POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 25, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 11:53 p.m. HST, Jan 27, 2011
More than a half-century ago, the Army decided that it would punish soldier Barney Hajiro, a notorious scrapper, by shipping him to a front-line rifle company in France.
A few months later in 1944, Hajiro led a "banzai charge," destroying two German machine gun nests and killing two snipers. That feat led to a Medal of Honor for Hajiro many years after World War II.
Early Friday morning, Hajiro, the oldest living recipient of the medal, died at the Maunalani Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. He was 94.
His death means that there are only 85 recipients of the nation's medal for valor still living, according to the Medal of Honor Society.
Ed Yamasaki, a longtime friend, visited Hajiro, who had been hospitalized for more than a year, and his family Thursday night.
"He was a very special guy," he said. "I was so sad to see him so frail since he used to stand so straight and tall.
"Barney was alert and responsive late into the night," Yamasaki added. "At around 4 p.m. he responded to his nurse's command to return her hand salute, slowly, hesitatingly raising his hand in half-salute."
The salute was his regular farewell sign to visitors during better days.
In 2000, Hajiro told the Star-Bulletin that he had gone to the aid of another nisei soldier in Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, during a break in the action.
"It was late at night," he recalled. "I was singing, coming home when I saw this soldier in trouble. He was being beaten up by a bigger guy, so I jumped in. I don't know who he was since he ran away and I was left alone. There was no one there to back up my story.
"The sergeant tells me, 'Barney, you're fighting again, and since you like to fight so much, I am sending you to a rifle company — I Company.'" Hajiro was issued the 19-pound Browning automatic rifle and given a week to learn how to use it.
After receiving the Medal of Honor in 2000, Hajiro made it a point to represent the 442nd Regimental Combat Team at numerous functions here and on the mainland, especially when the citizen soldiers of the Army Reserve's 100th Battalion were sent to Iraq.
"The 442nd veterans will always remember and be ever grateful to Barney, the gentle yet tough fighter who represented them so well on the warfront and on the home front," Yamasaki said.
Hajiro had been awarded three Distinguished Service Crosses by the Army while serving with I Company in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
One of those awards was upgraded to the Medal of Honor 56 years later at the urging of U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who authored congressional legislation requiring the Army to determine whether 22 Asian and Pacific-island Americans who received the Distinguished Service Cross had not been properly recognized because of the war's anti-Japanese sentiment. Twenty, including U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, were members of the famed, segregated Japanese-American 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Hajiro also received the British Military Medal and the French Legion d'Honneur.
Yesterday, Inouye described Hajiro as "a good man."
"Barney was a typical recipient (of the Medal Honor)," Inouye said. "He didn't go around blowing his horn. ... He would, like many of us, would just say he was doing something that he was supposed to do. I'll miss Barney. He was a good fellow."
Inouye added, "I also think most, if not all, of us think the same way — why we did get recognized when there were hundreds of others who did the same thing."
On Oct. 29, 1944, during one of the 442nd's fiercest campaigns in the forests of France's Vosges Mountains to free the towns of Bruyeres and Biffontaine, Hajiro led a charge up "Suicide Hill," drawing fire and single-handedly destroying two machine gun nests and killing two enemy snipers before being wounded by a third machine gun.
The effort by the 442nd's I and K companies to rescue the Texas 36th Division's "Lost Battalion" is considered one of the key battles in Army history, one of 16 commemorated in "The Army in Action" series of paintings commissioned by the Center for Military History.
In his 2002 book, "And Then There Were Eight," Yamasaki, president of the 442nd Veterans Club's I Company chapter, noted that I Company started the battle with 140 riflemen.
"Then there were only eight soldiers standing at the end."
Before President Clinton presented him with the sky-blue ribbon with a gold star at a special White House ceremony, Hajiro told the Star-Bulletin about the battle.
"There was shooting coming from all sides. I got hit in my arm. ... My BAR was hit ... and then my helmet was blown off my head."
An enemy bullet penetrated his left wrist and severed a nerve. Another bullet hit his shoulder. His left cheek also was scarred by an enemy bullet.
Days earlier, Hajiro killed or wounded two enemy snipers with his automatic rifle in an attack near Bruyeres. And on Oct. 22, 1944, he and a fellow soldier ambushed an 18-man, heavily armed enemy patrol, killing two, wounding one and taking the rest as prisoners.
Hajiro was the eldest of nine children and left the eighth grade to work in the sugar cane fields for 10 cents an hour, 10 hours a day.
He is survived by wife Esther, son Glenn, brother Hokuro and grandson Ian.
Funeral services are pending.