WASHINGTON — The old men, soldiers once upon an awful time, stood as proud as age would allow.
They were former machine gunners, such as Rocklin, Calif., resident Frank Kageta. He's now 91. They were former intelligence agents, such as Reedley, Calif., resident George Yoji Kiyomoto, who's 90, and Roseville, Calif., resident James Iso, chipper at 87.
They were, and are, nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans who in World War II fought tenaciously for the very country that had interned them and their family members.
"We had a duty to prove, beyond any shadow of a doubt, our patriotism," Iso said.
On Wednesday, a break in the battle, politicians put aside their standard partisan squabbling to present the surviving nisei veterans with the Congressional Gold Medal. The medal is considered, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to be the highest civilian award in the United States.
Past Congressional Gold Medal recipients include George Washington, Mother Teresa and Winston Churchill. Less valorously, lawmakers also have bestowed the medal on the likes of singer Frank Sinatra.
Those present agreed Wednesday that the veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service earned their honors the hard way.
"You fought World War II on two fronts," Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California told the veterans, quoting former President Harry Truman. "You fought not only your enemy; you fought prejudice, and you won."
Boxer pushed the Senate version of the bill granting the Congressional Gold Medal, allied with Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., in the House of Representatives. It was a bipartisan affair, with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona declaring Wednesday that the veterans "did everything that was ever asked of them and more."
Fighting their way through Italy, southern France and Germany, Kageta and other men of the 442nd made the unit the most highly decorated regiment in Army history. All told, some 13,000 soldiers served in the regiment, and they received 9,486 Purple Hearts for wounds or combat deaths.
More discreetly, several thousand men like Kiyomoto and Iso served in the Pacific as translators and agents with the Military Intelligence Service.
"We were doing our part," said Leo H. Hosoda, a 90-year-old Sacramento, Calif., resident who served as a Military Intelligence Service translator.
They might have given up.
Some 120,000 Japanese-Americans were interned during the war, deemed a potential threat to the national security. One was young Doris Okada, born in an internment camp in Arizona in 1944. She's now Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., an original co-sponsor of the Congressional Gold Medal legislation.
Iso, too, spent part of the war in an internment camp, after he and his parents were forced from their home in San Jose, Calif. Iso left the camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., to join the Army in 1944, following his brother Robert, who already was serving with the "Go for Broke" men of the 442nd.
"We were all young and vigorous and inspired to do the best we could," Iso said.
James Iso went on to a career in the Defense Intelligence Agency and Foreign Service, spending several decades overseas. Many others returned to more domestic pursuits, putting their wars behind them.
Kageta, the one-time machine gunner, found his way to becoming a rancher. Kiyomoto, the former counterintelligence agent, became a tree fruit farmer. Hosoda, the former translator, became a payroll manager.
They've been honored before; in some ways, the tributes have never stopped since the time Truman reviewed the nisei soldiers on the South Lawn of the White House. Hollywood dramatized their exploits in the 1951 movie "Go for Broke!" The state of California pitched in by naming a portion of State Route 99 after the 442nd.
Still, a particularly strong valedictory feel pervaded this week's three-day series of events, which included a gala dinner and trip to the World War II Memorial and will end Thursday with a memorial service for those killed in action.
The Army chief of staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno, showed up Tuesday at an awards ceremony. At 6 feet 5 inches tall, he towered over the vets. A cadre of other soldiers, emblazoned with combat medals from the nation's newest wars, served as guides and escorts; sometimes snapping out salutes, sometimes extending a helping hand.
"We don't get honored this way too much," Kiyomoto said.
When the 50-minute ceremony Wednesday in the Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall was over, the veterans took up their canes and their wheelchairs and the supportive arms of their spouses, and departed slowly.
"It was pretty impressive," Clarence Suzuki of Fresno, Calif., who served with the Military Intelligence Service in Japan and on the Northern Mariana island of Tinian, said afterward.
"Especially for the old guys," added his wife, Thelma.
"Yes," said Suzuki, who's 86. "I'm one of the young guys."
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Michael Doyle on Twitter.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011