Hailing the heroes who knew hate at home

MOST joined up despite being branded ''enemy aliens''; others volunteered from behind the barbed wire of internment camps to prove their loyalty to the United States. Thousands never returned.

The 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team saw action in the bloodiest battles on the killing fields of Europe. Some helped liberate the Dachau Nazi concentration camp as their families sat in internment camps in the US.

Fifty years later, about 3,000 Japanese-American combat survivors gathered for a reunion which ended with a service at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

''I'm on cloud nine,'' said 74-year-old New Yorker Mr Roy Greene. He changed his name from Fukushima after the war because he did not know how people would react. ''We saw guys we haven't seen in 40 years. I'm all choked up.'' Like other veterans, the brothers-in-arms talked about grandchildren, remembered fallen colleagues and shared battle stories. But unlike most soldiers, they also remembered that after returning home, they were turned down for jobs, refused service and rejected by universities.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941, president Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order permitting the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, two thirds of whom were American citizens by birth. No similar actionwas taken against Italian-Americans or German-Americans.

Only in recent years has the US Government apologised and began making compensation payments of US$20,000 (HK$156,000) to survivors.

Most of those veterans who enlisted returned home after the war to find their families uprooted and their belongings scattered or sold.

At the reunion, as they looked around at their ageing friends, many spoke of the need to tell their story and pass on a legacy to their children.

''We lived in different times 50 years ago. It's a totally new world now,'' said Mr Kenneth Inada.

Discrimination would continue, he said, but his hope was that ''future generations would have a better time'' because of the accomplishments of the 442nd.

The men, whose motto was ''Go For Broke'', developed a reputation as brave and tenacious fighters. The battalion became the most heavily decorated unit of its size in US military history, earning 18,000 combat decorations in three years.

With no more than 4,500 men in the group at any one time, the unit suffered more than 10,000 killed, wounded and captured - meaning its ranks had to be refilled more than twice.

Those were brutal days. Former K Company staff sergeant Mr Joe Shimamura reminisced about the search for the Lost Battalion, among the most famous of the efforts of the 442nd.

Before the rescue, the regiment had already lost 1,200 men out of about 5,000 in liberating the French town of Bruyeres. The Germans were ordered to hold the town but the 442nd took it in four days of hand-to-hand combat.

Instead of resting up, they were sent to rescue the trapped first battalion of the 36th Division, Seventh Army.

''It was so dark. We just hung on to each other's pack,'' Mr Shimamura recalled. ''We were bombarded before we even got into position. The other outfit, instead of holding the position, dropped everything and ran. So we had to come up the ridge and dig in.

''A tank came down the gully and from 25 to 30 yards away began firing point blank at us. We were shaking in our pants. I felt it was going to be my last night.'' Losses were heavy. Even on a day when K Company was in reserve, Mr Shimamura lost four of the 11 men in his squad. When it was all over, K Company had been reduced from 250 men to 17. I Company, which had about 200 men, was left with eight.

Later, Major General John E. Dahlquist, who led the 36th Division and ordered the rescue of the Lost Battalion, asked the 442nd to gather so Dahlquist's unit could pass and honour the Japanese-Americans.

K Company veteran Mr Rudy Tokiwa, 66, said Dahlquist was not pleased with the turnout, thinking the 442nd soldiers had not bothered to turn out in full force.

''That's when our colonel broke down and said, 'sir, this is all that's left','' Mr Tokiwa said.

The experience left some veterans feeling as though they had been used as cannon fodder.

For Mr Tokiwa, Mr Shimamura and the other veterans, the memories were a way of preserving their history for future generations.

''This was the last big blowout actually. It's very important for us to tell the legacy of the 442nd because here we were American citizens and none of us had done anything wrong and we were put into concentration camps because the US Government said they couldn't trust us. It was important for us to prove our loyalty,'' Mr Tokiwa said.

''We felt we did quite a bit for the future generations.'' Hawaii receiving statehood, Daniel Inouye becoming state senator, the US Government apologising - all of these owe something to the efforts of the 442nd, other veterans say.

As the veterans told their stories, many who had been reserved about their past - not even telling their children in some cases - said they realised the need to speak up.

''It could be the last farewell for many of us,'' said Senator Inouye, who lost his right arm after it was shattered by a German grenade. ''A meeting of this sort is good to remind us of a time when Americans considered us to be enemy aliens.'' Senator Inouye recalled returning to Oakland, California, and walking into a barber shop with four empty chairs. ''I'm in full uniform, with captain's bars, rows of medals and a hook in my right hand. The man said, 'Are you a Jap?' I said my father was born in Japan but I'm an American. He said, 'We don't cut Jap hair'. I was tempted to break up the place.

''We still have a long way to go,'' he said. ''It's better these days but it might get worse if we're not vigilant.''