HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - At 102, Edward Ikuma’s memory may not be as sharp as it once was. But when he thinks back on World War II, everything comes flooding back.
“It brings back so many memories,” said Ikuma, who served in the famed 100th Infantry Batallion.
As Hawaii marks 75 years since the end of World War II with a special ceremony Wednesday aboard the USS Missouri, it’s lost on no one that the number of veterans like Ikuma is dwindling.
There are roughly 2,000 World War II veterans living in Hawaii. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, that number will be in the double digits in just 10 years.
With the Greatest Generation becoming a disappearing generation, the stories of veterans still with us — especially those who remained silent about their service for years — are all the more valuable.
Ikuma is one of the oldest living World War II veterans in the world — and the oldest living nisei veteran living at the Maunalani Nursing and Rehab Center at the top of Wilhelmina Rise.
Five of his fellow residents are also World War II vets.
Because of COVID-19 concerns, they couldn’t go to the commemoration ceremony Wednesday aboard the Battleship Missouri to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Still, Wednesday was a big day for Ikuma and other nisei veterans (second-generation Japanese-Americans), who fought in World War II for a country that considered them as “enemy aliens.”
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, many Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps across the country.
But as the war progressed, tens of thousands eventually volunteered or were drafted into three of history’s most recognizable all-nisei units: the 100th Infantry Batallion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service.
Composed largely of Japanese-Americans from Hawaii, names like the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye — a member of the 442nd — were among the tens of thousands who served and sacrificed for the U.S., a country they loved.
“We hope for peace and no more any kind of conflict with other nations and other people,” Ikuma said, reflecting on the 75 years that have passed since the end of the war.
“I hope that becomes a rarity even in my long lifetime.”
There were also many nisei veterans who weren’t in the 100th Battalion, 442nd or MIS, but were still eager to fight for the country they were dedicated to — veterans like 97-year-old Tatsuo Omiya, another Maunalani resident.
Serving in the U.S. Army as an anti-tank company driver, Omiya actually found out the war ended a mere day after he landed in Italy.
“I was very lucky,” Omiya recalled, in an interview earlier this year.
Omiya had been training in Texas with the U.S. Army for three months and was getting ready to go overseas when he got word that his older brother, who was serving in the 100th Battalion Infantry, wanted to meet up because they hadn’t seen each other in years.
Omiya then packed his bags and headed to New York, where his brother was at the time.
“That is why I was delayed. That’s why to me, I was saved by my brother because he wanted to see me,” he said.
The reason why his brother, Yoshinao “Turtle” Omiya, was in New York: He was recovering after losing his eyesight as the 100th Battalion crossed the Volturno River in Italy in 1943.
“He said that he saw the bomb, ‘bam,’ so he looked up and the shrapnel went in his eyes,” Tatsuo Omiya said.
The 100th suffered so many casualties that it became known as “the Purple Heart Battalion,” and the thousands of soldiers who served in the battalion earned more than 4,000 individual medals and awards.
Among those recipients was Ikuma, who received the Combat Infantry Badge, two Bronze Star medals, two Purple Heart medals and the French Nation’s Order of the Legion of Honor.
Ikuma, an original member of the 100th, participated in every battle action of the battalion.
“Of course, I’m very, very proud of the fact that I was part of the 100th Infantry Battalion,” Ikuma said.
Ikuma’s military career began when he was inducted into the U.S. Army on March 25, 1941.
Among the many memories during the war, the ones that stick out most were those early days as a draftee at Schofield Barracks — a “strange period for me because life was entirely different than the civilian life that I had become accustomed to for so many years.”
At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Ikuma was serving in A Company, 3rd Combat Engineers, 24th Infantry Division. As the war began, he joined the 100th Battalion, made up of approximately 1,400 Japanese-American draftees.
Although many of his close friends went off to fight in the war, Ikuma started with extensive training in Wisconsin.
“We’re introduced to fellow soldiers on the mainland, from the mainland — trained together and later on fought together,” Ikuma said. “Although it was a new experience for the Hawaii guys, we tried to make the best of it.”
After training, he fought in France, where the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team joined forces
Like many Japanese-Americans of his generation, Ikuma is modest and doesn’t talk about his achievements. Instead, he points out the lifelong friendships developed during wartime.
“We stayed friends with the mainland boys, the mainland soldiers, made new friends and we got to know new areas of participation in the military and non-military endeavors,” Ikuma said. “We came to know them very well.”
After the war ended in 1945, both Ikuma and Omiya went back to their civilian lives.
Ikuma went on to work as an electrician at Fort Shafter and electrical engineering technician for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He got married in 1946 and had four children.
Meanwhile, Omiya and his brother returned home to Hawaii to live with their mother.
Though Yoshinao Omiya never got married, Tatsuo Omiya did and had three sons. With a love for baseball, he became a Little League coach and also enjoyed a long career in the U.S. Postal Service.
“After the war, I went to the U.S. Post Office as a mail carrier and we put in plenty overtime, that’s why I ultimately hit my fortune,” he said, laughing.