Idaho brothers receive WWII military honors

Three years ago, Congress authorized a distinguished award for Nisei veterans

awebb@idahostatesman.comMay 30, 2013 

Medal of Honor recipient, Koyama, military honors

Joe Koyama, left, and George Koyama were unable to attend a 2011 ceremony in Washington, D.C., at which some Japanese Americans who served during World War II were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Hanako Wakatsuki, a member of the Japanese American Citizens League (background, with Sen. Mike Crapo), helped organize a ceremony Thursday at the Idaho Capitol with Crapo and Gov. Butch Otter.


George Koyama, 90, and Joe Koyama, 88, sons of Japanese immigrants, grew up in Nampa.

They worked in agriculture - Joe in farming, George for the John Deere Co. doing "sales, bookkeeping and everything else," said his son, John Koyama.

The brothers also served in the Army in World War II, at a time when anti-Japanese sentiment was strong and the U.S. government had relocated many Japanese-American families to camps, including Minidoka in Idaho.

On Thursday, surrounded by family and officials in the governor's office, the brothers each received a Congressional Gold Medal.

In 2010, an act of Congress specified that Nisei veterans who served in the Military Intelligence Service, the 100th Infantry Battalion or the 442nd Regimental Combat Team would receive the medal.

The 100th and 442nd were composed of men and women born to Japanese immigrants.

Joe Koyama served in the Military Intelligence Service.

"I served stateside. I never expected to receive such an honor," he said Thursday, a miniature calla lily pinned to his lapel.

"Joe often said he didn't deserve an award because he wasn't in combat," said Hanako Wakatsuki, a board member of the Japanese American Citizens League.

"But for every person on the front line, there were seven to 10 people back home, supporting them."

Wakatsuki is the granddaughter of a Nisei medal recipient, and she helped arrange Thursday's ceremony with staffers in Sen. Mike Crapo's office.

While fighting in Italy, George Koyama was injured by a grenade. In addition to the Congressional Gold Medal, he received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and four other medals Thursday, including one for sharpshooting.

He said he wasn't sure where he was going to display all the medals.

George Koyama's service in Europe also makes him eligible for the French Legion Medal of Honor, said Wakatsuki. She is among those petitioning for him to receive that recognition.

"George was in the 100th Infantry Battalion that later merged with the 442nd. It was dubbed the 'Purple Heart Battalion' because of its number of casualties," said Wakatsuki.

John Koyama traveled to Idaho from his home in Sacramento for the ceremony. His father didn't talk much with his family about his wartime experiences, John said. That changed one recent D-Day anniversary, "when he just opened up." But George still spoke about combat in a calm, reserved way, his son said.

"Even when he was talking about a grenade going off 10 feet away from him," said John.

For the family, receiving the medals "brings closure," said John. "It's something positive to come out of a negative time."

A 1942 presidential order sent Japanese-American families who lived within 100 miles of the Pacific coast to relocation camps. The Koyamas lived in Idaho, outside the "exclusion zone," and were not relocated.

George and Joe's sister worked as a translator at Minidoka. The family has shared its collection of photographs taken at the camp with historians, said Wakatsuki. The images are rare and invaluable, she said.

"Most families don't share their images from this era because they're so personal. But the Koyamas' collection includes pictures of the camp's construction, of daily life, of guard towers and more," she said.

She expects that many of the Koyamas' photographs will be used in a new interpretive center that will open at the Minidoka site near Jerome in a few years.

Crapo presented the medals to the brothers Thursday.

"The service of George and Joe came at a difficult time when other Japanese Americans were being incarcerated," Crapo said. "They were willing to serve at a time when this country was not treating their people well. These awards are late, but we're getting them done."

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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