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Hiroshi Miyamura, Medal of Honor recipient from Korean War, dies at 97

He was the first living Japanese American, and the second overall, to receive the country’s highest award for valor

Hiroshi Miyamura was a U.S. Army corporal when he helped save the lives of his machine-gun squad during the Korean War in 1951. (Amanda Mccoy/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/AP)

Hiroshi Miyamura, a U.S. Army squad leader who wielded a bayonet and machine gun to help his men escape an overwhelming enemy assault during the Korean War, then endured two years as a prisoner of war before learning that he had received the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor, died Nov. 29 in Phoenix. He was 97.

Along with retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett, 95, Mr. Miyamura was one of only two remaining Medal of Honor recipients from the Korean War. His death was announced by the Medal of Honor Society, which did not cite a cause.

A nisei, or son of Japanese immigrants, Mr. Miyamura was born and raised in New Mexico, where he said that in the years after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he sought to prove that he was a loyal American by entering prizefights and joining the ROTC. He was drafted into the Army near the close of World War II, joined occupying forces in Italy and returned to active duty in 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea and the United States sponsored what was initially described as a “police action,” under the auspices of the United Nations.

“I thought we were just going there with billy clubs to do a little police work,” Mr. Miyamura told The Washington Post in 1995. Instead, he found himself in an “all-out war” that led to the deaths of more than 36,000 American service members.

On the night of April 24, 1951, then-Cpl. Miyamura was startled to see masses of Chinese troops creeping toward his machine-gun squad, illuminated by a trip flare on a scorched hillside near the border between North and South Korea. He fixed his bayonet and charged forward, killing about 10 enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat before returning to his men and administering first aid to the wounded, according to his Medal of Honor citation.

Taking charge of the machine gun, Cpl. Miyamura fired at waves of approaching soldiers until he was nearly out of ammunition. After ordering his men to withdraw, he remained behind to provide cover and dismantle the gun, preventing it from being taken into enemy hands, and scrambled to reach another U.S. emplacement. Along the way, he said, he shot and bayoneted a Chinese soldier who dropped a live grenade, sending shrapnel flying into his legs.

Bloodied but still mobile, he arrived at the next American position and helped direct the defenses. Once again, he found himself on the verge of annihilation and ordered his remaining men to fall back while he remained to cover them.

“He killed more than 50 of the enemy before his ammunition was depleted and he was severely wounded,” the Medal of Honor citation said. “He maintained his magnificent stand despite his painful wounds, continuing to repel the attack until his position was overrun. When last seen he was fighting ferociously against an overwhelming number of enemy soldiers.”

Mr. Miyamura said that he passed out from exhaustion and blood loss, and woke up a prisoner of war.

“Don’t worry,” a Chinese officer told him, “we have a lenient policy.”

Over the next five weeks, he was forced to march 300 miles to a POW camp near the Chinese border. He later told the Los Angeles Times that he survived the trek while eating bug-infested rations — small bags of millet and barley — and dandelions and grass that he tore from the ground. At times, he hallucinated that he was back at the all-night diner that his father owned in Gallup, N.M., eating pancakes at the counter.

Conditions at the POW camp were not much better. Some prisoners died of dysentery, and by the time he was freed in August 1953, 28 months after he was captured, he weighed less than 100 pounds. (He stood 5-foot-10.)

When he was taken back to a U.S. military installation in Korea, he worried that he might be court-martialed for his company’s losses on the battlefield. Instead, he was told that he had been promoted — he ultimately attained the rank of staff sergeant — and learned that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor. The award was previously kept secret out of concern for his safety in captivity.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented him with the medal in a White House ceremony that October, Mr. Miyamura became the first living Japanese American to receive the honor, and only the second overall. The first, Sadao Munemori, was awarded the medal posthumously after sacrificing his life in 1945 to save fellow soldiers in Italy.

Mr. Miyamura received a hero’s welcome back home in Gallup, where a high school and highway interchange were later named in his honor. But on the whole, he said, he felt that he and his fellow service members were overlooked. Many Americans seemed not to remember “the Forgotten War,” as the conflict in Korea is sometimes known.

“Very few people are aware of the Japanese Americans who fought in the Korean War, and it’s a shame because there were so many people who accomplished so much,” he said at a 1997 event in Burbank, Calif., dedicated to nisei veterans. “You just never hear of them.”

“Then again,” he added, “that’s part of our heritage. We’re not supposed to be braggarts.”

The fourth of seven children, Mr. Miyamura was born in Gallup — at the time, he said, the city was a small but rowdy community of cowboys, Native Americans and immigrant newcomers — on Oct. 6, 1925. His parents had moved there two years earlier, joining an aunt who ran a boardinghouse for miners. His father bought a 24-hour diner, the OK Cafe, where according to the Los Angeles Times the family lived in the basement, and his mother died when he was 11.

Mr. Miyamura adopted the nickname Hershey when a teacher struggled to pronounce Hiroshi. But he said that he faced little discrimination in Gallup, where there were about two dozen other Japanese families, even as Japanese Americans faced widespread persecution during World War II.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942, clearing the way for the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent on the West Coast, Mr. Miyamura began to see trains filled with Japanese American families headed for internment camps. (His own family lived outside the “military zones” where forced relocations occurred.)

After graduating from high school, he joined the 100th Infantry Battalion of the 442nd Regiment, a highly decorated unit composed almost entirely of nisei. He later served in the Army Reserve and, during the Korean War, in the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Infantry Regiment. For a time, his unit was stationed on the Japanese island of Kyushu, where his father had grown up.

His wife of 66 years, the former Tsuruko “Terry” Tsuchimori, died in 2014. Survivors include three children, Pat and Mike Miyamura and Kelly Hildahl. Additional information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Miyamura delivered mail in Gallup and ran a filling station and repair shop for three decades. He also struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, saying that he tried to forget about his combat experiences before finding that it helped to talk about the war, including in conversations with fellow veterans and in lectures to students.

“There are so many Americans that do not know what the medal represents, or what any soldier or service woman or man does for this country,” he said in a video interview for the Medal of Honor Society. “I believe one of these days — I hope one of these days — they will learn of the sacrifices that a lot of the men and women have made for this country.”

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