ABC News’ Serena Marshall reports:
Members of Congress gathered today to award the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by Congress, to World War II Japanese-American veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Military Intelligence Service.
What separates these veterans of Japanese-American descent from other World War II veterans is not only that many of them and their families were placed in internment camps after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but they were also exempt from the draft.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, who himself was part of the 442nd, said that after the bombing, Japanese-Americans “were declared by the government of this country as being enemy agents … and, as such, unfit to put on the uniform of this flag.”
“But we didn’t sit by and do nothing about it,” said Inouye, D-Hawaii. “We petitioned the government to give us an opportunity to demonstrate our love of country and our patriotism, which you granted to us.”
The 442nd Regiment, which includes the 100th Infantry, is one of the most highly decorated units in U.S. history, a feat that did not go unnoticed by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“Together, the 100th and 442nd became the most highly decorated outfit in U.S. Army history,” Boehner said. “They received more than 9,000 Purple Hearts. They earned thousands of Bronze and Silver Stars. They earned 52 Distinguished Service Crosses and 21 Medals of Honor. They even won medals from the Italians and the French.
“Since our founding, Americans have believed that our liberties, our Constitution, our way of life, even our flag are things worth fighting and dying for,” Boehner said. “We have also believed these ideas are not limited to one race or people, that the struggle for these ideas can unite all our people.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., praised the unit for helping to win the war.
“Not only were the men of the 442nd just as loyal as the most distinguished American soldiers of every other race or national background, they were also just as sharp of eye, true of aim and stout of heart,” Reid said. “The blood they shed defending American freedom on the battlefields of Europe – while fighting for the only nation they had ever called home – was just as red.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed with Reid’s sentiment, saying the veterans “were in many ways America’s secret weapon in the war with Japan.”
“Because of them, Gen. MacArthur could later say that never in military history did any army know so much about the enemy prior to an actual engagement,” McConnell said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., himself a war veteran, welcomed the bipartisan effort of Congress to “pay tribute to fellow citizens who have served a just cause greater than their own self.”
“What began as a Senate resolution over two years ago has now become a reality,” McCain said. “Today at long last, we award the Congressional Gold Medal to a group of Americans who are as deserving of it as any I have ever known.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., praised the awardees for being “willing to go for broke” – adopting the phrase from the regiment’s official motto - ”in the fight against tyranny abroad and, in doing so, fight discrimination here at home.
“Again, as others have mentioned, despite the injustices of the internment of Japanese-Americans, today’s awardees rose above being embittered,” Pelosi said. “Indeed, many felt empowered to prove their loyalty and love of our country.”
She added her congratulations to the veterans and their family members, who she said “bring luster to this award and you bring honor to this Congress.”