Every monthly meeting of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Veterans Club begins somberly, with a reading of the names of the recently deceased and a moment of silence to honor the nisei boys from Hawaii who went off to war.
Club President William Thompson each month hands the honor of reciting the names to one of the club’s vice presidents, then sometimes finds himself thinking, "Too many guys passing away, already."
At the age of 86 — hard of hearing and with a bad back and knees — Thompson is one of the younger veterans who made up the 10,000-member, all Japanese-American combat unit that returned to the islands and the mainland as one of the most highly decorated units of its size.
While the roster of the 442nd’s dead continues to grow through this Fourth of July holiday, the survivors are preparing a head count of their dwindling numbers to present at the club’s July 12 meeting.
Thompson said he won’t be surprised if the number of his comrades still alive in the islands turns out to be 600 — or closer to 400.
"I am worried it’s going to be very low," he said.
The tally of the 442nd veterans surviving in Hawaii is being done in anticipation of formal recognition by Congress.
Companion bills in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate would grant a collective "Congressional Gold Medal" to members of the 442nd and the 100th Infantry Battalion — in Hawaii and the mainland — for their service during World War II.
If the bill becomes law, the Hawaii-born men of the 442nd want an accurate roll call of their buddies in the islands to ensure they all get proper recognition.
"You want to give it to the guys who are still alive," said 442nd veteran Ronald Oba. "The boys from Hawaii are laid-back. They don’t like to put on a show."
Representatives of each of the 442nd’s 22 units will report on their surveys on July 12. Oba will tell Thompson that he has counted 32 survivors from Fox Company still living in Hawaii.
"When we first answered the call to volunteer, 2,800 of us went to Camp Shelby to train," Oba said. "After all of the casualties and guys killed in action in Italy and France, we kept getting replacements that amounted to four times the original number."
The start of each 442nd meeting is especially poignant for Oba, 87, who documented his World War II experience in a book, "The Men of Company F."
"Especially when we have Fox Company boys on the list, I say, ‘Wow, we’re getting smaller every month,’" Oba said.
The 442nd’s monthly "honor roll" of the recently deceased averaged 17 members from both the 442nd and 100th Battalion for the first six months of the year.
But the most recent count showed an unusually high number, with 19 442nd veterans and four from the 100th Battalion.
The monthly list ebbs and flows, "but some months it’s real long," said Fred Ida, a survivor of George Company who has yet to finish his count of survivors.
Among the names on the latest honor roll are two from George Company, including Thompson’s boyhood friend, Kazuo Motobu, who died June 16 after a career in Hawaii as a social worker.
Motobu’s name on the list propelled Thompson back to the days just before he and the rest of the Hawaii boys left for war.
As he looked at Motobu’s name at the 442nd’s McCully clubhouse, Thompson said quietly, "Kazuo and I were classmates back in Hilo High School — class of 1941."
Like many of the 442nd survivors who grew into old men and enjoyed a lifetime of peace in the islands, Thompson wants his ashes interred with his buddies who did not make it back and are buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.
Asked why he wants his ashes at Punchbowl, Thompson said:
"The boys are over there. And I want to be with them."