On February 19, a small group of specially honored war veterans gathered in the nation's capital to welcome home a Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Japanese-American veterans of World War II. The medal had just completed a seven-city national tour and was unveiled during a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History's American Heroes hall.
The honorees were the nearly 19,000 Nisei – Americans of Japanese descent – who had served with the U.S Army's famed and highly decorated 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service during World War II. The Congressional Gold Medal had been presented to the Nisei soldiers collectively in November 2011, in recognition of their "exceptional service, sacrifice and loyalty to America."
The date of the medal's "homecoming" in Washington was that of the Nisei Annual Day of Remembrance, marking the anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. It was this now infamous document that led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans to internment camps.
A panel discussion of the Japanese-American experience in World War II followed the medal unveiling with several former internees seated in the audience. Among the six panelists was Terry Shima, 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran and member of American Legion Post 136 in Greenbelt, Md. Shima is a former executive director of the Japanese American Veterans Association and is recognized as his unit's most encyclopedic historian. During the discussion, the 91-year-old veteran characterized the Niseis' journey from internment camps, through World War II heroism and onto prominent positions in the U.S. Congress and presidential cabinets as evidence of "the greatness of America."
When asked why he thought his combat unit – the most highly decorated in World War II – was assigned some of the most hazardous and harrowing missions of the European campaign, Shima replied, "Well, when you're in a foxhole, you have various thoughts about why this has happened. But now I believe our soldiers were given the toughest and most dangerous missions because command knew we could do the job."
Shima was awarded the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second highest civilian award, by President Barack Obama. And on Dec. 7, 2013, Shima recounted the Nisei experience to a rapt audience at his Legion post's annual Pearl Harbor Day event.