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WWII soldiers posthumously receive Purple Heart medals nearly 80 years after fatal plane crash

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Five Hawaiian men who served in a unit of Japanese-language linguists during World War II were recognized with posthumous Purple Heart medals nearly 80 years after their plane crashed in the final days of the conflict.

The men – Joseph Kuwada, Haruyuki Ikemoto, Kazuyoshi Inouye, Wilfred Motokane, and Masaru Sogi – were among 31 killed when their C-46 transport plane hit a cliff while attempting to land in Okinawa, Japan on Aug. 13, 1945. Army records indicate only two of the 31 received Purple Heart medals, which are awarded to service members wounded or killed during action against an enemy.

WWII-Purple Heart
Photos of Hawaii men posthumously awarded Purple Heart medals sit on a table at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Friday, May 10, 2024.

Audrey McAvoy / AP


The Purple Heart is the nation’s oldest military medal, dating back to the time of George Washington. It has been awarded almost two million times.

Researchers in Hawaii and Minnesota recently discovered the omission, leading the Army to agree to issue medals to families of the 29 men who were never recognized. Researchers located families of the five from Hawaii, and now the Army is asking family members of the other 24 men to contact them so their loved ones can finally receive recognition.

“I don’t have words. I’m just overwhelmed,” Wilfred Ikemoto said as he choked up while speaking of the belated honor given to his older brother Haruyuki during a ceremony in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Friday.

“I’m just happy that he got recognized,” Ikemoto said.

The older Ikemoto was the fourth of 10 children and the first in his family to attend college when he enrolled at the University of Hawaii. He was a photographer and developed film in a makeshift darkroom in a bedroom at home.

“I remember him as probably the smartest and most talented in our family,” said Wilfred Ikemoto, who was 10 years old when his brother died.

On board the plane were 12 paratroopers with the 11th Airborne Division, five soldiers in a Counter-intelligence Detachment assigned to the paratroopers, 10 Japanese American linguists in the Military Intelligence Service and four crew members.

They had all flown up from the Philippines to spearhead the occupation of Japan after Tokyo’s surrender, said Daniel Matthews, who looked into the ill-fated flight while researching his father’s postwar service in the 11th Airborne.

WWII-Purple Heart
Wilfred Ikemoto, right, whose older brother Haruyuki Ikemoto posthumously received a Purple Heart medal after being killed in World War II, thanks researcher Daniel Matthews in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Friday, May 10, 2024.

Audrey McAvoy / AP


Matthews attributed the Army’s failure to recognize all 31 soldiers with medals to administrative oversight in the waning hours of the war. The U.S. had been preparing to invade Japan’s main islands, but it formulated alternative plans after receiving indications Japan was getting ready to surrender. Complicating matters further, there were four different units on the plane.

Wilfred Motokane Jr. said he had mixed feelings after he accepted his father’s medal.

“I’m very happy that we’re finally recognizing some people,” he said. “I think it took a long time for it to happen. That’s the one part that I don’t feel that good about, if you will.”

The Hawaii five were all part of the Military Intelligence Service or MIS, a U.S. Army unit made up of mostly Japanese Americans who interrogated prisoners, translated intercepted messages and traveled behind enemy lines to gather intelligence.

They five had been inducted in January 1944 after the MIS, desperate to get more recruits, sent a team to Hawaii to find more linguists, historian Mark Matsunaga said.

Altogether some 6,000 served with the Military Intelligence Service. But much of their work has remained relatively unknown because it was classified until the 1970s.

During the U.S. occupation of Japan, they served crucial roles as liaisons between American and Japanese officials and overseeing regional governments.

WWII-Purple Heart
Members of the Sogi family hold a photo of Masaru Sogi and the Purple Heart medal posthumously awarded to him, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Friday, May 10, 2024.

Audrey McAvoy / AP


Retired Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, who recently stepped down as head of U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, presented the medals to the families during the ceremony on the banks of Pearl Harbor. Nakasone’s Hawaii-born father served in the MIS after the war, giving him a personal connection to the event.

“What these Military Intelligence Service soldiers brought to the occupation of Japan was an understanding of culture that could take what was the vanquished to work with the victor,” Nakasone said. “I’m very proud of all the MIS soldiers not only during combat, but also during the occupation.”

During his research, Matthews also located the niece of the senior officer aboard the plane, Capt. John H. Norton, of Marion, South Carolina. She will soon be presented the Purple Heart in honor of her uncle, a 1943 West Point graduate who led the counterintelligence team attached to the 11th Airborne Division.

He hopes the ceremony in Hawaii and the other in South Carolina will help other families pursue the Purple Hearts their loved ones earned with their service.

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