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Revered 442nd Regimental Combat Team marks 80th anniversary

Lynn Heirakuji always saw her dad, Walter, as an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. He served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit of second-generation Japanese Americans, or nisei, that made history during World War II.

Walter Heirakuji military pic.jpg
Lynn Heirakuji
Walter Heirakuji served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

But it wasn’t until she was older that she began to understand his sacrifices and bravery.

“When I lived in Washington, D.C., I worked for the Army. And I had officers come to my office, and they would see my dad’s 442 jacket hanging," she said. "And they would make a beeline to that jacket. They were in such awe… and it embarrassed me because I knew so little.”

So she started asking her dad questions. And when she returned home to Hawaiʻi, she began sharing that story and served as president of the Nisei Veterans Legacy. The nonprofit seeks to preserve and perpetuate the nisei soldiers' stories and history.

“This is a legacy of fighting a war on two fronts," Heirakuji said. "The first front was the battlefield front in Europe and the Pacific. And the second was what they did on the homefront against discrimination.”

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was officially activated 80 years ago — on Feb. 1, 1943. Thousands of nisei from Hawaiʻi and the continent enlisted. Their motto was “Go For Broke” — to put everything on the line for a big win.

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Jayna Omaye
Royce Higa served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team's 522nd Field Artillery Battalion. He's now 102 years old.

They, along with the 100th Infantry Battalion, are known as the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for their size and length of service.

Heirakuji said that after the war, the nisei built on that momentum, fighting for a more equitable future for all.

“I had an opportunity for growth, so to speak," said veteran Royce Higa. "You never could believe the 442nd opened the door wide open like this.”

Higa served in the 442nd RCT's 522nd Field Artillery Battalion. He's now 102 years old.

He said he remained close to his fellow veterans after the war. Higa has memories of playing baseball on the 442nd RCT team, spending time at the veterans’ clubhouse and taking long walks as they got older. Two of them even served as his groomsmen.

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Sage Tottori
Sage Tottori (second to right) and his friends and family have been working to geotag every nisei veteran gravesite at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Punchbowl.

“They became important in my life," he said.

It’s stories like Higa’s that Heirakuji hopes to perpetuate. She said their nonprofit has focused on educating younger generations about the nisei.

One of them is 17-year-old Sage Tottori.

“It’s just really cool to see history," Tottori said. "And even shake hands with the nisei soldiers. It’s just an experience I can’t put into words.”

The Island Pacific Academy senior is working to geotag every single nisei veteran gravesite at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Punchbowl. So far he’s added GPS locations to more than 200 gravesites on the Find a Grave app.

He said his project has already helped some families more easily find these gravesites.

“It’s hard to put into words," he said, "but I guess it’s heartwarming to see.”

Jayna Omaye was a culture and arts reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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