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Face-to-Face with Hiroshi Miyamura: Journey from ‘enemy alien’ to American hero

HIROSHI MIYAMURA

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s Note:

Hiroshi Miyamura watched a lot of the Winter Olympics in South Korea. But just the mention of the country brings back a flood of memories. He talked about his heroic role in what is known as America’s forgotten war, in an interview with Senior Editor Kent Walz.

Hiroshi Miyamura has given as much to his country as anyone could possibly ask.

President Dwight Eisenhower presented the Medal of Honor to Hiroshi Miyamura in 1953 at the White House. Now 92, Miyamura isn’t finished serving his country. (Department Of Defense)

Awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in the Korean War, he was credited with saving the lives of his 16-member squad by fighting off waves of attackers in hand-to-hand combat and manning a machine gun as his men retreated.

Rejected as an enemy alien when he tried to enlist in the Army after Pearl Harbor, Miyamura was the only member of his command who didn’t make it off the hill in Korea that night of April 24, 1951, to join the American retreat as thousands of Chinese troops poured across the Yalu River.

It wasn’t until armistice talks began later that the U.S. command learned that Miyamura had been taken prisoner, spending 27 months in a Chinese prison camp after a brutal monthlong march.

A letter from the U.S. command to his wife – a Japanese-American woman who had spent time in a relocation camp – informing her that Miyamura was a POW was actually good news. That’s because an earlier letter had simply said he was missing in action.

But today, at age 92, “Hershey” Miyamura isn’t done serving his country.

A lifelong resident of Gallup and active in the Medal of Honor Society, he works to help people understand the value of patriotism, American history and faith.

“I finally realized that’s what I should be doing,” he said in an interview last week. “Teach the young ones, military or not, of certain principles to live by.”

“For me, the most important thing is have faith in God. Then everything comes so much easier.”

Hiroshi Miyamura greets fellow Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, a Santa Fe native, in front of the state Capitol in Santa Fe in July 2011 during a ceremony to honor Petry, who had recently received the medal. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Miyamura’s speaking schedule has slowed down – he’s in good health but complains that his knees hurt. He remains active and swears by a concoction of green tea, honey and apple cider vinegar he has been drinking every morning since he was 60.

His next scheduled event is later this month in Texas, where he will appear at an event to honor Gold Star Mothers – those who have lost a son or daughter in combat.

“We need to do more for them.” he says.

Discrimination

Both Miyamura and his wife, the former Tsuruko “Terry” Tsuchimori, knew firsthand the discrimination and suspicion directed at Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.

Humble, soft-spoken and good-humored, Miyamura told his story during an interview at his kitchen table.

When Miyamura tried to enlist as a 17-year-old, he found that Japanese-American men had been classified as “enemy aliens.”

“There weren’t that many of us (Japanese) in the U.S. at that time, and the government didn’t really know much about us. They didn’t know whether we would be loyal to America or Japan.

Kim Young and Medal of Honor recipient Hiroshi Miyamura attend the unveiling of the Korean War Monument at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial in Albuquerque in 2008. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“But I considered myself to be an American like anybody else, so it was really a shock when I heard that I was considered an enemy alien.”

And, he said, “you know, a lot of the boys who had been in those relocation camps stepped up to volunteer.”

The view of young Japanese-Americans changed after the performance of the famous all-volunteer “Nisei” battalion, mostly from Hawaii, who had been sent to Europe to fight the Germans. The Nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans, were one of the most highly decorated units in the military.

“They distinguished themselves in battle, and commanding officers said we need more of these Nisei troops,” Miyamura said. “So the government reclassified all of us Japanese here in America back to 1-A … so we could be drafted or volunteer.”

He was drafted and eventually shipped to Europe in the closing days of the war. He didn’t see action, but he enlisted in the reserves, so he was called up to active duty when the Korean War broke out.

Heroic acts

Hiroshi Miyamura

Miyamura had been in Korea for several months when his unit moved into a position south of the Yalu River, along the border between China and Korea.

United Nations forces were outnumbered and poorly equipped.

“It was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life,” he said in a recent interview. “We never received the food we needed. Across the river, you could see thousands of their troops, and we knew we were going to be attacked. I told the men to get ready.”

Miyamura, a corporal, commanded a squad of 12 men with two machine guns and an additional four riflemen. He says communications were terrible.

“I had no walkie-talkie, and the only time I saw my platoon sergeant was when he came up to me and said, ‘This is where they want you to dig in and hold the position.’ I asked for grenades and extra ammo. I had an M1, a carbine, and, as a squad leader, I had been issued a .45 pistol.”

Miyamura’s Medal of Honor citation, issued by President Harry S. Truman, tells a chilling but heroic story of a man once rejected by the U.S. military because of his heritage.

The attackers came with the launch of flares, the banging of pans and blowing of whistles.

“I told my men to fix bayonets, and they said, ‘Are you kidding? Nobody does that.’ ”

As the attackers began to overwhelm and flank the American position, the citation says, Miyamura, “aware of the imminent danger to his men, jumped from his shelter wielding his bayonet in close hand-to-hand combat killing approximately 10 of the enemy.”

“He returned to his position and administered first aid to the wounded and directed their evacuation.”

With a new wave of attackers, Miyamura “manned the machine gun and delivered withering fire until his ammunition was expended.”

He ordered his men to withdraw and provided cover, eventually disabling the gun so it couldn’t be used by the enemy. He then manned the second machine gun until it could no longer be operated.

Again, he told his men to evacuate.

