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France to honor Maui WWII veterans

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WAILUKU » Eighteen Mauians, members of the famed 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, are among 50 World War II veterans in Hawaii who have been approved for the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration.

The 18 men, three of whom will be honored posthumously, were part of the 100th/442nd that was brought into the European battle theater in fall 1944 to help drive the German army out of France in the Vosges Mountains that divided France from Germany, The Maui News reported.

The battles of Bruyeres and Biffontaine and the rescue of the "Lost Battalion" are part of the lore of the units made up mostly of Japanese-Americans, some of whom came from internment camps on the Mainland.

An awards ceremony for the Maui men will be held Jan. 23 at 9 a.m. at Kahului Union Church, sponsored by the Maui Sons & Daughters of Nisei Veterans. Pauline Carmona, French consul general in San Francisco, will fly to Maui to make the presentations.

She and Patricia Lee, honorary consul general of the Consulate of France in Honolulu, will be bestowing on each veteran the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur, the knight medal of the French Legion of Honor, according to a news release about the awards.

The Ordre National de la Legion d’honneur was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. The president of France, currently Francois Hollande, is the grand master of the order and appoints all members to the order.

David Fukuda, son of a veteran of the 100th/442nd, heard from a friend in the Vosges region about two years ago that the French government was offering the Legion of Honor to World War II veterans who helped liberate France.

That initiated an 18-month effort to contact eligible Maui veterans and to help them fill out the three-page application. More than 18 men were interviewed but a few were ineligible for the award due to wounds that prevented them from joining the French campaign and the lack of necessary paperwork.

The number of Maui residents qualifying for the award led French officials to hold a separate ceremony on Maui, according to the the news release. There also will be a ceremony on the Big Island. All other Hawaii awardees will be given their Legion of Honor awards in Honolulu at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii on Jan. 21.

Normally, the awards are presented only to those who are living, but the French government decided to give the medals to the three Mauians who died after their applications were submitted.

"I was very pleased that the French government made the decision to present the award to the families of the three deceased veterans," said Fukuda, noting that it had become a "real concern on Maui as the months passed, and we awaited updates on the status of the applications."

The 100th/442nd arrived in the Vosges Mountains following the successful Allied landing at Normandy with the Germans in retreat.

At the mountains, a 100-mile-long range with peaks averaging 3,000 feet high, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler ordered his men to halt their retreat and defend the mountains to the death.

The 100th/442nd would liberate Bruyeres and then the village of Biffontaine. In an interview with The Maui News in 2011, Stanley Izumigawa, one of the three now-deceased men designated to receive the medal, recalled walking outside of Bruyeres after the Allies had chased the Germans out of the town. He heard someone crying "mama" and came across a German soldier, who couldn’t have been more than 15 years old.

He later came upon a foxhole and reached in to help a German soldier.

"When I grabbed him by his biceps, he was real thin," Izumigawa recalled. "I thought I was grabbing him by his forearm."

The man he saw must have been in his 70s, said Izumigawa.

"I could see him trembling. He didn’t say a word," he said, adding that they had heard that the Germans had conscripted the young and old to fight.

After only two days of rest, the 100th/442nd was ordered to save the "Lost Battalion" in a battle the Army rates as one of its top 10 in history. The Lost Battalion incident began when the 141st Texas Regiment was ordered to advance 4 miles beyond the lines of friendly forces, the Go For Broke center account said.

Some 6,000 fresh German troops had moved into the area and cut off the Texans. More than 200 were stranded on a ridge, getting low on food, water and ammunition. Attempts by other battalions in the regiment to rescue the trapped men were unsuccessful.

The 100th/442nd was brought in. The hills were steep, the area was mined, and there were few roads, but the 100th/442nd was able to advance toward the narrow ridge that held the besieged Texans. Tanks could not be used and artillery fire could not accurately zero in on the entrenched enemy. The fight had to be won by the infantry.

With the situation becoming desperate for the Lost Battalion, having been isolated for six days and fending off five enemy assaults, the nisei (second generation Japanese-Americans) soldiers broke through to the Lost Battalion on Oct. 30, 1944.

To save the 211 Texans, 54 nisei soldiers were killed, the Go For Broke center report on the battle said. Other reports put casualties as high as 800.

Maui lost 25 men in the French battles, Fukuda has said.

The Nisei Veterans Memorial Center is planning a display on the award of the Legion of Honor to the 18 Mauians next year at its Education Center in Paukukalo. There will be information about the award, photographs and video of the ceremony.

CORRECTION

An awards ceremony for 18 Maui men who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II will be held Jan. 23 at 9 a.m. at Kahului Union Church. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date.

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