WASHINGTON - America turned its back on these men more than a half-century ago, and they responded to the insult by joining the U.S. military and performing heroically on World War II battlefields.
Yesterday seven of those veterans, elderly now, six of them Japanese-American and one of Filipino ancestry, sat in a tent on the White House lawn amid scores of family members as President Clinton took care of unfinished business.
The president awarded them and 15 of their deceased comrades the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for combat bravery and an honor that had long eluded them, possibly because of wartime discrimination.
"They risked their lives above and beyond the call of duty," Clinton said before draping the gold star medal around the neck of each veteran and presenting medals to surviving relatives.
"And in so doing they did more than defend America. In the face of painful prejudice they helped to define America at its best."
The most prominent recipient was Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat who lost an arm fighting in Italy with an all-Japanese-American unit.
Clinton recalled that the young Army lieutenant returned to the United States wearing his ribbon-bedecked uniform only to be told by a barber, "We don't cut Jap hair."
Seated near the senator was George Sakato, 79, whose family was ordered out of California by the U.S. government because all Japanese-Americans there were considered security risks.
His father was forced to sell his meat and fruit stand at a loss and move to Arizona, where George Sakato joined the U.S. Army, saying he wanted to show his country he was loyal.
In October 1944, Private Sakato ignored heavy enemy fire and rushed a German line, killing a dozen soldiers with a captured enemy rifle and handgun before helping his squad take 34 Germans prisoner.
"To prove our loyalty, we had to fight," the retired Denver postal worker told a reporter.
In the same row as Sakato sat frail Barney Hajiro, 83, of Hawaii, another former Army private, who was wounded as he single-handedly charged two Nazi machine-gun nests in France while trying to rescue fellow soldiers. His unit took heavy casualties, 800 killed or wounded.
Back home, he recalled, "Everybody treated us bad. ... They didn't like us at the time."
Japanese-Americans were barred from joining the U.S. military for two years because of the anti-Japanese hysteria that followed Pearl Harbor, which led to the government's classification of all Japanese-Americans as "enemy aliens."
Some, like Sakato, fled their homes on the West Coast, and 120,000 others were confined to dusty and remote internment camps.
Later in the war, an Army committee recommended against allowing Japanese-Americans to fight. President Franklin D. Roosevelt overruled them, saying, "America's not a matter of race or ancestry."
All but one of those honored yesterday had previously been awarded the nation's second-highest medal, the Distinguished Service Cross. The lone exception, James K. Okuba, had received the Silver Star, the third-highest combat decoration.
Hajiro and at least six others were put in for a Medal of Honor but received the DSC instead. During the war, two Asian-Americans - one Japanese-American and one Filipino-American - received the top award, and 120 received the DSC.
Four years ago, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat, asked the Army to review service records to determine whether any Asian-Americans had been denied Medals of Honor because of their race.
Army historian James McNaughton, who surveyed the records, said he found no "smoking gun" of discrimination but said it was unusual that only two Asian-Americans received the top award when 120 received the DSC.
"It's important to set the record straight historically," Army Secretary Louis Caldera said before the ceremony. Caldera, who recommended that Clinton award the medals, said the Army is "doing the right thing."
Sakato and Hajiro brushed aside talk that prejudice might have prevented them from receiving the military's top award.
Another Japanese-American veteran, Susumu Satow, 77, who fought in France and was awarded a Purple Heart for his wounds, believes his comrades never were granted the recognition due them.
"We just had to accept it," said Satow, who enlisted from an Arizona internment camp that held his parents and eight siblings. "We were perceived to be part of the enemy system. We needed to change that perception."
Clinton recalled that one Japanese-American soldier was killed in action in southern France. A chaplain found a letter in his pocket from home, telling how vandals had burned his father's house and barn "in the name of patriotism. ... And yet this young man volunteered for every patrol he could go on."
Satow remembered that when his family returned to its Sacramento farm, it found it ransacked and the equipment stolen. As late as 1948, Satow recalled, his family had trouble getting served in the city's restaurants.
Asked for his reaction to yesterday's honors, his eyes welled with tears. "Very good," he said softly.
