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Japanese Americans Recall Role in Korean War

Remembrance: Veterans dedicate reunion to those who served in a 'forgotten' conflict.

February 16, 1997|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shot in the leg four decades ago, a world away from home, Roy Shiraga was nearly abandoned by his own troops because they failed to realize he was one of their own.

In a different battle in the same war, Hiroshi Miyamura killed enemy soldiers with a bayonet, then covered two wounded comrades with a hailstorm of machine-gun fire so they could flee to safety.

Now aging survivors of the Korean War instead of anxious young soldiers in the thick of it, the two men this weekend have been renewing friendships and remembering at the 47th annual Nisei Veterans of Foreign Wars reunion. This year the Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, dedicated their reunion to the Korean War veterans who served in what has been referred to as this country's "forgotten war."

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Relegated to the back pages of the nation's newspapers at a time when television was not commonplace, the war's images were kept distant from the public. Among current generations, the Korean War and its 1.7 million veterans have captured far less attention than World War II or the divisive conflict in Vietnam.

The overlooked vets include an unknown number of Japanese Americans, dozens of whom are attending this weekend's convention at the Burbank Hilton along with their counterparts from World War II. Miyamura, who spent 27 months as a prisoner of war and was awarded the Medal of Honor, was the keynote speaker at the event, which concludes today.

"Very few people are aware of the Japanese Americans who fought in the Korean War and it's a shame, because there were so many people who accomplished so much yet they never got the recognition they deserved," said Miyamura, who after the war returned to his hometown of Gallup, N.M., where he raised three children and operated a service station until he retired in 1984.

"You just never hear of them . . . then again that's part of our heritage. We're not supposed to be braggarts."

The war in Korea, which began in 1950 and ended in 1953, claimed 54,000 American lives, making it one of the bloodiest in U.S. history. Among the casualties were more than 240 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were killed or missing in action.

In recent years, efforts have been made to remember the forgotten war and its veterans. Two years ago, as thousands of survivors looked on, President Clinton joined South Korean President Kim Young Sam in dedicating a Korean War memorial in Washington.

Measures have also been taken to honor Japanese American veterans of the war, who failed to receive the recognition that was bestowed on their World War II counterparts. A memorial wall listing the names of the dead, paid for with $150,000 in donations, is scheduled to be dedicated on Memorial Day at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo.

"We were overshadowed by the heroics of the World War II veterans and the controversy in Vietnam," said Bob Wada, president of the Japanese American Korean War Veterans. "Yet to the veterans, the Korean War was just as deadly and real as those other wars."

Just how many Japanese Americans served in the Korean War remains a mystery because of a government classification system that identified Asians of all ethnic backgrounds as "Mongoloids," said Wada, who lives in Buena Park. As a result, he said, the names on the memorial wall were culled based on their Japanese surnames.

During World War II, there was little question about who the Japanese American soldiers were, partly because many found themselves in racially segregated units. Of the 33,000 Japanese Americans who served in World War II, 13,000 were assigned to the segregated 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the rest in military intelligence and other battalions.

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Fighting to prove their allegiance to their country at a time when many of their relatives were imprisoned in internment camps, the young Nisei helped the 100th and 442nd become two of the most decorated units in U.S. Army history and transformed themselves into icons within the Japanese American community.

But things turned out much different for the veterans of the Korean War.

By the time Communist-ruled North Korea invaded South Korea, igniting the war on June 25, 1950, the U.S. government had desegregated the military for Japanese Americans. When the war ended and the veterans came home, they melded quietly back into society.

"History will never know, but I feel that perhaps if we had been a segregated unit serving all together, we probably could have made our community very proud too," Wada said.

"We had all the heroics and all that other stuff," said Jun Ogimachi, commander of the San Fernando Valley Nisei Memorial VFW Post 4140. "But since we weren't segregated, you don't hear about it . . . people just don't talk about it."

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