Good evening, everyone. It's good to be here with you in Houston—the final stop on this year-long tour of the Congressional Gold Medal "American Heroes" Exhibition.
Let me also acknowledge:
I am privileged to be able to honor the men I have spent much of my life trying to emulate. I do not know a better, more compelling, nor more moving story of what it means to be an American than the wartime performances of the men who served in these three legendary units we honor tonight—and their families. I don't think the military will ever form units like them again, so their performance in battle is likely never to be repeated—and certainly, never to be outdone.
In May 1941, President Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, delivered a remarkable speech in New York City's Central Park. At the time, the world was threatened by fascist aggression on three continents. In Europe, England stood alone against those dark forces. Appealing to Americans to go to the aid of England, Secretary Ickes asked, "What constitutes an American?"
"Not color, nor race, nor religion," he said. "Not the pedigree of . . . family, nor the place of birth. Not the coincidence of . . . citizenship. Not . . . social status, nor . . . bank account. Not . . . trade, nor . . . profession. An American is one who loves justice and believes in the dignity of man. An American is one who will fight for . . . freedom [and] . . . sacrifice property, ease, and security in order that he and his children may retain the rights of free men. An American is one in whose heart is engraved the immortal second sentence of the Declaration of Independence," which begins, "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . ."
Seven months after Ickes' speech, Japanese naval strike forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i. Unbridled fear, suspicion, paranoia, and even hatred ensued, obscuring for many the "self-evident" truths that Secretary Ickes had spoken about.
Less than a year later, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the relocation and loss of property of more than one hundred thousand Japanese on the West Coast and the imposition of martial law in Hawai'i. Many were American citizens, who were reclassified as Category 4c, Enemy Aliens, based solely on their ethnicity.
They appealed to our government for the right to bear arms and demonstrate their loyalty to this country by defending her in time of war, like all other citizens. And to our country's credit, their voices were heard, leading to the creation of these legendary all-Nisei units, commanded by Caucasian officers. Thousands of young Nisei enlisted and rewrote the chapter on duty, loyalty, sacrifice, and valor in our Nation's military history.
In 1944, in eastern France, Texans of the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment were outnumbered and surrounded by a well-entrenched enemy. Isolated for six days, the 141st's situation had become desperate—supplies were low and casualties were mounting. One of its Veterans, Joe Peiser, is with us tonight. Joe—welcome. E komo mai, as we say in Hawai'i: it's good to have you here.
The valiant Soldiers of the 141st witnessed, first-hand, the "Go For Broke" in close combat. The 100th and 442nd were ordered to attack to rescue the "Lost Battalion," and they accomplished that mission fully with the unwavering determination and resolve that was their hallmark. In five days of battle, members of these Nisei units performed incredible acts of heroism, taking 840 casualties and saving 211 valiant fighters of the 141st Infantry Regiment.
In the Pacific Theater, the men of the Military Intelligence Service, the M-I-S, were equally unflinching and bold. Serving in classified units that were not officially acknowledged publicly until many decades later, they have never been fully recognized for their mission-critical operational achievements:
These stories occurred 70 years ago, yet most of us are only now beginning to hear about and appreciate the full weight of the Nisei contributions. Serious research and professional interest by military historians in later years have begun to document the battle records of these Nisei "special" units that were preserved initially as dinner talk around kitchen tables. The Nisei Soldiers were intensely modest—you needed a crowbar to get much out of them.
Some of my own earliest and fondest personal memories of family are of young men, strangers mostly, sitting around a crowded table in our small family kitchen . . . and of beer—lots of beer—and of favorite local dishes, and of loud talk and even louder laughter.
These were vibrant men—young, robust, and full of life, confidence, and camaraderie. And they had a right to be. They had done something grand and wonderful—they had fought and won World War II and, in doing so, had salvaged our pride as Americans and our honor as a Japanese-American community.
On 2 November 2011, on behalf of the American people, Congress presented its Gold Medal—our country's highest civilian award—to every Soldier, living and deceased, of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the M-I-S in recognition of their heroic service during a time of enormous challenge in American history.
Through their undaunted courage and hard-won victories on the battlefield, these Nisei Soldiers helped to perfect our country's founding principle—equality as the birthright of all Americans. The Nisei of the 100th and 442nd demonstrated that they were just as good and just as tough as the longer-serving Army line units. They fought fiercely—even as some of their families and friends were persecuted in internment camps. Their performance in battle was nothing short of astounding: in the "One Puka Puka" and "Go For Broke" alone—21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, over 4,000 Bronze Stars, and a staggering 9,486 Purple Hearts. Equally staggering, seven Presidential Unit Citations were awarded to Soldiers whose units averaged about 5,000 men at any time during their period of service of about 3½ years.
The men of these units represent profiles in courage that go beyond individual valor and collective victory at any cost. Their service and sacrifice answered in deeds, not words, Harold Ickes' question, "What constitutes an American?" For a brief moment in our country's history, we hesitated in staying true to our founding principles.
With their blood, these Nisei Veterans helped right that faltering moment and preserved the enduring unalienable rights guaranteed to us as a free people.
The legacy of the men—living and deceased—whom we honor here today is a heritage of patriotism as old as the American Revolution and as new as the frontlines of freedom in Afghanistan. Their accomplishments are a uniquely American story that, thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, will be told and re-told for generations to come.
To the Nisei Veterans and their families, let me thank you for your bedrock values and quiet virtues that provide us wonderful examples of how to live. I have stood on your shoulders all my life. I have been lucky beyond dreams because I had the chance to choose my life's work, to compete, and to serve our Nation—unimpeded by any question of loyalty. I am part of your legacy, and my children and my childrens' children enjoy the full rights, privileges, and opportunities this great Nation offers all of us.
It has been a distinct honor sharing this memorable evening with you.