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Dedication of National Japanese American Memorial
Remarks as Delivered by Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon, Washington, D.C., Thursday, November 09, 2000

Thank you very much. Distinguished guests, Attorney General [Janet] Reno, Secretary [of Commerce Norman] Mineta, Congressman [Robert] Matsui, distinguished guests on the dais.

I would be remiss if I did not ask the veterans of the greatest generation here today to stand. [Applause.] When the young people here today come back 20 or 30 years from this moment with members of their families, they will be able to recount the day that they were here with some of the most significant heroes of the 20th Century.

This is a proud, if long overdue, day of remembrance and celebration for Americans. As Deputy Secretary of Defense, but also as a young person who grew up in Torrance, California where my classmates were Kobioshi and Mukihata and Okimoto, the chance to join you is a moment of personal appreciation.

This monument will join other monuments that exist around the world, whether it is the painful drive between Bishop and Lone Pine on Highway 395 in California through the Owens Valley, the monument at Manzanar [National Historic Site in California, used as an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II], or whether it is the white crosses and the Jewish Stars of David at the American Cemetery at Anunzio, Italy. This memorial will join those places in embodying both the heroics and the dedication of the soldiers and Americans that served their country under the hardest of times and who served with heroism and dedication while indignities and hardships were suffered by their families. This memorial will embody not only the pride and triumph of America at its finest hour when America stood courageously against totalitarianism, it will also mark the shame and humility it earned when it fell prey to its prejudice and fears.

Visitors will learn a definition of patriotism more personal and powerful than any dictionary could convey. They will learn about people who believed in fidelity to America, even when America was wrong, in the belief that one day it would be right again. They will learn about people who continued to love America at a time when many in America looked on them with fear. They will learn about people who believed in themselves even when others doubted. Because each and every one of them, especially our veterans, had a loyalty that transcended any questionnaire—a loyalty to what America could be and should be.

 

There is a story about one of the chaplains for the 100th Battalion. He told the troops training at Camp Shelby, "If you are here to prove yourself a better American, you might as well go home. But if you came here because you wanted to defend democracy and brotherhood and equality, then that is a worthwhile thing to fight for."

Ladies and gentlemen, they did fight. They fought to the finish. The Nisei generation of Americans indeed made us proud.

The 100th Infantry Battalion started the siege of Monte Cassino in Italy facing a hellish gauntlet -- a two mile stretch of marsh laced with picket lines and wide open to machine gun fire, flooded irrigation ditches, seven-foot-high concrete walls, river embankments, and then 1,500 feet of mountainside where enemy forces had dug in. They fought and they made it all the way to the castle walls, and their bravery was so renowned that they were known as the Purple Heart Battalion.

Today the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is known as the "Go for Broke" team. In October of 1944 they were given one of the most difficult missions of World War II: battle through nine miles of enemy territory to save a "lost" battalion from Texas that had been encircled by the enemy. Ultimately, more than 800 soldiers—virtually all Japanese Americans—gave their lives to rescue 275 of their comrades. But as one veteran of the fight said, "There was never a thought of turning back, never. No one even mentioned it. We just kept plowing forward to reach the lost battalion, period." And they did.

In one of the great ironies of that war, Japanese Americans of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, some of whom had family members kept in internment camps back in the United States, were among the first allied troops to liberate the suffering humanity at the Dachau concentration camp.

The contribution of Japanese Americans in World War II by the numbers is astonishing. More than 9,000 Purple Hearts, more than 18,000 individual decorations. For their numbers and lengths of service the Japanese Americans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, including the 100th Infantry Battalion, became the most decorated unit in American military history. Earlier this year America finally recognized the extraordinary bravery and performance of a group of Japanese American veterans by bestowing on them the Medal of Honor. Once again, I would ask the Medal of Honor recipients to stand. [Applause.]

There are few honors more rare, and none harder to merit, than the Medal of Honor. It is the greatest of distinctions. But I would suggest, and I believe these honorees would agree, that in comparison to medals of brass, silver and gold plate, what all the Japanese American veterans and their families earned and kept in the heart of the Americans is the greater contribution.

During the war Lieutenant General Mark Clark, who commanded the 5th Army in Italy, said of Japanese Americans in uniform, "They performed magnificently on the field of battle."

General George Marshal’s assessment was, "Superb, rare courage, tremendous fighting spirit."

And General Charles Ryder, who commanded the 100th Battalion as part of the 34th Division in Italy, wrote [with] no qualifier whatsoever, "This is the finest fighting unit I ever knew."

The greatest generation did more than save lives. They have become the role models for the rest of our society. And anyone who doubts the contribution that they made in paving the way for others can measure that contribution in the life of our current Chief of Staff of the United States Army, one of the great soldiers in the United States today, General Eric Shinseki and his wife. If they would please stand. [Applause]

The founding fathers that signed the Declaration of Independence dedicated their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. The generation of Americans that is before us today followed in that same path. They offered their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. We are in their debt. We are in your debt. This memorial is dedicated to all of the men who served, to their families who supported them, and to those loved ones who endured great hardships. This memorial stands as a monument to the sacrifice of the greatest generation. Thank you very much. [Applause.]