By ROBERT M. HORSTING, Special to The Rafu
Seven Korean War veterans and family representing 13 others were on hand to receive the Ambassador for Peace Medal on Dec. 3 in Irvine.
The event was the 2022 Korean War Veterans Tribute and Speaker Forum. The award acknowledged their military service in Korea. The text projected on the screen for this ceremony stated, “On behalf of a grateful nation, the Honorable Kim Youngwan, consul general of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in Los Angeles, will present the Ambassador for Peace Medal to the following veterans or family representatives for military service in the Republic of Korea.” The ceremony included the presentation of 20 medals.
The tribute and forum were presented by the Veterans Memorial Court Alliance in conjunction with Kazuo Masuda Memorial VFW Post 3670, Gardena Nisei Memorial VFW Post 1961, Tanaka Farms, and OCO Club. Four Japanese American Korean War veterans participated on the speaker panel to share their experiences during the conflict on foreign soil. Complementing this event was a photo display of 256 Japanese Americans killed in action (KIA) during that conflict.
The event was originally scheduled to take place on Sept. 10 on a hilltop setting at Tanaka Farms in Irvine. As conceived, the highlight of the program was to be the speaker panel of four veterans, Robert M. Wada, Minoru Tonai, Harumi “Bacon” Sakatani, and George Iseri.
An invitation extended to Consul General Kim resulted in his offer to present the Ambassador for Peace Medal to any qualifying veteran (serving in Korea between June 25, 1950 and July 27, 1953) or posthumously to a representing family member. The list of awardees grew from four to 11. Due to rain and lightning storms, the program was postponed and rescheduled to Dec. 3.
Nature, having a sense of humor, again threatened weather conditions of rain and high winds. Again, the organizing committee faced a decision to postpone the event out of concern for the health and safety of the veterans and everyone else attending. They were able to secure an Irvine venue, the Orange County Plaza Conference Center, only days before the event.
The indoor setting was smaller than the outdoor venue, presenting some logistical challenges for the organizers and attendees. Patience from the audience and logistical imagination provided the necessary workarounds to recognize and honor these veterans in front of a grateful community. Remember nature’s sense of humor? It was a bright and sunny day!
James Nakamura, commander of Kazuo Masuda Memorial VFW Post 3670, opened the program with a solemn statement: “The Korean War has been known to Americans as the ‘Forgotten War,’ but the men and women who served, sacrificed, and in many cases gave up their lives in the war should not be forgotten.”
Torrance City Councilmember Jon Kaji served as the master of ceremonies, deftly improvising as the inevitable technical glitches of a live event occurred.
The extent of community involvement was evident. Boy Scout Troop 242 provided the color guard, Miko Shudo sang the national anthem and “God Bless America,” and Pastor Fred Tanizaki gave the invocation and concluding benediction.
Veterans Memorial Court Alliance Board President Ken Hayashi furnished a moment of mixed emotions. He informed the audience of the passing of his friend, Korean War Medal of Honor recipient Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura, only four days earlier. He then introduced the “Welcome” video Hershey and his daughter Kelly recorded for this event.
Miyamura commented on his wartime experience and addressed the issue many veterans face in dealing with the aftermath of war, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He acknowledged having dealt with PTSD and encouraged veterans and current military service members to speak about their experiences to begin the process of inner healing.
Providing an overview of the Korean War, Robert M. Horsting stated that the United Nations designated the conflict as a “police action,” and the casualties of war ensued. It was the first armed conflict of the Cold War between ideological adversaries — communism promoted by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union), backing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), and democracy through its proponent in the United States of America, backing the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Fourteen other nations would lend aid or troops on behalf of the U.N. in support of the ROK.
Euphemism aside, the war casualty totals were devastating. South Koreans suffered over 1 million civilians killed. ROK military casualties were 217,000 KIA and 429,000 wounded in action (WIA). U.S. losses included 36,568 KIA, 103,284 WIA, 7,140 prisoners of war (POW), 8,177 missing in action (MIA). “Unaccounted for” numbered 389. The casualties for U.N. troops listed 3,063 KIA and 11,817 WIA. Among the KIA total for the U.S., there were 256 Japanese Americans.
Accompanied by her grandmother, Lynnie Tabata, Maile Yanguas (Miss Tomodachi of the 2022 Nisei Week Court) spoke of her grandfather, George Kiyoshi Tabata, as a leader with the Japanese American Korean War Veterans, and her choice of the Veterans Memorial Court Alliance as her platform.
She stated, “The main reason why I wanted to choose this platform was to honor my grandpa’s legacy, to have him here on my journey with me, even though he’s no longer here in this world.” Giving further insight into her role model, Maile said that “he never ever talked about the war.” She added, “Thanks to the Japanese American Korean War weteran group, he had a trusted and safe place to express those emotions and most importantly, to find lifelong friends.”
The introduction of Consul General Kim included an impressive biography of diplomatic service with the ROK Foreign Ministry since 1993.
Addressing the veterans, Kim said, “On behalf of the Korean people and the Korean government, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to you courageous heroes.” He continued, “We are also very grateful for your endless endeavor in the postwar, such as establishing the Korean War Memorial at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in 1997 and in Imjingak, Korea in 2001, which I believe has fostered better understanding between the people of Korea and (the) Japanese American community here in the United States.”
