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St. Petersburg man honored with medal for Japanese-American World War II soldiers

ST. PETERSBURG — Three of Hatsu Kimura's four American-born sons were serving their country, but at home in St. Petersburg authorities treated her family like the enemy.

They searched her home with regularity, even seizing a camera that didn't work.

It's one of the few stories Kimura descendants have been told about their family's experience during World War II.

Earl, Herbert and Eugene Kimura, who served in segregated Japanese-American units, seldom spoke of the conflict when they returned home. They got on with their lives.

Earl became a builder. Herbert started a tile business. Eugene thrived in carpentry, building the house in which his daughter grew up and those of his neighbors besides. A fourth, younger brother, Robert, now 82, joined the military after the war and was part of the occupation forces in Japan. He lives in Largo.

On Monday, Eugene, 89, the only surviving Kimura brother to fight in World War II, will travel to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation's highest civilian honors. It is being awarded collectively to Japanese-Americans from the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service for their exemplary service during the war.

"I don't know what all the fuss is about,'' he said last week at Patrick Manor, a St. Petersburg assisted living facility where black and white photos of a handsome young soldier hang in his room with a display of medals, including three Bronze Service Stars.

For his only child, Lorrie Kimura, a psychologist who lives in Morganton, N.C., the honor her father will receive is bittersweet.

"He did what he thought he was supposed to do. He didn't expect any other recognition. He served his country," she said.

"I hope that he still has enough to understand all that's going on. I know that dementia has taken its toll.''

Last week, her father seemed to bask in the attention of a flashing camera and loving relatives.

"You're wasting your film,'' he told a photographer at the camera's constant flash. "You making a movie here or what?"

Prompted by family members, Kimura — wearing a new pair of hearing aids ordered in time for his trip — spoke of the difference between the superior German guns and the ones his unit used. It was the difference between a Cadillac and a Model T, he said, adding sound effects for good measure.

Kimura's family had moved to St. Petersburg from Jacksonville Beach in 1923, one of the first Japanese-American families with children to settle in the city.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, changed everyone's lives. Federal authorities closed the city's only two Japanese-owned businesses, arrested the owners and sent them to an internment camp, historian Ray Arsenault says in his book, St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream. They were among more than 110,000 people of Japanese heritage who ended up in wartime detention.

Yet Japanese-American men volunteered or were drafted from Hawaii, the U.S. mainland and internment camps, and thousands of them served in some of the war's most pivotal engagements.

The Kimura brothers from St. Petersburg were among them.

"They all wanted to serve, and as soon as they had the opportunity, they enlisted," Lorrie Kimura said.

The 100th was the first combat unit to be comprised exclusively of Japanese-Americans from Hawaii, according to the National Veterans Network, a coalition of Japanese-American veteran and civic organizations. The men had been drafted for the Hawaii National Guard before the Pearl Harbor attack, and in the weeks that followed they guarded Hawaii's beaches and coastlines, the organization said. The 442nd was organized in March 1943, after a call for volunteers from the War Department.

"Today, the 100th and 442nd, known as the Go for Broke regiment, still stand as the most highly decorated units in United States Army history for size and length of service in battle,'' the veterans network said in a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

"It was these men who rescued the Lost Battalion, fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino, broke through the Gothic Line, liberated a Dachau subcamp … ," the letter continued.

Eugene Kimura owes his forthcoming trip to the nation's Capitol to niece Judy Kimura Hall, his brother Earl's daughter. She gathered and submitted the paperwork required for him to be invited to the ceremony and three-day celebration. Hall said she was spurred on by the presidential certificate of appreciation she received for her father after his death a year ago.

"I thought to myself, 'Why didn't you tell my dad that when he was alive?' I didn't want my uncle to wait until he was dead,'' she said.

"I said, 'I'm going to get the recognition for him while he was breathing.' I told somebody that I was going to get him (to Washington) even if I had to piggyback him all the way there."

There are only two tickets for the ceremony, which will take place at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Emancipation Hall at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. Her uncle and his daughter will attend, and Hall will watch it on TV at their Washington hotel.

One of the few war stories Kimura told, she said, was about his narrow escape after setting up his mortar in a foxhole. He had just rushed out to get further orders when an explosion rocked the foxhole, she said.

After the war, Kimura returned home and married childhood friend Ruth Thompson.

"Dad was really excited that she was the prettiest girl in the neighborhood and she wanted to marry him," his daughter said.

He never spoke of the war, she said.

"Unfortunately, at that time, he was kind of ashamed of being Japanese. He always wanted me to list on any form that I was white and I was American. He worked hard to have us accepted as Americans.''

His family is happy that he will be part of Wednesday's historic ceremony.

"I'm so proud of what he did for my country,'' said great niece Theresa Lynn Putnam, who took her uncle into the ALF she owns.

"I'm really glad that my uncle is able to go and get this. It's not like my grandfather, who we got a certificate for in the mail after he passed away."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

.FAST FACTS

About the medal

The Congressional Gold Medal, awarded by Congress, is one of the nation's highest civilian awards. Recipients include George Washington, the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Code Talkers, the American Red Cross, Mother Teresa, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama.

13,000+ Japanese-Americans who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team

6,000 Japanese-Americans who served in the Military Intelligence Service

110,000+ People of Japanese ancestry sent to internment camps during the war

800+ Honorees expected at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony (330 veterans, widows and other next of kin of deceased veterans)

Source: National Veterans Network

St. Petersburg man honored with medal for Japanese-American World War II soldiers 10/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 29, 2011 10:44pm]

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