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Yukio Okutsu, 81; WWII Hero Awarded Medal 55 Years Later

September 09, 2003|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Yukio "Yuki" Okutsu, a Hawaii-born Army sergeant whose Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to a Medal of Honor three years ago for his heroism in World War II, has died. He was 81.

Okutsu died Aug. 24 in Honolulu of natural causes.

Nobody ever questioned Okutsu's bravery in taking out three German machine gun nests on Italy's Mt. Belvedere on April 7, 1945. The reason the feat initially earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the military's second-highest honor, instead of the Medal of Honor was believed to be wartime prejudice against Japanese Americans after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

"We were not only fighting for freedom and equality abroad," President Bill Clinton said at the June 21, 2000, White House ceremony in which Okutsu and 21 others -- including U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) -- received Medals of Honor. "We were also in a struggle here at home over whether America would be defined narrowly, on the basis of race, or broadly, on the basis of shared values or ideals."

The 22 recipients had served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, which consisted exclusively of Japanese Americans. The units later merged and became the most decorated unit in Army history, with more than 18,000 decorations but, until three years ago, only two Medals of Honor.

In 1996, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) won passage of a law asking Army historians to reevaluate service records of Asian and Pacific Island Americans who were eligible for the Medal of Honor but might have been overlooked because of officers' prejudice at the time.

Okutsu, a native of Koloa, Kauai, volunteered for duty in the 442nd and became a technical sergeant.

"I can't remember too many things about it," Okutsu told the Honolulu Advertiser in 2000, trying to recall the 1945 battle in Italy. "At the time, every day was different. You didn't think about it. It was an operation; I did what I did, and I got through all right."

What he did, according to his citation, was this: "While his platoon was halted by the crossfire of three machine guns, Tech. Sgt. Okutsu boldly crawled to within 30 yards of the nearest enemy emplacement through heavy fire. He destroyed the position with two accurately placed hand grenades, killing three machine-gunners. Crawling and dashing from cover to cover, he threw another grenade, silencing a second machine gun, wounding two enemy soldiers and forcing two others to surrender. Seeing a third machine gun ... he bravely charged several enemy riflemen with his submachine gun, forcing them to withdraw from their positions. Then, rushing the machine gun nest, he captured the weapon and its entire crew of four."

Okutsu returned to Hawaii after the war, brought up a family and grew anthurium plants, then worked for Hawaii County.

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