HONOLULU – Ronald Oba grew up saluting the U.S. flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school, like millions of other American boys.
But he was labeled an "enemy alien" after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, because his ancestors came from the same land as the attacking planes.
To prove his loyalty, Oba joined the Army as soon as President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed Japanese-Americans to enlist. His segregated unit — the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — soon became the most highly decorated military unit in U.S. history for its size and length of service.
This month, Congress is expected to award its highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, to Oba and others who fought, even as their countrymen viewed them with suspicion and distrust. Many wore the uniform while their families spent the war in detention camps back home.
The honorees would include some 6,000 Japanese-Americans who served as translators and interpreters against Japan, often on the front lines with Marines and soldiers fighting from island to island across the Pacific.
The elite medal has been given selectively since 1776, when George Washington was awarded the first. Other honorees include the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Rosa Parks and the Dalai Lama. The Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of black fighter pilots, received the medal in 2007.
Oba is grateful, saying the medal would spread awareness about the veterans.
"We appreciate our legacy being carried on," Oba, now 87, said in an interview at the Honolulu clubhouse for 442nd veterans. "Finally, they're recognizing our contribution during World War II."
Just outside the clubhouse is a memorial listing the names of nearly 800 Japanese-American soldiers killed in action. A plaque spells out the unit's motto — "Go for broke" — a Pidgin, or Hawaii Creole English, expression meaning "give it your all."
A large granite map shows where the 442nd, which absorbed the previously established Japanese-American unit, the 100th Infantry Battalion, during the war, pushed its way through Italy and France. The area covers the Vosges Mountains, where the unit suffered 800 casualties maneuvering through fog and dense forest against hidden German machine guns to rescue the trapped "Lost Battalion" of the nearly all-Texan 36th Division.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, who took a break from college to enlist and lost his right arm fighting in Italy, said he didn't help draft the bill because he would be honored by it.
But the Hawaii Democrat said the medal would give the veterans "a jolt of joy."
"Keep in mind, there were some who volunteered from behind barbed wires. We in Hawaii volunteered knowing that we were 'enemy aliens.' And that's not easy," Inouye said.
The senator hopes the award will come soon because the youngest unit members are in the their mid-80s and only about a third are still alive.
"I just hope that Congress will pass it in time so that some of us may look upon and reflect and say that it was all worth it," said Inouye, who turned 86 this month.
The House is expected to vote on the measure as early as this week. The Senate unanimously passed the bill last month.
Harold Fudenna, a Military Intelligence Service translator who served while his parents were at an internment camp, died before he could be honored.
The California native was listening to radio communications in New Guinea in 1943 when he intercepted a Japanese message specifying the time Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto — the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor — would be flying to inspect his troops.
Fudenna's translation allowed the U.S. to shoot down Yamamoto's plane, dealing a severe blow to Japanese morale. Gen. Douglas MacArthur called the feat "one of the singularly most significant actions of the Pacific War."
Keith Fudenna said his father, who died in 1993 at the age of 75, would be pleased by the medal but would deflect any honors directed at him personally. The elder Fudenna always said he was only doing his duty.
"He did not think that what he did was that big of a thing, and there were many others who were more courageous and their stories should be highlighted more than his," said Keith Fudenna, who is an Alameda County Superior Court judge in California.
Ted Tsukiyama, who trained with the 442nd before he was selected to be a Military Intelligence Service translator, cites a story from the beginning of the war to illustrate the difficulties Japanese-Americans faced when so many questioned their loyalty.
A Hawaiian and a Japanese-American soldier in the Hawaii Territorial Guard were manning a gun pit on Oahu shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the Hawaiian turned to his comrade.
"Eh, if dey come, who you going shoot? Dem or me?" he asked, in Pidgin. The Japanese-American replied, "Who you t'ink, stupid? Me j'us as good American as you!"
Tsukiyama, 89, said many Japanese-Americans enlisted to prove the same point.
"By the time these black bags started to come back from Europe with Japanese names on them, nobody asked the question 'Who you going shoot?' anymore," said Tsukiyama.
The soldiers proved, as Roosevelt said when he announced the formation of the 442nd, that being American is a matter of the "mind and heart" and not race or ancestry, he said.