During this year’s Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month observance, held May 29 at the Commons, Fort Drum celebrated the unique and proud Polynesian people through memory, song and dance. The 10th Mountain Division (LI) Equal Opportunity Office hosted the event.
Hawaiian-born Terry Shima, a World War II veteran, served as guest speaker for the observance. This year’s theme was “Building Leadership: Embracing Cultural Values and Inclusion.”
After Pearl Harbor, more than 200,000 Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps on the West Coast and in Hawaii. Nearly 60 percent of those in the camps were American citizens. In addition, all draft-age citizens of Japanese descent were categorized as 4C, enemy alien, unfit for military duty. Japanese Americans wrote letters, individually and as groups, and repeatedly insisted they wanted to serve their country. In 1943, they received their chance.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed in response to Japanese-American insistence that men of Japanese descent were capable, willing and prepared to fight for the country they called home. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the formation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he stated that neither race nor heritage makes an American; rather, being an American is a way of life.
Shima related his story of oppression, frustration and restoration during World War II. As a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he felt a sense of pride in his service. He noted that 16,000 men served with the unit. Of those, 4,200 served in the Pacific, translating captured enemy documents, interrogating enemy prisoners of war and listening to enemy communications. Many joined the Special Forces to work behind enemy lines and sabotage enemy operations.
The unit’s motto, “Go for broke,” described the interminable spirit of these heroes. Asked time and time again to undertake missions of grave importance, often with less rest than their counterparts, they continued to prove their undying loyalty to the United States of America. Their other moniker, bestowed upon the unit by their peers, was the “Purple Heart Battalion.” To this day, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team remains one of the most highly decorated combat units in military history.
“The war over, the guns now silent, America turned its attention to resolving to rebuild the country as well as the world,” Shima said during his remarks.
This proved a difficult task. President Harry S. Truman called upon the 442nd one more time, to help show the nation that we were once again, united. On the day of the parade and ceremony in Washington, D.C., Truman spoke eloquently on what was considered to be the “Japanese issue.”
“You have fought not only the enemy, but you have fought prejudice and you’ve won. Keep up that fight, and we’ll continue to win,” Truman said. They did. The 442nd served as a model for integration throughout the upcoming decade.
Now, nearly 70 years later, we celebrate the brave warriors of the 442nd, and the heritage that celebrates their tenacity, courage and undying spirit.
“It took the service and sacrifice of amazing Americans … to really wake up America for embracing cultural values and inclusion,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, during his remarks.
He presented Shima with a token of appreciation for his contribution to the day’s events and thanked him for his service to this nation.
After Shima’s moving remarks, the party got started. Hawaiian, Samoan and Filipino dancers whirled, twirled and glided across the dance floor to the delight of all in attendance. The fan favorite was a toss-up between the “My Little Grass Shack” dance presented by the Hawaiian Keiki (child) dancers and the fire dance performed by one of the Samoan male dancers.
Regardless of personal preference, the bold colors and graceful movements brought everyone to the islands for a little slice of paradise.
Rounding out the festivities was Kawehi Rodriguez, a Hawaiian dance instructor who helped to coordinate this year’s event. Rodriguez celebrates her Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, English and German heritage through dance and prayer, passing both on to the younger generations. She closed the observance with the prayer, “Pule O Ke Akua,” which means “A Prayer for the Lord.”
From the hypnotizing dances, full of life and meaning, to the closing words, spoken like waves rolling onto a distant shore, the pride and identity of the Polynesian people is alive and well here at Fort Drum.