ON Nov. 4, one week before Veterans Day, the small group of living Medal of Honor recipients lost one. Bremerton’s John “Bud” Hawk passed away at the age of 89. During World War II, the injured sergeant ran in front of German tanks in order to direct his forces’ firepower. It resulted in the surrender of 500 Germans.
Col. Jack Jacobs, one of the 78 remaining living recipients of the Medal of Honor, says of recipients like Hawk, “Nothing amazes. This is the United States. People have historically put their lives in danger to defend an idea — freedom.”
That holds true whether people have been in America for generations or for a month. One group stands out to Jacobs: the Irish Brigade, or “Fighting Irish,” during the Civil War. It was made up of new Irish immigrants — some had been on our soil only for weeks. Their bravery in the face of catastrophic losses — up to half of their numbers at Fredericksburg — is legendary. In the Battle of Gettysburg, the priest gave the entire brigade their last rites. They didn’t flinch.
But America did, over them.
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The new Irish Americans of that time were discriminated against on many fronts. Their religion was foreign — the U.S. Protestant culture rejected the Roman Catholics. They were ethnically ridiculed — slurs such as “paddy” and “mick” were commonly used. And class snobbery haunted them for centuries. They were the underclass; a majority were indentured servants. Slaves by any modern value set.
That didn’t weaken these new American patriots. The oldest act of bravery resulting in a Medal of Honor belonged to Bernard Irwin, born in Ireland. More than 250 like him followed, according to “Medal of Honor Recipients 1863-1994.” In fact, of the 3,463 recipients to date, it’s been estimated more than 2,000 are of Irish descent.
The Irish narrative has sequels. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which used the “go for broke” gambling term, was all Japanese American and the most decorated unit in U.S. history. The First and Second Filipino American infantry regiments (from World War II) were highly decorated. A partial breakdown of Medal of Honor recipients to date completes the picture: it includes 87 African-Americans, 41 Latino Americans, 33 Asian Americans and 32 Native Americans.
This mix is consistent across the ranks. In the Korean War from 1950-53, the nearly 1.8 million who served included 600,000 African-Americans, 148,000 Latino Americans and more than 45,000 Asian Americans. All said, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that almost 5 million living veterans are minorities.
My uncles are included. One was in the Army, two in the Navy and one in the Air Force. (The fifth, a Purple Heart recipient, passed away in 1984.)
My immigrant grandfather was proud of his sons’ military service to his new country. He was the grandfather who hid a fork close by. Grandma would set the table with chopsticks. As eyes closed for grace, he’d quietly sneak the fork next to his plate. For him, the U.S. meant a new way of living.
World War II shaped that. For years he commuted to the Los Angeles shipyards to help build Liberty cargo ships that delivered the lifeblood of the Allied forces. Decades later, he’d show his 12-year-old grandson the celebratory poster he got while working there. On the lower right corner, he put the date: June 1943. It declared a manufacturing milestone, “200 ships for Victory.”
Thousands of these commemorations were probably printed. He framed his and proudly pulled it from the wall each visit, his wrinkled finger directing my curiosity to the gun turret he helped construct. It was his medal of honor.
Veterans Day reminds us of what makes America strong, from heroes like John Hawk who didn’t like being called a hero, to the valiant Irish who have been forgotten. They remind us of how serving our country in harm’s way often strips away pettiness and polarity. And reinforces how, for all of our differences, we are the same.
Richard Lui anchors NBC’s “Early Today” and dayside MSNBC shows in New York. On Twitter at @RichardLui