WWII soldiers posthumously receive Purple Heart medals 79 years after fatal plane crash

May 10, 2024, 6:47 PM

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) — The families of five Hawaii men who served in a unit of Japanese-language linguists during World War II received posthumous Purple Heart medals on behalf of their loved ones on Friday, nearly eight decades after the soldiers died in a plane crash in the final days of the conflict.

“I don’t have words. I’m just overwhelmed,” said Wilfred Ikemoto as he choked up while speaking of the belated honor given to his older brother Haruyuki.

The older Ikemoto was among 31 men killed when their C-46 transport plane hit a cliff while attempting to land in Okinawa, Japan, on Aug. 13, 1945.

“I’m just happy that he got recognized,” Ikemoto said.

Army records indicate only two of the 31 ever received Purple Heart medals, which the military awards to those wounded or killed during action against an enemy.

Researchers in Hawaii and Minnesota recently discovered the omission, leading the Army to agree to issue medals to families of the 29 men who were never recognized. Researchers located families of the five from Hawaii, and now the Army is asking family members of the other 24 men to contact them so their loved ones can finally receive recognition.

The older Ikemoto was the fourth of 10 children and the first in his family to attend college when he enrolled at the University of Hawaii. He was photographer and developed film in a makeshift darkroom in a bedroom at home.

“I remember him as probably the smartest and most talented in our family,” said Wilfred Ikemoto, who was 10 years old when his older brother died.

On board the plane were 12 paratroopers with the 11th Airborne Division, five soldiers in a Counter-intelligence Detachment assigned to the paratroopers, 10 Japanese-American linguists in the Military Intelligence Service and four crew members.

They had all flown up from the Philippines to spearhead the occupation of Japan after Tokyo’s surrender, said Daniel Matthews, who looked into the ill-fated flight while researching his father’s postwar service in the 11th Airborne.

Matthews attributed the Army’s failure to recognize all 31 soldiers with medals to administrative oversight in the waning hours of the war. The U.S. had been preparing to invade Japan’s main islands, but it formulated alternative plans after receiving indications Japan was getting ready to surrender. Complicating matters further, there were four different units on the plane.

Wilfred Motokane Jr. said he had mixed feelings after he accepted his father’s medal.

“I’m very happy that we’re finally recognizing some people,” he said. “I think it took a long time for it to happen. That’s the one part that I don’t feel that good about, if you will.”

The Hawaii five were all part of the Military Intelligence Service or MIS, a U.S. Army unit made up of mostly Japanese Americans who interrogated prisoners, translated intercepted messages and traveled behind enemy lines to gather intelligence.

They five had been inducted in January 1944 after the MIS, desperate to get more recruits, sent a team to Hawaii to find more linguists, historian Mark Matsunaga said.

Altogether some 6,000 served with the Military Intelligence Service. But much of their work has remained relatively unknown because it was classified until the 1970s.

During the U.S. occupation of Japan, they served crucial roles as liaisons between American and Japanese officials and overseeing regional governments.

Retired Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, who recently stepped down as head of U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, presented the medals to the families during the ceremony on the banks of Pearl Harbor. Nakasone’s Hawaii-born father served in the MIS after the war, giving him a personal connection to the event.

“What these Military Intelligence Service soldiers brought to the occupation of Japan was an understanding of culture that could take what was the vanquished to work with the victor,” Nakasone said. “I’m very proud of all the MIS soldiers not only during combat, but also during the occupation.”

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WWII soldiers posthumously receive Purple Heart medals 79 years after fatal plane crash