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Remarks by The Honorable ERIKA MORITSUGU

Deputy Assistant to the President and
Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander
Senior Liaison to the White House

NVC Memorial Day Service, May 29, 2023


Lt Col (Michael) Yaguchi, thank you very much for that generous introduction and for inviting me to join you all today to pay tribute to the ultimate sacrifice paid by the 66 fallen Nisei soldiers in the Honor Roll, and to recognize the loyalty, bravery, and patriotism of all those who fought alongside them, and those who followed in their footsteps.

Thank you to Congressman (Adam) Smith for everything that you do to honor our nation’s greatest heroes and for welcoming me, not just into your district, but into your community.  And this is your family. And we’re very, very grateful for your leadership over the years, both here, locally, and in Washington, D.C.

Erika Moritsugu has her Commissioned Officer official portrait taken on Thursday, July 1, 2021, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Stephanie Chasez)

HOW INCREDIBLE IS IT?  That the Nisei Veterans (Committee) can have kept this time honored, tradition intact, for 78 consecutive years.  Colleen (Fukui-Sketchley), you put together a beautiful program for 18 years.  You must have started when you were three… (audience laughter).  

TODAY, WE REMEMBER the men and women who served valiantly in the 100th Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, the Military Intelligence Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Corps, and the Army Nurse Corps during World War II, and for those who fought and died in conflicts, before and after, and for those who remain missing — in the Spanish-American War, in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Whether it was abroad or on the home fronts, these brave souls served our nation when it mattered the most. We will not forget their heroism that sparks us into action with the courage and love of our country that they inspire.

So, I’d like to recognize all the Gold Star families and veterans from all conflicts who are here with us. If you’re able to wave or stand, please do so, so that we can honor you… (audience applause). On behalf of President Biden, ‘Mahalo nui loa’ for your service and your sacrifice. Our nation is indebted to your family’s sacrifices, and we honor you. 

I’M HERE TODAY to represent the White House as a Yonsei, a fourth generation Japanese American. I grew up in Hawai’i, where the sacrifices of the 100th Battalion (were) so taken for granted as a part of everyday life that I only recently learned to appreciate the power of the adage that I grew up with: “Okagesama de.” It loosely translates into “I am who I am because of you.” To make a mistake (it means), we are who we are because of them, because of the heroism of the greatest generation. We are who we are because of them, and you. 

I know because I personally had many people in my family serving in WWII. Like many, they rose to defend and serve this great nation. My grandfather, Richard Yutaka Moritsugu, and two of his brothers served during the war. Grandpa served in the 298th Hawaii Territorial Guard from June 1941 and then with 100th Battalion from its formation in June 1942. In December 1942, he was reassigned to the Military Intelligence Service, one of the senpai gumi (elder soldiers) from the 100th Battalion. And he served in the Saipan and Okinawa campaigns as an “interpreter.” But anybody who’s had family who served in MIS knows that his citation of service recommending his Bronze Star tells a story of this quiet man. He served with courage, empathy, grit, death-defying actions (for) the lives that he saved, and of the families and comrades that he rescued.

Now my sister and cousin and I never heard any of this from him because Grandpa never, ever spoke of this time during the war — not even when he was asked, not ever in his lifetime. Meanwhile, our great uncle, Masato Nakae, or Uncle Curly, served with the 100th Battalion in Europe and was awarded the Medal of Honor for defending an outpost position near Pisa, Italy on August 19, 1944. During a fierce attack by a superior enemy force, including a concentrated enemy mortar barrage that seriously wounded him, he refused to leave his outpost, continued to fire and throw grenades, and finally succeeded in breaking up the attack and forcing the Germans to withdraw. That area, in the village that he held, by the way, at Camp Darby, near Pisa, is now named in his honor. 

His brother-in-law, Ronald Kuroda, another 100th soldier, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for separate action in Italy. Uncle Ronald’s younger brother, Robert, of the storied 442nd, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for action that led to his wartime death in France. There is an update to that story too, about a Frenchman who took a metal detector (there) during the pandemic.  (He) recently returned Uncle Robert’s High School class ring from Farrington High School (Honolulu) that he found buried in the French countryside where this deadly battle took place.  

NOW, AT THE SAME TIME, our great grandfather and great, great uncle were arrested and imprisoned at Hono‘uli‘uli (incarceration camp) in Hawai‘i, on Oahu. My great, great uncle — this is  my great grandfather’s baby brother —  Yasuichi, was transported from Oahu to a New Mexico incarceration camp  for being a leader of his fishing village in Heeia, in Kaneohe, Hawai‘i. My cousins and I recently had the profound experience to visit the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, to honor my great grandfather and great-great uncle in the Ireicho, the most comprehensively researched book of names identifying those who were incarcerated at the 75 confinement sites across the nation during WWII.

So, my friends, this is juxtaposition — Dale Watanabe I think captured it better than I ever could — where the most distinguished servicemen, including those who fought in the unit that was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, for fighting and many, many dying, for our country. And it is seen side-by-side the wartime incarceration of others, our beloved elders from the same family, like so many, in your families, in our communities, in our American history. 

WHILE OUR PAIN AND TRAUMA might linger, we are fortunate to have a president who honors our story and our history.  He said, “While their own families were behind barbed wires, JAs fought in defense of the nation’s freedom with valor and courage.” This was a part of the President’s statement, which I couldn’t have been more honored to deliver at the Smithsonian Museum Day of Remembrance event this year, in which he acknowledged our community’s patriotism and sacrifices. 

President Biden also recognized our heroes when he issued his proclamation last year remembering the 80th anniversary of the signing of the infamous Executive Order 9066 to remember those who were unjustly (incarcerated and the) Nisei veterans who served.  In the last couple months, the President also signed the Amache National Historic Site (Act) to preserve and protect this JA incarceration camp in Grenada, Colorado, where nearly 10 percent of those incarcerated in Amache enlisted in the military during the war.  

The President also enacted Representative Doris Matsui’s “Norman Y. Mineta Japanese American Confinement Education Act” into law which reauthorizes the JA confinement site program within the National Park Service to educate all Americans on the incarceration of the JAs during WWII. 

President Biden more recently honored two JA soldiers, Staff Sergeant Edward N. Kaneshiro and Specialist V Dennis M. Fujii with the Medal of Honor for their incredible gallantry and intrepidity, above and beyond the call of duty, during the Vietnam conflict. He upgraded their awards to set the record straight because not every Nisei soldier received the full recognition that he deserved. 

Our president values what it means to be Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander in this country and to educate others about the importance of the AA and NHPI story as a part of the American story, which is why he also signed into law a bill that brings us closer to having our own national museum of AA and NHPI history and culture. This is a huge milestone in honoring our legacy and heritage. This museum would be a place to capture the courage and character of those that we are here to honor today and to have a home in our nation’s capital.   

Since the beginning of the administration, President Biden and Vice President Harris have committed to empowering and uplifting AA and NHPI individuals, families, and communities. Again, it is my greatest honor to work for a president who is committed to our veterans, our military families, including our beloved uncles and fathers, grandfathers, aunties, moms, and grandmas. And as he stated in the proclamation, honoring this commemoration and ordering the lowering of the flag. He said, “These brave service members are not only the heart and soul of our country. They are our very spine.” 

“Today, as every day, we remember their service and ultimate sacrifices to our nation. We reflect on our sacred and enduring vow to care for their families. And together, as we pause and pray, we pledge to continue defending freedom and democracy in their honor. May God bless our fallen heroes. And may God protect our troops. Mahalo melo…”