National Medal of Honor Day is Sunday, March 25, marking the 155th anniversary of the day the first decoration was awarded. More than 3,400 people have received the medal by distinguishing themselves beyond the call of duty.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s website has more information on the medal and its recipients.
For service during World War II, 464 United States military personnel received the Medal of Honor, 266 of them posthumously.
One of those posthumously honored was the first Japanese American to receive the award, a Los Angeles native named Sadao Munemori. Munemori, 22, was killed in action April 5, 1945, while fighting the Nazis in the mountains near Seravezza, Italy.
Munemori was the fourth of five children growing up with a widowed mother, Nawa. He enlisted Nov. 2, 1941, a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
By 1942, the Munemori family was forced to leave Los Angeles and was sent to the Manzanar internment camp designated for “enemy aliens” in California’s Owens Valley. Internment camps across the country held more than 110,000 people during the war.
In 1942, the U.S. Army created the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an infantry unit that consisted of Japanese Americans. The unit was deployed to fight in Europe. Munemori, who was a sergeant in military intelligence, had to accept a lower rank to transfer to the 442nd. The Army called for 1,500 volunteers, and 10,000 turned up.
In May 1943, Munemori visited his family in the Manzanar camp before heading to basic training. He was later sent to the all-Japanese American unit in Italy. On April 5, 1945, Munemori’s Company A of the 100th Infantry Battalion was leading an offensive, and he took command after his squad leader was wounded. He ran through heavy fire and lobbed grenades at two machine-gun nests, destroying them.
As the Germans threw a slew of grenades, Munemori went for cover in a shell crater with two of his men. A grenade bounced off Munemori’s helmet and rolled toward his helpless comrades.
He jumped on top of the grenade to smother the blast and saved his fellow soldiers’ lives.
One month later, Germany surrendered. The Department of Defense awarded Munemori the Medal of Honor on March 7, 1946.
You can read more about Munemori at the Smithsonian.
No longer alone
About 50 years after World War II, Congress asked the Army to review the records of more than 50 Asian American Distinguished Service Cross recipients. It deemed that 20 would have their awards upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On June 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton presented medals to seven of Munemori’s fellow soldiers who were still living. He awarded 13 posthumous awards.
“Rarely has a nation been so well served by a people it has so ill-treated. … They risked their lives, above and beyond the call of duty. And in so doing, they did more than defend America; in the face of painful prejudice, they helped to define America at its best,” Clinton said in bestowing the awards.
The 442nd’s campaigns
Naples-Foggia, September 1943-January 1944: The 442nd landed at Salerno Beach and secured a bridgehead over the Volturno River. The unit’s soldiers earned a superb reputation right away, with three Distinguished Service Crosses and 19 Silver Stars earned in the first month and a half in combat. The casualties were high, with three officers and 75 enlisted men killed.
The tip of the spear: After the Salerno landing, the unit fought in the attacks on Monte Cassino, a heavily defended mountainside fortress.
Rome-Arno, January 1944-September 1944: Joined by reinforcements including Munemori, the soldiers took part in the bloody Anzio invasion, then fought for nine months, heading north to Rome and farther with heavy resistance all the way past the Arno River. The first of seven Presidential Citations were awarded for seizing a town and destroying an entire Nazi SS battalion.
Rhineland Campaign-Vosges, October-November 1944: The antitank company was split from the regiment and joined up with paratroopers in Operation Overlord, the D-Day invasion of France. The rest of the men fought heavily guarded positions in mountainous easternFrance. It also rescued a “lost battalion,” taking massive casualties.
Rhineland-Maritime Alps, Nov. 21-March 17, 1944: The unit was split again, with some soldiers fighting through the French mountains to Germany before helping Jewish survivors of the Dachau concentration camp. Others patrolled the French and Italian border and made history by becoming the first Army unit to capture an enemy submarine.
Northern Appennines and Po Valley, April 1-May 5, 1945: The war was winding down, but the fighting was still fierce. The 442nd fought in tough mountain terrain in northern Italy and helped break the Gothic Line.
Most decorated unit in U.S. history
Medals of Honor: 21
Distinguished Service Crosses: 52
Silver Stars: 560
Bronze stars: 4,000
Purple Hearts: 9,486 (The 442nd was called the Purple Heart Battalion for its high casualty rate.)
The Navy Medal of Honor was the first to be designed, in 1861. The Army’s came in 1862; its design changed in 1904. The Air Force design was adopted in 1965.
Sources: U.S. Army Center of Military History, Smithsonian, Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, California Legislative Counsel’s Digest, the442.org. Photos from Densho, the National Japanese American Historical Society, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, The Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
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