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Luncheon In Honor of World War II Medal of Honor Recipients
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Washington Hilton Hotel, Washington, DC, Wednesday, June 21, 2000

Secretary [of the Army Louis] Caldera, thank you very much for your kind words and for your exceptional leadership of America's Army, including the guiding role you played in bringing us here today. Thank you very much for the great job you've been doing on behalf of the Army and our country.

Senator [Daniel] and Margaret Inouye, Senator [Daniel] Akaka, I believe Congressman [Patsy] Mink is here as well, and of course [Army Chief of Staff] General [Ric] and Patty Shinseki, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and most of all, the honored veterans and their families that we pay tribute to today.

I want to first express my apologies for coming at this moment and then leaving shortly, that I can't stay longer this afternoon. I'm going to see all of you at the White House ceremony, but I did want to come here just for a few moments to offer my profound respect and gratitude on behalf of America's armed forces to the brave Americans that we are paying tribute to and honoring today.

One of my heroes is a former Supreme Court Justice and a former Civil War veteran, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. I once read where Holmes talked about the hell of the Old World literature when people were taxed beyond their abilities. Some of you may have read some of the old Greek myths where you had Sisyphus who was forever rolling that rock up the hill and the rock kept rolling back down, but he was doomed to eternity to keep rolling that rock up the hill. And then there was someone called Tantalus who was up to his neck in water, but could never drink. These were the myths of ancient classic literature. People were taxed beyond their ability to measure up.

But Holmes said there was a deeper abyss in modern life. He said that is when people who are "conscious of their powers are denied their chance." All of us can point to some of the examples of people who had the talent and the determination and the ability and were denied their chance to perform.

I would add that there's even a greater tragedy that befalls those who are conscious of their patriotism and whose proof of it has been denied by their countrymen. So I want to say for all of those who suffered during the internment camps, all who endured the suspicion and discrimination of half a century ago, it was a very deep abyss indeed.

I daresay that few of us who did not live through that time can even imagine enduring such injustice, and fewer still would have responded as you did; not with acrimony, but with renewed allegiance, and not with resignation, but with resolve.

I think you follow the selfless creed offered by W. E. B. DuBois to an earlier generation of Americans. He said, "first your country, then your rights." Indeed, those of you who are here today, and the loved ones you represent, fought for this nation not perhaps as it was, but as it could be. I think that your sheer courage on the battlefields is legendary.

Today we are honored to recognize your everlasting contribution to this nation and to the freedom that's writ large across the globe. What you endured, what you achieved, is going to remain forever etched on the great text of American history.

There are the stories like of then-Private [Kaoru] Moto whose wife, I believe, is here today, who crawled through withering enemy fire to take out two machine guns that were pinning down his unit. He was shot and severely wounded by a sniper, and he pulled back for treatment only to discover on his way another machine gun nest, and he attacked it, crawling forward until all those enemy guns were silenced.

There are stories like that of Private [Shineyi] Nakamine, whose sister is here today, who in the course of a single day ignored deadly fire four times to destroy enemy positions, leading his comrades until he was struck down on the fourth assault.


There are stories like that of Staff Sergeant [Rudolph] Devila who is with us today, who saved a rifle company by advancing while wounded toward an enemy stronghold, fighting from exposed positions atop a burning tank and from within a crumbling house until all the opposing forces were driven off.

And there are stories like that of a man that I am honored to call my friend, and for so long my colleague, Second Lieutenant Daniel Inouye, who at San Terenzo disregarded his own safety and crawled up a treacherous slope toward fortified enemy positions. Through the crossfire of three machine guns, he single-handedly destroyed two, refusing evacuation despite a grievous wound from a sniper. He continued to lead his men until his mission was accomplished. And I would add that in the last half century, now Senator Inouye has never stopped fighting for America. Dan, you are one of the nation's great treasures.

And I would ask Mr. Devila, Senator Inouye, and each of the seven honorees that we pay tribute to today, members of the greatest generation, would you please stand so we could applaud you. [Sustained applause.]

Such heroes are certainly the stuff of legend, and yet these Americans who had given so much to preserve our precious rights returned home often to face a second enemy of racism, including a half a century delay in recognizing what we do today -- giving you the recognition that is due and has been due for so many years.

I would note that the reaction of many of their fellow soldiers, those who saw them fight, was something quite different. As one Stars and Stripes correspondent wrote at the time, he said, we were proud to be wearing the same uniform.

And I might add that one who wears that uniform today, and a nephew of a number of soldiers in that legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team, is the 34th Chief of Staff of the United States Army. Rick Shinseki is a soldier, not a symbol. But his presence here today and the position that he occupies, speaks, I think, volumes about how far we've come, the distance we have traveled as a nation during the past 50 years. General Shinseki, I would like to have you stand so we could pay tribute to you and for your valor and what you've given to this country. [Applause.]

I don't want to delay your lunch too long. But in closing, I'd like to refer to perhaps the most eloquent words that were spoken on this subject. They were offered by a man who commanded so many brave Americans of Asian ancestry, Major General Jacob Devers who led the allied invasion into southern France.

He said, "There is one supreme, final test of loyalty for one's native land -- a readiness and willingness to fight for and, if need be, to die for one's country. These Americans passed that test with colors flying. They've proved their loyalty and devotion beyond all question. These men more than earned the right to be called just Americans. Their Americanism may be described only by degree, and that is the highest."

Ladies and gentlemen, these men should never have had to prove their loyalty to this nation. But they did, doing more than duty ever demanded. It's now our duty to honor them to the highest degree. Thank you very much. [Applause.]