Author: Lieutenant General Allen Ono, Us Army, Ret.
Altus AFB, Oklahoma – May 26, 2005
Puka Puka Parades, May 2006, 05 / 06
Speech given by Lt. Gen. Allen Ono. (Editor’s Note: As Asian Pacific Heritage Observance Day occurs in the month of May, we are reprinting the following speech which was submitted to the PPParade.)
Thank you for the honor that allows me to be here. My heart is full of pride to be an American and a member of the Asian Pacific Islander group. Our group is a small minority in America, only 5% of the population. It takes a strong, confident, thoughtful nation to take the time to recognize our small group and our accomplishments in order to learn more about each other and build a better America.
Our group is defined by geography. Our heritage is traced to lands from which we came. We are people from: China, India, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Burma, Singapore, Guam, Samoa, Marshall Islands, Hawaii and many other places. Our culture, heritage, history and customs are not common but individual. We do not speak the same language, sing and dance to similar music, and enjoy the same foods. Each of us is individual. This vast diversity makes it impossible to roll us into one generalized ball for a speech to you today.
For this reason, please allow me to pick on one segment among the many Asian Pacific Islander groups to describe the essence of who we are. Let me tell you of the Japanese Americans through my personal story of being an Asian Pacific Islander in America.
FINDING A PLACE.
My mother and father were immigrants from Japan to Hawaii. They came with the dream of a better life. My parents sailed to Hawaii to work as laborers in sugar cane plantations. After several years on a plantation, they moved into town for less strenuous work. My parents’ opportunities were limited because they spoke almost no English and possessed basic skills. My dad worked at a gas station. My mom was a housekeeper. She cleaned other people’s houses, did their laundry and took care of their children.
My parents started a family in Hawaii. There were three children; my sister, a younger brother and me in the middle. I am describing humble people: poor, honest and respectful with hopes of moving up in America. We children learned customs of the old country: Honor elders. Obey rules. Excel in school. Education was the passage to good jobs. We lived modestly and frugally. We ate rice in small bowls with vegetables spiced with soy sauce and small pieces of meat or fish.
Our early years were not carefree. We followed the tight rules of Japanese customs. It was important to bring honor and no shame to tarnish the reputation of the family. We were prohibited from bragging and complaining outside the privacy of the family. These fundamental values were drilled into us. I am describing a small, modest family of immigrant parents who worked hard in unskilled entry jobs and followed the customs of the old country to succeed in their new land.
We were not different from millions of others who immigrated to America and followed similar patterns to succeed in this country — hard work, close families, old country values and customs, emphasis on education, dreams of success.
WORLD WAR II
Then came the attack on December 7, 1941 on Pearl Harbor, ten miles from our Honolulu home. Our world was turned upside down on that day. America and Japan were at war. Neighbors looked at us with suspicion, anger and hatred.
In the confusion and fear, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were forcefully moved to desolate and remote areas to live in concentration camps in California, Montana, Arkansas and other states from 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945. They were humiliated and ridiculed. My family in Hawaii was not relocated. We were not important and prominent enough. Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were given less than a week to report to assembly areas with only a small suitcase. They abandoned their possessions and were moved to inland camps for the duration of the war. Reason for the massive relocation was the threat of sabotage and internal attacks. No specific charges were made and yet 100,000 Americans were stripped of their rights and incarcerated behind barbed wire under the control of armed guards. The war ended in 1945 and imprisoned Japanese Americans were released from the camps without a single instance of treason, sabotage or espionage.
Another defining historical event occurred when Japanese American men wanted to serve America and volunteered for the draft at the start of World War II. They were American citizens yet were rejected and classified as “enemy aliens.” They were finally allowed to join the Army and were assigned to segregated Army units made up of Japanese Americans. The units were ordered into combat in Europe. They fought in the toughest battles of the war. There was a strong personal and group commitment to prove their loyalty. Two of the units were the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442″ Regimental Combat Team. Strength of the units was 5,000 and they became the most highly decorated units of their size in World War II.
Listen to the amazing count of World War II combat awards for the two small Army units of Japanese Americans: Eight Presidential Unit Citations. 21 Medals of Honor, 9,486 Purple Hearts, 32 Distinguished Service Crosses, 587 Silver Stars and 5,200 Bronze Star Medals. In 21 months of combat in Europe the soldiers were awarded 18,143 individual combat awards for valor.
Back in Hawaii, I was in elementary school and followed the exploits of the Japanese American units from news articles and letters from the front lines. We played soldier in playgrounds. The Japanese American soldiers gave us respect, pride and honor through then- sacrifices and heroism. We charged enemy machine guns in imaginary battlefields. They were our heroes and we idolized them.
World War II was more than a history book event. We experienced the indignity of incarceration in concentration camps. Forty years later in the 1980s, America admitted that it was wrong and formally apologized.
I eagerly and proudly joined the Army in 1955 through the ROTC program in Hawaii to follow the Japanese American soldiers who served courageously and heroically. World War II and the Korean War had ended. The Army abolished segregated units as the nation realized that soldiers of different races can be effectively mixed in the armed forces. When I joined, a number of my captains and sergeants were veterans of World War II and remembered the Japanese American soldiers. I did not have to prove my loyalty. I was presented with opportunities unavailable earlier to Japanese Americans. I was expected to be courageous, proficient and heroic. The Japanese American soldiers of World War II had set high standards for Japanese Americans who followed them in the military. I received the honor and trust of commanding soldiers. I led main attacks, made parachute jumps and went on deep patrols behind the lines.
Later in my career came the selection for schools, promotions and responsible assignments and a full, complete and satisfied life of serving the nation. Every minute of my career, I was reminded of my obligation to bring honor to my parents, the Japanese American community and to the Japanese American soldiers of World War II who paved my way.
Please allow one side story. In the 1980s I returned to Hawaii on leave after seven years away. My mother asked that I put on my green uniform, complete with ribbons and badges, to visit friends and relatives. We made numerous house visits. I was the object of curiosity and attention as my mother proudly showed me off as if to say that we can move from immigrant status to three star generals in one generation despite the color of our skin and shape of eyes.
ASIAN PACIFIC ISLANDER HERITAGE
Mine is a single personal story among that of millions of other Asian Pacific Islanders in America. May I leave you with four thoughts:
First, we are proud to be Americans. We are also proud to be Asian Pacific Islanders.
Second, please get to know us. The more you understand us, the closer we become. In keeping with this year’s theme, diversity is not a disadvantage. It is a powerful American strength.
Third, we do not ask for an advantage over anyone. We are not better than others. We are not less than others. We simply want an equal chance to show what we can do.
Lastly, on behalf of all Asian Pacific Islanders thank you for this wonderful event to recognize a small minority of Americans in our great nation.