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Wednesday March 4, 2009

Colonel Young Oak Kim: The Most Decorated Soldier of the 100th/442nd Continues to Inspire

Joyce Caoile

When I first got this assignment on Colonel Young Oak Kim, I wasn't sure if I would be able contact him or if he was still alive.

When I got his e-mail address from the Go For Broke Educational Foundation, I sent him a note. To my surprise, on the day of the interview, he called me! Colonel Kim sounded as strong as I hope to be at his age. At 84 years old, he's literally, a living hero. Though retired from active duty, Colonel Kim continues to serve and inspire.

In 1941, Japan astounded the world when they bombed Pearl Harbor. The US reacted by sequestering the Japanese Americans to concentration camps and classifying soldiers of Japanese descent as unfit for battle. But these soldiers wanted to prove their loyalty to the US by serving in the war. Finally in 1942, the US allowed them to enlist to form the 100th Infantry Battalion.

When Young Oak Kim joined the 100th in 1943 for advanced training in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, his then colonel offered to arrange for his transfer. The colonel assumed that as a Korean, Kim would not get along with the Japanese American battalion due to the historic tension between the two countries. Kim replied that he did not want to be transferred and reasoned "We're all Americans and we're all fighting for the same cause." And so he stayed with the 100th and they soon shipped out to Italy where Kim would have his most memorable experiences.

November 1943 - Ciorlano - while crossing the Volturno River, the soldiers of the 100th heard some loud gun firings. Captain Taro Suzuki and other troop members saw numerous soldiers fall, including Kim. A platoon leader suddenly screamed, "Fix bayonets!" Then the platoon charged, "Banzai!" That was the first bayonet charge in World War II. Kim, though injured, did not surrender; soldiers found him throwing hand grenades across the enemy line.

May 1944 - Anzio - a need for a strategic move to advance to the Germans presented a challenge for Kim. He rationalized that previous strategies failed since the troops always went out at night, when the enemy was on heightened alert. Instead, they should move forward in the daytime, while the Germans rested for their evening watch. Prior attempts also failed since the troops went out in large groups, therefore the enemy easily saw them. Instead, they should attack in smaller groups and perhaps come from a several directions to surprise the enemy. Colonel Singles apprehensively sent Kim and Private First Class Irving Akahoshi on a mission to test Kim's strategy. Together, they crawled across a field heading toward German territory. They started at night, and by dawn, they were close enough to hear the German soldiers preparing for breakfast. At 0900, they heard snoring. Kim and Akahoshi returned to their camp with the strategy for the attack at Anzio.

Kim's distinguished service in the 100th, which merged with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made him the most decorated soldier in the 100th / 442nd. He continued his service to the US in the Korean War as commander of the 31st Infantry Regiment. Upon retiring in 1972, he has helped in the development, support, and representation of the Asian American community through his involvement in numerous organizations.

One such group is the Korean Health Education Information and Research Center. "We help new immigrants since a vast majority come in not understanding health care in America. We help them obtain basic health care and offer the service of volunteers who are bilingual. That way, they can get the medical care they're entitled to by law." Kim says.

Kim and fellow veterans also established the Go For Broke Educational Foundation, named after the slogan of the 100th / 442nd. The Japanese American soldiers enjoyed dice games, and they associated the risk of rolling the dice for the game with the risk of losing their lives for their country. "Our ultimate goal is to tell our story as an American story - something all Americans should be proud of, and to enhance the level of pride and respect for our country." Kim explained. "The reason we're successful is the direct access to schools. By training teachers and providing them with lesson plans, our story is told for a long, long time."

Colonel Kim believes that America can be the greatest country. "America is unique and special, and true democracy is only really successful here in America. We're a beacon for the rest of the world, but we have a long way to go. We have to continue to educate people not to be prejudiced and not to hate others. People today are less biased than people 25 years ago - that shows progress - and progress is hard to make. But I have great hopes for young people, and I am pleased with the young people I've met."

Col. Kim died in December 2005.  For the author, it's been an honor to have talked with Colonel Kim - a humble patriot whose words of inspiration will never age with time.

Sources: Everything You Need to Know About Asian American History by Cao and Himilee Novas; Honor By Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific by Lyn Crost; Go For Broke: A Pictorial History of the 100/442nd Regimental Combat Team by Chester Tanaka; United States Department of Defense; Home of the Heroes; Korean Centennial and special thanks to Diane Tanaka from the Go For Broke Foundation.


This is a reprint of an article that appeared in Asians in America Magazine.

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