When the Korean War began 70 years ago, U.S. Army Cpl. Hiroshi Miyamura could never have expected that he, the son of humble Japanese immigrants, would go on to receive America’s highest decoration for military valor.
“I just thought I was doing my duty,” Miyamura later recalled. “I wasn’t trying to be a hero.”
Miyamura was born in the American Southwest. His father, Yaichi, grew up in Kumamoto, Kyushu, Japan. Yaichi and his wife moved to Gallup, N.M., in 1923, an out-of-the way spot in a vast desert. Yaichi worked for several years in Gallup at a local boarding house for miners. He and his wife opened a 24-hour diner called the OK Café just off Route 66. They lived in the basement and raised seven children. Sadly, Hiroshi Miyamura’s mother died when he was 11. He joined the Boy Scouts and was given the nickname “Hershey” since his teacher could not pronounce his name.
When the federal government began incarcerating Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese ancestry in February 1942, the Miyamura family was not forced to leave home. Gallup was located outside of the government’s designated arrest zone and local authorities did not wish to enforce evictions. However, anti-Japanese sentiment ran high across the country. The Miyamuras and other Japanese-Americans in the area were harassed and made the focus of racist slurs.
The young Miyamura joined the ROTC during his senior year of high school, but was initially classified as a Class 4-C “alien” and prevented from serving. Eventually he was allowed to join the 442nd Infantry Regiment, mostly made up of Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans). World War II ended before Miyamura could be deployed. After the war, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve.
In June 1948 he married Tsuruko “Terry” Tsuchimori of Winslow, Ariz., who during the war years had been imprisoned with her family in one of the internment camps. The couple had not been married long when Miyamura deployed to Korea in November 1950.
As a corporal in Company H, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, Miyamura was serving as a machine gun squad leader when his group was suddenly attacked near Taejon-ni on April 24, 1951. U.S. forces defending the hill where Miyamura was located were overrun by a literal human wave of attacking Chinese troops.
“After I heard the bugles and saw a flare or two going off, that’s when the firing commenced,” said Miyamura. “I was positioned between two other machine gunners, I had two cases of grenades, an M-1 [rifle], a carbine and a pistol. I don’t recall how long the guns were firing, but pretty soon, the first gunner came by and said it was getting ‘too hot.’ I fired as long as I could until [the machine gun] jammed on me, then both gunners were gone, I was there by myself.”
Miyamura heroically ordered his men to withdraw to save their lives. He resolved to stay behind and was willing to sacrifice himself to repel the enemy. “While they were leaving, I just fired and threw [grenades] all that I could,” he recalled.
Leaving cover, he killed 10 Chinese soldiers with his bayonet in hand-to-hand combat. He also manned a vacant machine gun position and fired at the enemy, while evacuating fellow soldiers and trying to give aid to the wounded. Miyamura single-handedly killed more than 50 enemy soldiers.
“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,” according to his Medal of Honor citation.
Miyamura sustained shrapnel injuries to his leg when he came face to face with a Chinese soldier, who tossed a grenade as Miyamura bayoneted him. After crawling through barbed wire to escape the area, Miyamura fell unconscious. When he regained his senses, he was taken prisoner by the Chinese.
“I heard the noise die down, and then thought I was safe but before I even moved I heard a voice in English saying ‘Get up, you’re my prisoner. Don’t worry, we have a lenient policy. We won’t harm you.’”
What happened after the battle was a test not only of physical strength but of willpower. Life became hell for Miyamura and other Allied prisoners as they were forced on a long march. They were given no medical assistance and only scant food.
“On my third week into the march, I suffered from what I guess you would call hallucinations. I saw a mirage of pancakes that wasn’t there … almost the time when I was ready to give up,” Miyamura remembered.
Their only rations consisted of rice and barley powder infested with weevils. Some soldiers refused to eat and died. Many men simply expired after giving up hope. Miyamura could barely keep moving and did not think he could last. Yet he clung to his will to live.
“I didn’t want to think about what was happening,” he said. “I wanted to concentrate on raising a family once I got home. I think that’s what kept me going.”
He spent two years in a POW camp in Changson. Things “got to the point later that we thought we would never be released,” he remembered.
Miyamura’s weight had dropped to barely 100 pounds by the time the U.S. and North Korea signed an armistice on July 15, 1953. He arrived in Freedom Village in the Demilitarized Zone in August. He could not focus on anything but the sight of the American flag he saw flying there.
“To this day I don’t remember crossing the bridge,” he said. “All I can remember is seeing a big U.S. flag flying in the breeze, and I just concentrated on that flag … That was such a wonderful sight, to see that Star-Spangled Banner fluttering in the breeze.”
Miyamura received the Medal of Honor for his valor. Although his citation was signed by President Harry Truman in 1951, the government kept it secret until his release so as not to endanger his life in captivity. It was the first Medal of Honor to be kept secret.
Miyamura became the second Japanese-American to receive the award when President Dwight Eisenhower decorated him on Oct. 27, 1953. However, for Miyamura, the proudest moment in his life was when his elderly father, Yaichi, got to shake the president’s hand.
“Cpl. Miyamura’s indomitable heroism and consummate devotion to duty reflect the utmost glory on himself and uphold the illustrious traditions on the military service,” his Medal of Honor citation reads.