Medal of Honor, 56 Years Late
May 28, 2000
By Alex Tizon
He was killed by a sniper’s bullet, his body found at the edge of a wheat field on the outskirts of a town named Castellina, Italy. He was still clutching the M-1 rifle he fired so relentlessly that Fourth of July afternoon 56 years ago. For more than a half-century his body has occupied a narrow plot at the Veteran’s Memorial Cemetery in Seattle, his birthplace, the hometown that never knew him.
William Kenzo Nakamura would likely never have been heard of again were it not for last week’s announcement that he will be given the nation’s highest award for valor — the Medal of Honor. Nakamura, it seems, committed acts of extreme courage, the stuff of war movies. His commanding officer at the time recommended him for the Medal of Honor, but soldiers with names like Nakamura simply did not receive that distinction. A “biased racial climate” existed back then, the Army admits.
Now, after a long review, the military will award the medal to 20 other Asian-American soldiers of World War II. Only seven are still alive to accept the award, which will be presented by President Clinton in a White House ceremony June 21.
Nakamura’s only surviving sister, June Oshima, 73, of El Monte, Calif., plans to accept the award on her brother’s behalf. Nakamura’s widow, Hisako Funai, 80, of Bothell, has been sick and unable to speak publicly about their brief marriage nearly six decades ago.
Not much remains of Nakamura’s 22 years of life. He had no belongings to speak of. And memories of him are scant. It did not help that the Japanese-American community was uprooted and dispersed at the start of the war. The sibling to whom he felt closest, George, died two years ago. And most of his contemporaries have either passed or moved away, which is why hardly a flutter registered in the city last week when the announcement was made.
Nakamura was in every way a native of Seattle, but he was not a native son. In his time, men of Japanese descent did not become sons of American cities. Stepsons, maybe. Tolerated outsiders, more likely. He was born and reared in what is now the International District. He attended Washington Elementary School and graduated from Garfield High School in 1939. He went by Bill at school. In the neighborhood, he was called Kenzo.
In photographs, he displays a shy, closed-mouth smile that cannot seem to decide whether to open up or close tighter. In person, according to friends, he was short and stocky with a quietly confident manner. He had a hot head and a tender heart. He was impetuous, solid, fearless.
“He had a bit of a swagger about him,” said Hiro Nishimura, 80, who worked in the same Alaskan-salmon cannery as Nakamura for three summers.
When he wasn’t canning salmon, Nakamura picked berries in what was then the countryside, Renton, to supplement the family’s income. His father, a former sword-maker in Japan, worked as a barber, and his mother, a picture bride, cut hair too, along with tending the family garden and tracking her four children.
For 74-year-old Jim Mayeno, a neighbor, the image he most remembers is of a young Nakamura flying down a steep hill on his bicycle with no hands and a look of utter exhilaration on his face. His sister, Oshima, recalls a softer side, the side he showed when their mother died of cancer. Nakamura was a great comfort, often putting his arm around her and holding her without saying anything.
The mother died in January 1942, a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and two months before the Nakamuras and all other Japanese Americans in the Puget Sound area were evacuated to relocation centers. In all, at least 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced into the centers. The Nakamuras, still grieving over the mother’s death, were shipped to the Minidoka Relocation Center near Hunt, Idaho. Nakamura was attending the University of Washington at the time of the evacuation.
After the move to Minidoka, the specifics of his life blurred into the general chaos of the time. While in the camp, older brother George volunteered for the Army, and Nakamura, against the wishes of his family, followed soon afterward.
“They thought if they joined they could get rid of the prejudice,” said their sister, Oshima, in a telephone interview. “They wanted to show that Japanese Americans were not the enemy. It makes me sad to think of it.”
At some point before he went overseas, he met and married a woman two years older than himself, Hisako Deguchi. The marriage, too, went against the family’s wishes. But that was the Nakamura they knew; he did what he wanted. Hisako and Nakamura were married less than a month.
The most complete document of any aspect of Nakamura’s life, ironically, is the detailed report describing his actions just before he died. The report gives three corroborating accounts by officers who took part in the battle.
Nakamura was a private first-class, a foot soldier in the fabled 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up almost entirely of Japanese Americans. In the first days of July, 1944, the regiment was sweeping north along Italy’s coastline, heading for the seaport town of Livorno. Along the way, on the afternoon of July 4, just outside Castellina, the soldiers hit what was known on military maps as Hill 140, where one of the war’s bloodiest battles took place. As Nakamura’s platoon approached the crest of the hill, a concealed nest of German machine-gunners 35 yards away opened fire “with deadly effectiveness.” Capt. William Aull described what followed:
“Without waiting for orders, Pfc. Nakamura crawled for 20 yards under concealment of scattered shrubs, while the fire from the enemy machine gun barely cleared his body, to a point only 15 yards from the nest. Pfc. Nakamura raised himself to kneeling position and threw four hand grenades. His aim was good.”
The explosions wiped out the nest. Nakamura’s platoon advanced to within 10 yards of the crest but was later ordered to withdraw into a gully so that artillery units could barrage the hilltop with mortar fire. German snipers still occupied the crest.
As the platoon began withdrawing, another German machine-gunner, this time from a nearby farmhouse, opened fire on the soldiers, trapping them. Again without orders, Nakamura crawled toward the farmhouse, to the edge of a wheat field, and fired clip after clip of his rifle, silencing the machine-gunner as his platoon withdrew to safety without further casualties. His platoon later found him at his last position with a bullet wound to the head. A sniper shot. Nakamura probably died instantly.
The platoon had suffered dozens of casualties on Hill 140. Two other soldiers who fought in the battle, Pfc. Frank Ono and Sgt. Kazuo Otani, will receive Medals of Honor next month. Both men are now dead. The 442nd fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany, suffered more than 8,800 casualties and became the most decorated unit in American military history.
More than a hundred members of the 442nd, including Nakamura, received the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest award. After reviewing the records, the government, 55 years after the end of the war, decided that 21 of those men deserved the highest distinction.
Fifteen million Americans served in World War II; only 462 were awarded the medal, a gold medallion set against a star spangled blue ribbon. Added to the list will be William Kenzo Nakamura, and it will say so on the skinny white stone that marks his grave in North Seattle. Maybe now the city will consider him a native son.
“Better late. . . .” said his sister, who for the past five decades had been resigned to never.