The citation says he “killed more than 50 enemy.”

“When last seen he was fighting ferociously against an overwhelming number of enemy soldiers.”

Taken prisoner

Miyamura’s whereabouts and condition at that point became a mystery.

He says all of his men safely made it back to American lines and joined a retreat that would last several more weeks.

Not so with Miyamura.

His men evacuated; he encountered a grenade-wielding enemy soldier. He both shot and bayoneted the man.

“I pulled out the bayonet and fell backwards, and the grenade blast went over my head. I survived but took shrapnel in my leg.”

As Miyamura made his way down the hill, he became entangled in barbed wire and passed out. He awakened to the sound of people marching.

He tried to be still and for a moment thought, “I had it made.” Then a voice in English said, “You are my prisoner.”

That began a monthlong march of captured Americans to what was known as Camp One.

“We had nothing to eat for the first two weeks. Many of us were wounded but received no medical attention. There was no water. We had to drink from streams.”

When they arrived at the camp, they were assigned nine men to a hut with dirt floors. “But,” he said, “it was better than sleeping outside, which is what we had been doing.”

When the food arrived at the camp, it wasn’t much: a cup of soybean milk in the morning and a diet mostly of sorghum and millet. Rice was a luxury.

By the time he was released after 27 months in captivity, Miyamura had lost 50 pounds.

After the Army

Miyamura’s story and his lasting friendship with fellow soldier Joe Anello is chronicled in the book “Forged in Fire: the Saga of Hershey and Joe” by Vincent H. Okamoto. It is dedicated to the 44,692 soldiers who never came home.

Miyamura is a well-known name in Gallup, where a street, a park and a high school have been named in his honor.

But where did the nickname “Hershey” come from?

A schoolteacher, he says, chuckling. “She couldn’t pronounced Hiroshi, so she would come to my name and just stop. She just stood there, and finally she said, ‘I’m just going to call you Hershey.’ ”

It stuck.

Hershey returned to Gallup after he mustered out of the Army at the rank of staff sergeant.

“They asked if I wanted to re-enlist, but my wife and I wanted to have a family,” he said. “That was the most important thing to me.”

Hershey and Terry had three children, including a daughter who went to the Air Force Academy and who is now a captain on active duty.

His beloved Terry passed away in 2014.

Over their decades together, they never talked much about her time in the relocation camp near Parker, Ariz., because “she didn’t like to.”

Back in Gallup, Miyamura went to work as a mechanic and eventually opened his own garage and service station. He retired in 1985. Friend and supporter Kenneth Riege says people still come up and thank Miyamura for fixing their parents’ cars.

Miyamura lives in an immaculate house not far from Gallup’s main drag, with an American and MIA/POW flag flying in the front yard.

A couple of Vietnam veterans erected the flagpole as part of a project to honor veterans.

“To me, the flag represents the men and women who defended this country. … Throughout history, it has been the symbol of this country.”

He worked unsuccessfully for an amendment to make flag burning illegal, adding that “some congressmen would agree with us in meetings and then vote against us.”

Not surprisingly, he thinks that taking a knee during the national anthem “is showing disrespect” and that a person who does something like that doesn’t really understand the history of this country.

Finding faith

Miyamura was born in Gallup in 1925.

“My dad left Japan, and he broke all ties with the people back there. We were raised not knowing how to really speak the native language.”

His father started out working at the coal mines, and his older sister and her husband had settled in Gamerco, three miles north of town, in a coal mining camp. She opened a boardinghouse for miners from all over the world.

“My dad learned to cook at the boardinghouse, but his main job was to weigh the coal as it came out of the mine. After we moved into town, he opened a hamburger stand and later a restaurant near Coal Avenue called the OK Cafe. He never made much money, because he had too much overhead with two chefs and six waitresses.”

Hershey didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, instead learning the mechanic trade from his uncle Frank.

He also began his relationship with God as a young boy, when at age 11 he came in contact with a missionary from the Japanese Free Methodists of Phoenix.

He considers himself a person of faith and tells young people that “things will happen in your life that you won’t understand, but that are meant to be.”

Relating his faith to his time in Korea, he said, “In combat, you have to make decisions, and you don’t know whether it’s right or wrong. I asked God for guidance, and he helped me make decisions.”

‘Highest honor’

Truman issued the Medal of Honor citation while Miyamura was still a POW in a top-secret ceremony, because the U.S. didn’t want the Chinese to know whom they had as a prisoner.

President Dwight Eisenhower eventually presented him with the medal, “which to me was the highest honor a soldier could receive … to have a general like him who became president to put that medal around your neck.”

He was also awarded a Purple Heart, the POW Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal.

Miyamura was released from the Chinese prison camp in the summer of 1953, crossing into what was known as Freedom Village in Panmunjon. He was debriefed and led out to meet the press, where Brig. Gen. Ralph Osborn hailed him as the “greatest VIP to pass through Freedom Village.”

“My commanding general asked, ‘Do you know why you’re here?'” Miyamura recalled. “I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘You have received the Medal of Honor.’

“I remember all I could say was, ‘What?’

“It wasn’t until later, when I saw that flag, the star-spangled banner, waving in the breeze, did I know. I’ve learned what it represents, and that alone is what makes you feel so humble. So many never come home to any kind of recognition, and so many Americans don’t know what any service man or woman does for their country, what sacrifices they have made.”

Telling that story of sacrifice of those who have fought for and preserved freedom, along with the value of patriotism and a belief in America is a mission Hiroshi Miyamura will embrace for the rest of his days.

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