In addition to the presentation of the Ambassador for Peace Medal, each veteran or family representative received the gift of a Korean jewelry box. Those veterans acknowledged in this ceremony by the Korean government were: Paul Sunao Tarumoto, Hiroaki Yamamoto, Franklin Shigeo Hayakawa, George Joji Toya, Harumi “Bacon” Sakatani, Kenzo Mayeda, Robert Sueyoshi, Walter Takeo Taira*, James Zentoku Ige*, Masaichi Sugamura*, Masami Tsurudome*, Jenkuro Zen Mukai*, George Yutaka Mizushima*, Kenji Hashimoto*, Herbert Hiroshi Hayakawa*, George Sakashi Higa*, Tetsuro Suzuki*, Mack Toraichi Yamada*, James Yoshio Matsuura*, and Walter Yoshio Sorakubo*. (* Posthumous awardees represented by a family member)
Representing Congresswoman Michelle Steel, Veteran Liaison Joseph Dyer presented a Congressional Certificate of Recognition to Harumi Sakatani on behalf of the four speaker panel veterans.
The proposed panel of four veterans was reduced to two when Robert M. Wada and Minoru Tonai had to withdraw due to health concerns. Bacon Sakatani and George Iseri shared some of their experiences in Korea.
Bacon served with the Headquarters Co., 19th Engineers Combat Group, 7th Armored Division, as a draftsman who was required to learn all aspects of bridge construction. He drew construction plans for bridges and other structures needed to allow the strategic movement of his regiment’s advance over rivers, ravines, or mountainous terrain.
George learned to operate the LSTs (landing ship, tank), naval vessels specially designed to transport and deploy troops, vehicles, and supplies to the shore. He served in the 532nd Engineer Boat Shore Regiment-2nd Engineers Special Brigade. When he first arrived in Korea, George was strongly impacted by seeing the trainloads of wounded civilians and soldiers.
George gave a nod to his brother Richard Iseri, a radioman who also served in Korea. Reading from a wartime letter, George said that Richard was tasked with setting up communication lines in the tallest trees to establish radio contact with Gen. Douglas McArthur’s headquarters. Richard noticed leaves were sprinkling down on him and wondered why, only to realize that a sniper had been shooting at him.
Of the two panelists unable to attend, Min Tonai served with the Medical Company of the 224th Regimental Combat Team. Sgt. Tonai worked at the Collecting Platoon in charge of the Ward Tent and served as an aidman as needed. During combat, the Regimental Aid Station was the forward station where the med evac helicopters landed for transporting the seriously wounded back to MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital).
Bob Wada was a tank crew member with the 1st Tank Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps. One of his saddest memories was the combat death of Robert “Bat” Banuelos Madrid, his friend from childhood whom Bob had asked to come and join up with him.
As the panel discussion wrapped up, Bacon asked for a moment to address Consul General Kim directly. He said, “I want to thank the Korean consul general for doing this for us.” Recognizing the “many years of animosity” between Korea and Japan, Sakatani said that “we are very grateful (for) what you are doing for us today, and we appreciate very much for honoring us.”
As the event wound down, emcee Kaji shed some light on the mission of the Veterans Memorial Court Alliance to maintain the Japanese American National War Memorial Court. It is the only site listing the names of everyone of Japanese heritage who died in U.S. military service since the Spanish-American War (1898). In an effort to educate the public and preserve the legacy for future generations, VMCA has partnered with public and private organizations to provide events such as this tribute.
VMCA hosts their annual Memorial Day program on the Saturday preceding the Monday national observance in May, at 244 S. San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo.
Les Higa, the event committee co-chair (along with Kristyn Hayashi), member of Gardena Nisei Memorial VFW Post 1961, and VMCA board member, provided the closing comments.
Thanking the audience for attending this event to honor these veterans, he said, “They’ll say they’re not heroes, but they really are.” Acknowledging veterans of all eras who have served our nation, Les said that “there have always been a few who have protected the many. These are the men and women who swore an oath to defend our way of life and our freedom, putting their life on the line if necessary.”
He then asked them to stand and be recognized. A grateful round of applause greeted them.
Korean War Veterans Tribute Committee: Ken Hayashi, Kristyn Hayashi, Les Higa, Robert M. Horsting, Ellyn Iwata, Lily Kozai, James Nakamura, David Uyematsu, and Tim Yuge.
The committee also wanted to express their gratitude to Glenn Tanaka for his generous donation of time, transport, and use of the Tanaka Farms facilities (per the original plan), to Jesse James and the OCO Club BBQ crew for their generous gesture of providing free lunches (also per the original plan), Daryl Sadakane for designing the event flyer and program, Jay and David Hosoda of Print N Copy Center for the donation of the printed programs, Teresa Takahashi, Cory Shiozaki, and George Wada for video recording, volunteers from Girl Scout Troop 4345, Scouts BSA Troop 310G, Boy Scout Troop 719, VFW Youth Group, and So-Phis, and ABC7 News for their coverage of this event.
A Korean War infantryman, Paul Sunao Tarumoto, said, “I was very impressed on the ceremony … it’s the first time I received a medal.”
Les Hashimoto received the Ambassador for Peace Medal on behalf of his late father, Kenji Hashimoto.
“My dad said a fellow soldier saved his life during the Korean War, and they became lifelong friends.” Les said, adding, “Dad and his friend Don would have been thrilled to be together to receive the Ambassador for Peace Medal.”
Les’ mother, Sadako, spoke of her husband: “Even though it was hard and scary serving in the Korean War, he was proud to serve.”
Korean War veteran Norio Uyematsu, a former commander of Kazuo Masuda Memorial VFW Post 3670, was on hand to witness his fellow veterans or family members receive the Ambassador for Peace Medal, which he was also previously awarded. Having recently been presented with a Congressional Record to document his military service to our country, he was likely happy to see these veterans publicly honored for their service and have their moment in the sun too.
As it turned out, it was a bright and warm day for all.
For information or to donate to the Veterans Memorial Court Alliance: http://memorialcourtalliance.org
Ceremony photos by TIM YUGE