Veteran Roy Inui receives Congressional Gold Medal, highest civilian honor in nation

November 8, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Roy Inui (left) and his wife of 63 years, Bette, hold his Congressional Gold Medal in their Timber Ridge at Talus home. By Greg Farrar

Decades after the government sent Japanese-American citizens to internment camps, Japanese-American World War II veterans received the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian honor in the United States.

Congress recognized the World War II veterans Nov. 3, almost 70 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The honorees included Issaquah resident Roy Inui, 89, a soldier in the Military Intelligence Service during the conflict.

Inui and wife Bette traveled cross-country to attend the high-profile medal ceremony at the U.S. Capitol.

In the months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, officials declared Japanese-American men as aliens ineligible for the draft and ordered Japanese-American citizens to internment centers.

“As far as I was concerned, I was determined to serve in the Pacific,” Inui said. “Most of us Japanese-Americans were considered suspect and not loyal to the U.S. — we might spy or help the Japanese military. I thought that the best way to prove my loyalty was to go into service against my ancestors.”

In early 1942, officials ordered Inui’s parents and sister to report from home in Seattle to the assembly center at the Puyallup Fairgrounds and then on to Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho.

Inui, then a college student, did not get sent to a government-run internment center and joined the Army in 1944, as battles raged in the Pacific and Allied troops marched across Europe.

“I felt that I had a job to do and I was going to do it and, hopefully, come home alive,” he said.

Inui could enter the infantry or attend language school for the Military Intelligence Service. The intelligence unit needed fluent Japanese speakers to serve as interpreters, so Inui opted for language school.

Roy Inui serves at Nagano, Japan, in 1946 at the beginning of the American occupation. Contributed

Japanese-American soldiers trained to fight the enemy for the United States, but prejudice and suspicion lingered.

“The people that we were in contact with knew where we were headed. I don’t think we were discriminated against or anything,” he said. “You know how they treat recruits in the Army. They talked to us like we were a bunch of dumbbells.”

Concern on the homefront

Overall, about 33,000 Japanese-American service members served in World War II. Some enlisted, but the government drafted others from internment camps.

Inui landed in the Philippines as the intelligence unit prepared to relocate to Tokyo after the war ended. Thoughts about families held at internment centers did not diminish, despite the distance between the Pacific theater and the United States.

“We were concerned about the welfare of our families, but being in the service, there was nothing we could do about it anyway,” Inui said. “We knew as long as they were in these internment centers — although not a desirable lifestyle — they did have a roof over their head and three meals a day.”

What is the Congressional Gold Medal?

Congress bestows the Congressional Gold Medal on military heroes, plus leaders in the arts, athletics, diplomacy, medicine, public service, science, space exploration and more.
The medal, alongside the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is considered the highest civilian honor in the United States.
Past recipients include George Washington, Walt Disney and Rosa Parks.

Local Congressional Gold Medal recipients

Japanese-American World War II veterans from Issaquah and more than 30 others from Washington received the Congressional Gold Medal — highest civilian honor in the nation — at a U.S. Capitol ceremony Nov. 3.
The ceremony at the Capitol honored Issaquah recipients Roy H. Inui and Frank T. Matsuda.
Matsuda served in the storied 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the most-decorated regiment in U.S. military history. Japanese-American soldiers made up most of a substantial portion of the unit.
The motto for the regiment — “Go for broke” — offered a glimpse at the tenacity the soldiers brought to the fight in Europe.
Inui served as a Japanese interpreter in the Military Intelligence Service.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell joined the ceremony to honor Inui, Matsuda and other veterans.
“In the face of grave injustice during WWII, the Nisei veterans fought to preserve America’s free democracy,” she said in a statement. “In fact, they went on to become one of the most highly decorated groups of veterans in United States military history. These soldiers fought for what this country could be, even while their families lived in internment camps. In the process, they paved the way to victory in WWII and a brighter future for all.”

U.S. forces dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, leading Japan to surrender. In the aftermath, Inui served in the occupation force in Japan.

Through the impoverished island nation, sickness and starvation continued long after the bombs stopped. The suffering left a lifelong impression on the young Inui.

“After all, we’re all humans. The war was over,” he said. “You hate to see people live under those conditions.”

Devastation in Japan

Refugees made homes in shanties and makeshift structures. Inui landed in Yokohama, a port city leveled in air raids, and boarded a train for Tokyo.

“Everything was just burnt to the ground between Yokohama and Tokyo,” he said. “The only things that were standing were brick fences and concrete smokestacks.”

Stationed in Nagano, a city about 100 miles northwest from Tokyo, Inui served as the interpreter for a medical officer in the U.S. occupation force. (Nagano attracted international attention as the host for the 1998 Winter Olympics.)

Most Japanese citizens accepted the Nisei — or children of Japanese immigrants — soldiers, after some initial confusion.

“At first, they couldn’t figure out what we were or who we were. We could hear people talking who were standing on the street corners and they would be looking at us, sizing us up,” he said. “They would be saying, ‘He looks Japanese but he’s in an American uniform.’ They were bewildered, but the word got around very quickly that there were Japanese-Americans in the U.S. Army.”

Inui returned to the United States in 1946 and enrolled at the University of Washington to study foreign trade.

Japan needed raw materials to rebuild industry and infrastructure in the postwar years. Inui joined a successful import-export business, and sent lumber, iron and steel materials from the Pacific Northwest to Japan.

Roy married Bette and raised a family in Seattle before retiring to Hawaii. The couple relocated to Sammamish in the late 1980s and then settled in Issaquah during the past decade.

President Barack Obama signed legislation last year to honor the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, plus Inui and other Japanese-American soldiers in the Military Intelligence Service.

Inui planned to attend the eventual Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. The celebration included police escorts and honor guards for the veterans. Speaker of the House John Boehner and other congressional leaders presented medals to representatives from the units. (Inui and other honorees received bronze replicas.)

“It was mind-boggling for a little old man in a retirement home,” he said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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