HONOLULU (KHON2) — The name Yukio Okutsu has been spoken often this year in connection with the tragic string of COVID-related deaths from the state veterans home that bears his name. But on this Veterans Day, Okutsu is remembered for the heroism and patriotism he embodied on the battlefield and for decades after the end of World War II.
April 7, 1945 was just another tough day for the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Okutsu was among those staked out in an uphill battle on Mount Belvedere in Italy. The Germans held the high ground, firing down from fortified nests.
“We got stuck there, the machine gun was firing on us,” Okutsu recalled of the battle in a 2002 oral history project at the Go For Broke National Education Center. The young platoon sergeant from Kauai knew what he didn’t want to do at that time.
“You don’t expect your men to charge one machine gun like that.” Okutsu said.
Instead, the brave soldier made a move unbeknownst to the Germans and even to his own brothers in arms.
“I didn’t tell anybody,” Okutsu said. “I figured I’ve got to do something and I did. I was in position where I can crawl, then I got in position where I can throw grenades.”
He threw two grenades. Down went the first nest, which was a close call for Okutsu himself.
“At the first one, yeah, I took some fire,” Okutsu said. “One hit me on my helmet.”
But under the cover of brush, he zigzagged on.
“I was throwing at the next machine gun nest and they gave up,” he said.
Okutsu captured two Germans in that moment and four more at a third nest.
“He was going for broke, that’s so true,” said Dr. Mitchell Maki, president and CEO of the Go For Broke National Education Center. “It’s a term that the guys would use on their gambling, you know, playing dice, playing cards. And what it really means is, we’re going to go all in, we’re going to shoot the works, we’re going to give it our all.”
By nightfall on April 7, 1945, the 442nd held all the cards.
“I got lucky I guess,” Okutsu said. “Somebody up there took care of me.”
Maybe it was God. Maybe it was Sadao Munemori, who had given his life days before, while running a similar gauntlet close by on the Gothic Line.
“Munemori charged the Nazi machine gun, so he took out a couple of the nests and as he was returning to his crater, a grenade hit him on the helmet and it bounced in front of two of his fellow soldiers,” Maki said. “He instinctively and immediately threw himself on the grenade and took the blow. He saved the lives of his two fellow soldiers, but in the process lost his own.”
Sometime later, 20-year-old Second Lieutenant and future Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye was wounded in the stomach in the same theater of battle while taking out German machine gun nests. Inouye dragged himself to take out a third nest. He had just pulled a grenade pin when his right arm shattered from shrapnel. He grabbed the live munition with his left and hurled it into the nest and followed up with gunshots at the enemy.
“They were so humble,” Maki added. “And they came from a background where they were so mistreated, whether it was in Hawaii or whether it was on the mainland. It’s amazing their commitment to our nation. They saw beyond what they were experiencing. They understood that they had a role to play in ensuring that their children and their grandchildren could have a better tomorrow.”
In the year 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Okutsu and 19 others from the 442nd the Medal of Honor.
“I’m glad at least they recognized the Japanese soldiers. They gave us something, you know,” Okutsu said. “I figured we get some respect, recognition, even if it’s 50 years after. I’m thankful we got something, not only for me but for the Japanese community.”
Okutsu died in 2003 at 81-years-old. In 2008, the state’s only veterans home opened on the Big Island bearing the name of the hero from Hilo, even if he had to go from Kauai to Italy to get there.
The Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home is a place where nearly 100 veterans at a time can find care and respite in their golden years. Tragedy struck this year as a deadly COVID-19 outbreak ran rampant through the care home, taking 27 lives by the end of September.
“It’s a shame that his name is now going to be associated with the COVID pandemic, because of the tragedy that happened at the home,” Maki said. “But the truth is, he was a great American hero. Even though his family back in Hawaii wasn’t given the full rights and privileges of all the other folks in Hawaii. Even though his comrades from the mainland, whose families were incarcerated in concentration camps, didn’t have their full rights and constitutional guarantees fulfilled; they fought for our nation, they fought for liberty and justice and for America’s promise.”
“It really gives us a time to remember these great American heroes. Remember what they provided not only for their families at the time, and not only for our nation at the time, but for generations to follow,” Maki said. “One of the things our young people talk is that they they’re living the Nisei dream. They’re living the dream that men like Mr. Okutsu had for a better tomorrow, a better America, and a place where their children and their grandchildren could be treated like full American citizens.”