Nineteen of the 22 veterans served with the celebrated 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was made up of Japanese-Americans. The 4,000-man unit earned 18,143 individual decorations, including 9,486 Purple Hearts, 52 DSCs and 560 Silver Stars.
Caldera noted that the men lived their motto: "Go For Broke."
"We're forever grateful to them for it," Caldera said. "I think it's a most inspiring story."
The legacy of those veterans lives in today's Army, whose top officer is a Japanese-American.
Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, was born in Hawaii during World War II and as a toddler was classified as enemy alien.
His uncles fought in the 442nd. The general has said that his interest in attending West Point and serving in the Army was inspired by the stories they told around the dinner table.
Clinton introduced Shinseki during yesterday's ceremony and said the general "stands on the shoulders of these whom we honor here today."
Last September in Hawaii, Shinseki accepted an award from the Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce and spoke directly to the Japanese-American veterans of World War II in attendance.
"I would not have had this opportunity to serve my nation," the four-star officer said, "had my birthright not been preserved by the soldiers of the 442nd."
Stories of wartime bravery
Living recipients are:
Staff Sgt. Rudolph Davila, who protected 130 men caught in the open by heavy German fire and later silenced two enemy machine guns; at Artena, Italy.
PFC Barney F. Hajiro, who wiped out two machine gun nests and killed two snipers before being wounded by a third machine gun; in France's Vosges Mountains.
Pvt. Shizuya Hayashi, who charged up a hill toward German positions, killed 20 enemy soldiers and captured four; near Cerasuolo, Italy.
1st Lt. Daniel K. Inouye, who, despite wounds, crawled up a hill and used grenades and his submachine gun to knock out three machine-gun nests; near Terenzo, Italy.
Tech. Sgt. Yeiki Kobashigawa, who led his platoon in destroying four German machine gun positions; near Lanuvio, Italy.
Tech. Sgt. Yukio Okutsu, who used grenades and a submachine gun to neutralize three German machine gun positions; on Mount Belvedere, Italy.
Pvt. George T. Sakato, who killed five Germans and captured four as he charged positions that had pinned down his platoon; at Biffontaine in France.
Those honored posthumously are:
Pvt. Mikio Hasemoto, who killed 31 Germans in two battles; Cerasuolo, Italy.
Pvt. Joe Hayashi, who knocked out two machine guns before being killed; Tendola, Italy.
Staff Sgt. Robert T. Kuroda, who was killed by a sniper while rescuing a party of litter bearers removing wounded soldiers; Bruyeres, France.
Pfc. Kaoru Moto, who attacked a machine-gun nest and took over a house used as an observation post, defending it despite wounds; Castellina, Italy.
Pfc. Kiyoshi Muranaga, who used a mortar with such accuracy and intensity that the Germans withdrew an antitank 88 mm gun; Suvereto, Italy.
Pvt. Masato Nakae, who defended an outpost; Pisa, Italy.
Pvt. Shinyei Nakamine, who was killed attacking machine-gun nests; La Torreto, Italy.
Pfc. William K. Nakamura, who attacked a machine-gun nest pinning down his platoon and then was killed holding off enemy gunners as his unit withdrew; Castellina, Italy.
Pfc. Joe M. Nishimoto, was killed in action after leading a breakthrough of a three-day stalemate; at La Houssiere, France.
Sgt. Allan M. Ohata, who, with a comrade, killed 27 Germans and took one prisoner; Cerasuolo, Italy.
Tech. Sgt. James K. Okubo, an Army medic who saved troops' lives while repeatedly exposing himself to fire; near Biffontaine, France.
Pfc. Frank Ono, took out a machine gun nest, killed a sniper and helped rescue a wounded man; Castellina, Italy.
Staff Sgt. Kazuo Otani, who drew enemy fire while covering his pinned-down platoon's advance, then was killed while tending a wounded soldier; at Pieve di S. Luce, Italy.
Tech. Sgt. Ted T. Tanouye, who, though suffering wounds that would be mortal, stayed with his unit through several firefights; at Molina a Ventoabbto, Italy.
Capt. Francis Brown Wai, who was killed leading a beach assault at Leyte as Gen. Douglas MacArthur returned to liberate the Philippine Islands.