As Memorial Day approaches, we remember and honor all American veterans who gave their lives in sacrifice to our nation. During the month of May, we also celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. I want to introduce a great American, Terry Shima, who is 100 years old and who I first worked closely with during a Memorial Day event. As people are living longer, and businesses are challenged to find the right people to fill positions, they would do well to consider how to accommodate and employ people of all ages who want to work. Businesses should reimagine how they take advantage of the great talent and work-related experiences of those who are not ready to completely retire. Some of those who continue to work are former military members who have retired from military service, but who remain very capable of serving in our nation’s civilian workforce.
On Memorial Day 2009, I had the honor of paying a special tribute to Japanese-American military members who fought honorably for our nation’s freedom in World War II–while their own freedom and the freedom of their families were denied. In our Army, we talk about the Warrior Ethos. It is an ethos that states, “I will always place the mission first, I will never quit, I will never accept defeat, and I will never leave a fallen comrade.” Although we use the words of the Warrior Ethos more often today, the concept of never leaving a fallen comrade behind is not new.
This Warrior Ethos is powerfully illustrated in a story of two soldiers and the legendary “Lost Battalion” of World War II. One of the most ferocious battles of World War II was fought in late October 1944 by the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France. It was a rescue mission. Two hundred and seventy-eight men of the famed 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, the “Lost Battalion” as it later became known, were trapped behind enemy lines. When Hitler was informed, he ordered that the entire unit be annihilated. His message was that these soldiers would not be permitted to fight on what was then occupied German soil. The German forces were relentless. They attacked the stranded soldiers again and again. And with each attack, the 141st Infantry Regiment lost more and more members of its team. There had been several attempts at a rescue by other units, but each rescue mission had failed. And then the 442nd was ordered to launch a rescue attempt. It was now late October. The weather was cold and rainy. Conditions were miserable. But the 442nd made up of Japanese-American soldiers was undeterred. For five days they fought day and night. And then, on the fifth day they succeeded, reached the stranded men, and saved all two hundred and eleven of the men who had survived the carnage. The Japanese-American soldiers of the 442nd did not leave a fallen comrade behind.
Their team exemplified the true meaning of the Warrior Ethos. With this story as background, I was honored when Terry Shima, a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, asked me to speak on Memorial Day 2009 at Arlington National Cemetery. I was doubly honored when we were able to bring together two of the veterans who had been in France, under fire on that deadly October in 1944–Astro Tortolano of the stranded 1st Battalion, 141st Regiment, and Minoru Nagaoka of the 442nd. This was a very special Memorial Day. And this act of bravery was not the only challenging mission for the 442nd. Japanese-American soldiers, initially part of the 100th Infantry Battalion, were absorbed into the 442nd Regiment Combat Team, the “Go for Broke” team that became one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history. The soldiers of the 442nd earned more than 18,000 decorations, including more than 4,000 purple hearts for the 4,349 wounded and killed in action, 4,000 bronze stars, 271 silver stars, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, 21 Medals of Honor, and in less than a month of fighting, they also earned five Presidential Unit Citations. Soldiers who served in the 442nd continue to earn medals and honors to this day for their past heroism. President Harry Truman reviewed the 442nd Regiment Combat Team when it returned from Italy on July 15, 1946, at the Ellipse located in Washington, D.C. This ceremony was the first time a U.S. President reviewed an Army contingent of the size of a Regiment Combat Team.
In a ceremony honoring over 33,000 Japanese-American soldiers, President Clinton said, “As sons set off to war, so many mothers and fathers told them . . . live if you can, die if you must, but fight always with honor, and never bring shame on your family or your country,” adding that “rarely has a nation been so well served by a people it so ill-treated.” These heroes’ stories evoke inspiring patriotism, sacrifice, and courage. Their legacy continues to demonstrate to this day the great American ideals of liberty and equality for all.
Terry and I would work together again on several important projects in the years that followed. And one such project would have profound importance and a very special place in Army history. At the time, I was Director of Personnel for the Army. Some of my duties involved organizing the Boards to review combat medals, including the Medal of Honor, as well as ensuring recognition of those groups of soldiers who may not have been properly honored for their achievements in the past. It was during this assignment as the Director of Personnel for the Army that Terry contacted me. He wanted to secure a Congressional Gold Medal for the Japanese-American Nisei. Japanese-American Nisei are second-generation Americans or Canadians who were born in the United States or Canada but whose parents had emigrated from Japan. The Congressional Gold Medal is the most prestigious award given to people from all walks of life. It is bestowed by the United States Congress for significant achievements and contributions to the Nation. On this occasion, the U.S. Army conducted a review that resulted in forty 442nd soldiers who did not receive the Bronze Star medal during the war. General Ray Odierno, then Chief of Staff of the Army, and I were honored to make the presentation to twenty-two 442nd veterans who attended the ceremonies in Washington, D.C.
In 2010–after many months of tireless work by Terry, the Japanese-American veterans, and the U.S. Army–Congress approved the Congressional Gold Medal to honor Japanese-Americans who served in combat. The Japanese-American veterans who were so recognized included soldiers from the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service. Given my Japanese heritage, it was such an honor to engage with the remarkable members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team families and friends.
Even at age 100, Terry continues to work to ensure the history and the sacrifices of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team are not forgotten. People are living longer. Many will not have the financial savings necessary for a 100-year life, and they will need or want to continue working. If so, businesses would do well to find a role for those who can still serve. Some of these workers will need to go back to school to keep up with the changes in business and technology. As Alvin Toffler wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Businesses should consider creating opportunities that are less than full-time for those who can add value to their teams and who want to spend more time with their families. Given the shortage of available people in the workforce, retaining employees who are frequently considered “too old and retired” could be a win-win for businesses and for those wishing to remain active in our nation’s workforce.