Federal Courthouse Named After Nakamura

The Seattle Times
November 2, 2000
By Alex Tizon

It’s all but official: The stately federal courthouse building in downtown Seattle will be named after Medal of Honor recipient William Nakamura. The U.S. Senate yesterday unanimously passed the bill to name the building after the 22-year-old Seattle native killed during World War II. The House passed the bill two weeks ago. President Clinton is expected to sign the bill into law within two weeks.

The bill’s passage culminates three months of intense lobbying by Nakamura’s supporters. The new name is seen not only as a tribute to Nakamura, who lived and died in obscurity, but as a recognition of the historic injustice done to Japanese Americans during World War II.

Nakamura “went to war for freedoms that he and his family were denied at home,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who co-sponsored the bill. The courthouse “will stand as a lasting tribute to our nisei veterans and all Japanese Americans.” (A nisei is a native U.S. or Canadian citizen born of immigrant Japanese parents and educated in America.)

The bill was co-sponsored by Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., both of whom are Medal of Honor recipients, and Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.

Plans are under way to build a new federal courthouse downtown. The one on Fifth Avenue — the Nakamura courthouse — eventually will be converted to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The grass-roots campaign to name the courthouse after Nakamura moved faster than anyone expected.

“Really, it shouldn’t have happened this fast, but it was hard to say no to it,” said Steve Finley of Bellevue, a political lobbyist who was the main force behind the campaign. “The stars and planets lined up.”

The campaign began after Finley and Seattle nisei veteran George Yamane read a May 28 Seattle Times story on Nakamura. Before May, virtually no one had heard of him. That month, the U.S. government, after a long review, awarded the Medal of Honor to 22 Asian-American veterans of World War II. Nakamura and Inouye were on the list.

Nearly all the honorees were part of the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up mostly of Japanese Americans. Only seven veterans were alive to accept the award. Nakamura was credited with risking his life on two occasions to protect his unit from enemy fire.

On July 4, 1944, he crawled to within 15 feet of an enemy machine-gun nest and destroyed it with four perfectly lobbed hand grenades. Later that day, he crawled toward another machine-gun nest and provided cover while his unit retreated. He was found shot dead by a sniper’s bullet.

His commanding officer nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but the racial climate at the time, the Army admits, prevented Nakamura from receiving the nation’s highest award for valor.

Nakamura was born and raised in what is now the Chinatown International District. He graduated from Garfield High School and was attending the University of Washington when he and his family were forced into a relocation camp in Idaho.

Nakamura and his older brother, George, enlisted in the military to prove their patriotism. Both became members of the 442nd, which went on to become the most decorated military unit in U.S. history. For most of the 56 years since his death, Nakamura’s remains have lain in a seldom-visited corner of a veterans cemetery in North Seattle.

“George would be so happy,” said Fujie Nakamura, George’s widow. George died several years ago hoping his younger brother eventually would be given the recognition he deserved.

Yamane, a leader in the local Nisei Veterans Committee, said plans are under way to hold a citywide tribute in March to recognize Nakamura and other local Medal of Honor recipients. March 25 is national Medal of Honor Day, and Yamane said his group is shooting for that date.

“The tragedy of William Nakamura’s story is not that he was killed defending his country,” said Finley. “The tragedy was that his hometown had forgotten him. The courthouse is a way of remembering him and saying thanks.”