Barney Hajiro, nation’s oldest Medal of Honor recipient, 94

By Douglas Martin
New York Times / February 4, 2011

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NEW YORK — After Barney Hajiro, an Army private, single-handedly wiped out two German machine gun nests and killed two snipers in a gallant charge in World War II, his superiors recommended him for the Medal of Honor.

As part of a regiment composed entirely of Japanese-Americans below the officers’ ranks, Mr. Hajiro epitomized the unit’s brash motto, “Go for Broke!’’ His commanding officer’s report said that in October 1944 in eastern France, he had run 100 yards through a stream of bullets, walked through a booby-trapped area, and led the charge up “Suicide Hill’’ screaming “Banzai!’’ before taking out the machine gun nests.

He was shot four times — then insisted that 40 other wounded men be evacuated first.

But he, like Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who was also a member of the regiment, did not initially receive the Medal of Honor for which he was recommended. Only in 2000, after 56 years and a belated Pentagon review, did President Bill Clinton present the medal, the nation’s top military honor, to Mr. Hajiro, Inouye, and more than a dozen other Asian-American soldiers. Racial prejudice, Clinton said, had prevented such a ceremony after the war.

“I nearly gave up hope,’’ Mr. Hajiro said at the time.

“Barney was a good man,’’ Inouye said in an interview Wednesday. “He didn’t go around blowing his own horn. He would just say he was doing something he was supposed to do.’’

Mr. Hajiro, who had battled cancer, died Jan. 21 in Honolulu at 94, his family said. He had been the nation’s oldest Medal of Honor recipient.

His background was modest: Born in Hawaii, he dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work for 10 hours a day, at 10 cents an hour, on a sugar plantation. He was a dockworker when he was drafted into the Army in 1942 and assigned to dig ditches. The 442d Regimental Combat Team, a newly formed unit, would go on to be called the most decorated regiment for its size and length of service: Its 14,000 men earned 9,486 Purple Hearts, eight Presidential Unit Citations, and 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, the second-highest individual honor in the Army. Mr. Hajiro received three of those.

He and many of his comrades were decorated for the regiment’s most-celebrated operation, known as “the rescue of the Lost Battalion,’’ in which they saved 211 fellow soldiers trapped in southern France while suffering more than 800 casualties.

Barney Fushimi Hajiro, the oldest of nine children, was born in Puunene, on the island of Maui, where his parents had emigrated from Hiroshima during World War I.

He fought in Italy, then moved with his unit to eastern France, where he was cited for bravery on Oct. 19 and Oct. 22, 1944, in battles in mountainous terrain.

On Oct. 29, in the fighting that brought him the Medal of Honor, the 442d was pinned down, its soldiers picked off one by one by Germans on higher ground. Mr. Hajiro suffered wounds to his face, shoulder, and wrist in the counterattack.

“I couldn’t run backward,’’ he said. “I had to run forward. That’s the job of a soldier.’’