in 1953, Hershey was released and came home to his wife Terry and a hero’s welcome, being presented his MOH by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Sometime afterward while looking through an old magazine, Joe Annello was shocked to see the photo of Hershey receiving his medal in Washington, D.C., having thought the worst but happily surprised by the news and the opportunity to meet his friend again.
Joe survived because he was picked up by other Chinese troops three days later and brought to another POW camp. After recovering from his wounds enough to be mobile, he and a group of POWs escaped the camp and were rescued by American troops.
Certain that their exchange of words on the roadside in Korea would have been their last, Hershey was shocked to see Joe standing at his doorstep. This reunion marked the beginning of a life-long friendship in which the two men would be traveling companions.
Joe offered to drive his friend to many public appearances, and Hershey offered his car with the MOH license plate, which might have allowed them to reach their destination a little faster than usual. Over the years, they made many joint appearances to share their wartime experiences and friendship. The culmination of this came at the 2018 National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C. The accounts of their wartime experience and friendship were performed by actors Brian Tee and John Corbett (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmYL2z5YK5U).
Hershey’s family and many of his personal friends stayed at the local Comfort Suites. This place could easily be confused with a military museum focusing on honoring recipients of the Medal of Honor, Navajo Code Talkers, and other heroes in U.S. military history. General Manager Ken Riege, an Air Force veteran, wanted to invite Hershey to the grand opening of his hotel back in 2010. Finding his number in the phone book, he called Hershey.
“Well, he answered and I got nervous and hung up. I sat there thinking, don’t bother him again, he is a busy man.” Ken recalled. Gathering his nerve, he did call back and Hershey graciously accepted the invitation, then having toured the rooms, Hershey directed the guests to his upcoming Miyamura High School dedication to stay there, and for many other events to follow.
Among the many guests attending the service were six Medal of Honor recipients, four from the Vietnam War, Maj. Drew Dix, Maj. James Taylor, Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Patterson, and Spec. 4 John Baca, and two who served in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. William Swenson and Master Sgt. Leroy Petry. They were there not only to honor a fellow member of the very elite Congressional Medal of Honor Society but to say “goodbye” to a friend they had come to know and love.
The morning started at the First United Methodist Church. The service offered tearful, loving memories of a father and grandfather, complemented by the family photos. We could see his humor and playfulness.
His son Pat also shared the account of his breaking his word to his father, resulting in a car accident. Rather than showing anger, Hershey asked Pat, “You know what you did, right?” Pat responded, “I crashed the car.” In a very “Leave it to Beaver” parenting moment, Hershey set in the lesson, saying, “You broke your word.” Pat took that lesson to heart, saying, “I was determined to always try to do the right thing and keep my word.”
The church service was followed by a graveside ceremony. As the long funeral procession made its way to Sunset Memorial Park, intersecting roads were blocked by local and state police. There were individuals and clusters of people along the street holding signs and flags, or saluting to show their respects. The entrance of the cemetery was marked by a giant flag suspended from an extended ladder of a Gallup/McKinley County Fire Department truck.
The full military honor of this service was evidenced by the fact that the Color Guard and Honor Guard were composed of both the Arizona and New Mexico National Guard units. The ceremony included a 21-gun salute and a helicopter missing-man formation flyover.
Fitting to this occasion, the voice of Maj. Craig Nakagawa, deputy wing chaplain at Kirtland Air Force Base, stood out powerfully as he spoke of Hershey’s sacrifice, honor, and humility, adding, “Let the world give ear — a warrior has fallen.” Sealing those words in our minds was the solemn bugle cry of “Taps.”
Military precision was on display through the ceremonial folding and presentation of the flag that shrouded Hershey’s coffin to his family, received by his daughter Kelly Hildahl, and presented by the U.S. Army 3rd Division commander, Maj. Gen. Charles Costanza. Many flags were offered to the Miyamura family, each being touched to the end of the coffin, including those from the mayor of Gallup and from the state of New Mexico.
Family members placed a red rose on the casket, followed by the MOH veterans, who placed their Challenge Coins to honor a brother in arms. The casket was lowered, then all in attendance were invited to drop some soil, giving each person a chance to say a final “Goodbye.”
Service attendees were invited to a lunch reception held at Miyamura High School. The meal and an amazing variety of desserts were catered by local restaurateur and family friend Archie Bacca, Jr., owner of Jerry’s Cafe in Gallup. The event was staffed by students of the school’s culinary program, cheerleaders, teachers, and school administration members, all wishing to show their appreciation of the man whose name and imagery were all over their school — more importantly, the person who gave so much of his time to share the personal values he felt would help each of them achieve their goals in life.
Joan Annello, Joe’s wife, told the story of how Joe and Hershey had different memories concerning the spot where the two men last saw each other in Korea. Hershey was certain it was by a tree, and Joe insisted there were no trees around there. She smiled as she recalled how they playfully bickered on the subject “as friends do.”
Eileen Masuda shared the memory of meeting Hershey 45 years ago after her husband, Alan, chose Gallup as the town he would move to. This was to complete a condition of his medical degree scholarship, to provide medical care for the Indian Health Service. Think of the series “Northern Exposure” in a desert setting. Jokingly, she said he probably saved their marriage. Being a big-city girl (San Francisco), she was ready to leave. His welcoming demeanor and friendship helped sustain the local healthcare system and by Eileen’s account, their marriage!
Mr. Ramos said, “I came to say my final goodbye after 72 years.” He was a member of the 3rd Division when the colors (unit flags) came over to Japan from the U.S., and they trained the first group of soldiers of the Republic of Korea.
A younger veteran, Robert Miyagishima, said he read about Hershey in the news and talked to his brother about trying to contact him. Discussing the pros and cons of a visit, they didn’t really expect to be received, let alone welcomed by Hershey in 1998. The resulting friendship included attending Hershey’s birthday parties.
Master Sgt. Leroy Petry (MOH), the current president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, reflected on his time together with Hershey. “He had a lot of knowledge to share, and I listened more than I talked.”
Ken Hayashi first met Hershey when Miyamura was invited as a guest speaker to the 1995 dedication of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Little Tokyo. That was the first segment of what is now called the Japanese American National War Memorial Court since the local Korean War veterans, and then the WWII veterans followed suit in wanting to honor their war heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Reflecting back on that first encounter, Ken said, “At first you’re a little intimidated, in awe. Then you realize how gracious he is and how he makes you comfortable.” As Ken recalled, Hershey’s speech was very brief that day. Ken added, “Over time he found his voice, realizing he could inspire people and have an impact.”
In his later years of public speaking, Hershey commented on the need and value for veterans to talk to people about the painful experience of war to begin the process of releasing some of the personal demons that haunt many military service members. Hershey admitted that PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) was a condition he dealt with. He and his fellow Congressional Medal of Honor Society members felt it was important to urge others to seek help for their own mental health.
This was only one of the ways Hershey Miyamura was still serving his country, concerned for his comrades and the safety and welfare of all who make the sacrifice of service to our nation. RIP
P.S. — As with all volunteering or things that impact personal time, I want to express my love and gratitude to my wife, Yoko, for understanding my need and desire to personally attend Hershey’s service and say “Goodbye.” It was an honor to have met his family and so many like-minded friends and guests.