Hajiro was born into modest means in Hawaii in 1916. After dropping out of school in his teens, he went to work 10 hours a day to help feed his family before being drafted into the Army in 1942, shortly after the Pearl Harbor bombings. But the 25-year-old wasn’t allowed to take up arms because of his ancestry — his parents had emigrated from Japan. Instead, he was assigned to ditch-digging.
Hajiro wanted to fight to prove his devotion to the U.S. He got his chance in March 1943, when he volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a newly formed unit of second-generation Japanese-Americans. They would become a storied unit who fought in Italy before being reassigned to the invasion of southern France in 1944.
On Oct. 19, 1944, Hajiro was near the town of Bruyeres acting as a sentry to help allied troops attack a house 200 yards from him. He knowingly put himself in danger by standing on an embankment to draw enemy fire toward him instead of his fellow soldiers, all while directing fire back at them and taking down two enemy snipers by himself.
A few days later, on Oct. 22, Hajiro again showed his bravery in action. He and another soldier managed to ambush 18 enemy soldiers patrolling not far from their own platoon. The enemy was heavily armed, but Hajiro and the other soldier still managed to kill two of them, injure another and take the rest prisoner.
A week after that, on Oct. 29, the 442nd was fighting near the village of Biffontaine when Hajiro began an attack up a slope known as “Suicide Hill.” Despite the obvious inclinations of that name, Hajiro pressed on further than the rest of his unit while under heavy fire. Undeterred, he spotted two camouflaged machine gun nests and fired back at them, single handedly destroyed both and killing two enemy snipers.
Thanks to his bravery, the attack up Suicide Hill was successful. Hajiro was shot four times during the battle, but insisted that the other wounded men in the unit be evacuated and get treatment first.
The 442nd would go on to help liberate Bruyeres and Biffontaine and also rescue a battalion that had been cut off from its division. To this day, they are still one of the most decorated units in military history.
Despite those accolades, Hajiro had to wait several decades for his Medal of Honor. While his commanding officers recommended the nation’s highest award for him, he was initially only awarded the Distinguished Service Cross because of discrimination at the time against Japanese-Americans. It wasn’t until the 1990s that his service record was reviewed and the medal was upgraded. President Bill Clinton presented him with the Medal of Honor on June 21, 2000.
Hajiro lived a long life after the war, passing away at 94. He died on Jan. 21, 2011, and was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Hawaii.