President Barack Obama presented a Medal of Honor today at the White House to the family of Army Pfc. Anthony T. Kahoohanohano of Maui for his bravery on a battlefield in Korea nearly 60 years ago.
In making the award, Obama referenced the death of Osama bin Laden and said, “we’re reminded that we are fortunate to have Americans who dedicate their lives to protecting ours.”
“I think we can all agree this is a good day for America. Our country has kept its commitment to see that justice is done. The world is safer; it is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden,” Obama said.
Kahoohanohano, 21, from Wailuku, gave his life in a one-man stand against overwhelming numbers of enemy troops so fellow soldiers could survive.
Obama noted that nearly 30 members of the Kahoohanohano family had traveled from Hawaii to be in Washington D.C. for the presentation, including Tony’s sister Elaine Kahoohanohano, brother Eugene Kahoohanohano, and nephew George Kahoohanohano.
Obama also presented a Medal of Honor to the family of Army Pfc. Henry Svehla, who was mortally wounded in Korea when he threw himself on grenade in 1952.
“They did not grow old. These two soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice when they were just 19 and 21 years old. Age did not weary them. In the hearts of their families, they remain forever young — loving sons, protective brothers, hometown kids who stood tall in America’s hometown — in America’s uniform,” Obama said.
“Today, we remember them. And we honor them with the highest military decoration that our nation can bestow — the Medal of Honor,” he added. “In so doing we also honor their families, who remind us that it is our extraordinary military families who also bear the heavy burden of war.”
Kahoohanohano’s squad was near the village of Chupa-ri on Sept. 1, 1951 when it came under a ferocious attack.
“With the enemy advancing, with his men outnumbered, Tony made a decision. He ordered his squad to fall back and seek cover. And then Tony did something else. He stayed behind. Machine gun in hand, he laid down fire so his men could get to safety,” Obama said. “He was one American soldier, alone, against an approaching army.”
Kahoohanohano was wounded in the shoulder, but he fought on.
“He threw grenade after grenade. When his weapon ran out of ammunition, he grabbed another. And when he ran out of ammo, he reached for the only thing left — a shovel,” Obama said. “That’s when the enemy overran his position. And in those final moments, the combat was hand to hand.”
It was that bravery of a single soldier that inspired his men to regroup, to rally and to drive the enemy back, Obama said.
After firing so many bullets, the barrel of his machine gun was literally bent. “But Tony had stood his ground,” Obama said. “He had saved the lives of his men.”
U.S. troops subsequently found 11 dead enemy soldiers in front of Kahoohanohano’s position, and two in the gun emplacement itself who had been beaten to death with an entrenching tool.
Davelyn Gordon, Anthony Kahoohanohano’s niece, caught a portion of the award on CNN this morning.
“It was very nice,” the 49-year-old Maui resident said.
Family members who had traveled to Washington were taking part in a White House luncheon, she said.
Obama said Tony Kahoohanohano “was a tall guy. He loved Hawaii, swimming in the ocean, playing basketball — sounds like my kind of guy. His siblings remember him as the big brother — quiet but strong — who took care of them, stood up for them in the neighborhood, and who would treat them to ice cream.”
A Distinguished Service Cross was presented to the family in 1952.
The upgrade of Kahoohanohano’s recognition for valor represents a quest of about 25 years by the family started by Abel Kahoohanohano Sr., one of Tony’s brothers, and taken up by Abel’s son, George Kahoohanohano, after his father died.
A recommendation for a Medal of Honor was made by the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink in 2001, but the request was denied by the Army.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who attended today’s ceremony, subsequently was able to make a successful case for the higher award.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and Rep. Mazie Hirono also were present.
“Now, Hawaii is a small state, but the Kahoohanohanos are a very big family. In fact, I went to high school with one of their cousins, Whitey. Tell Whitey I said, “Howzit?” Obama said.
“This is a remarkable family. Service defines them,” the president added. He said Tony’s father and all six sons served in the military, and another member of the family has served in Afghanistan.
“For the sacrifice that your family endured, for the service that your family has rendered — thank you so much. Mahalo nui loa,” Obama said.