SPEARFISH, S.D. — Kenneth Higashi sat at attention, only his use of a wheelchair keeping him from rising to receive France’s highest civil and military distinction, the Legion of Honor, before grateful family, friends and neighbors.
Higashi, 97, a second-generation Japanese-American man from Spearfish, sat stoically as Guillaume Lacroix, consul general of France for the Midwest, pinned the Chevalier De La Legion D’Honneur on his sweater on behalf of the French Republic.
"A debt that France owes America's greatest generation for their service in World War II is a debt that the French people will never be able to repay in full," Lacroix said. "The French people will never, ever forget the sacrifice of Mr. Higashi, of all the men and women who served in Europe for their country, but also for my country."
Higashi, one of three South Dakotans to be recognized with the Legion of Honor last week, was born in Belle Fourche where his family operated a small vegetable farm.
The family later moved to Spearfish where Higashi graduated from high school in 1941, the Rapid City Journal reported.
Months later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II that put the freedom of Japanese-American families in jeopardy.
Japanese-American families, particularly those on the West Coast, were forced to uproot their lives, ordered to give up their homes and businesses, and forced into relocation centers or internment camps.
Government officials also visited the Higashi family in Spearfish and ordered them to give up their shotgun and radio.
They told Kenneth and his older brother, Clarence, that their family could avoid being moved to a camp if one of them enlisted in the military.
"He thought it better that his brother stay and work as a mechanic to provide for their family," Master of Ceremonies Gregory Dias said.
Higashi was eventually assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up mostly of Japanese-Americans.
Higashi's unit, the 100th Infantry Battalion, was nicknamed the Purple Heart Battalion because of the high numbers of wounded and killed.
Higashi was one of the nearly 9,500 members of the 442nd wounded, shot through both knees in the latter stages of the war.
He recovered fully and returned to Spearfish in November of 1945.
He attended college in Spearfish for a time and then took a job with the U.S. Postal Service where he would work for more than 30 years.
He married Phyliss Moser in 1978. His wife and many members of their combined families attended the ceremony.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey P. Marlette, adjutant general of the South Dakota National Guard, also presented Higashi with many of the medals he had previously earned, including the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, two Distinguished Unit Citations, the Army Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign medal, European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign medal, and World War II Victory medal.
"What an honor for myself, and I'm actually going to speak for all of you, to get to be here today to see one of America's truly great heroes be recognized for his service," Marlette said. "It's truly amazing to be here today."
Higashi also received a coin on behalf of the state of South Dakota from Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden and an Honorary Doctorate in Public Service from Black Hills State University Interim President Dr. Laurie Nichols.
Spearfish mayor Dana Boke proclaimed the day of the ceremony, Aug. 23, as Kenneth Higashi day in Spearfish.
"In my past career, I worked with Mr. Higashi often and he was a kind and gentle spirit with humble patriotism," Boke said.
In other ceremonies last weekend, Lacroix will present Legion of Honor medals to Jimmy Traupel, 96, of Mitchell and Orville B. Lerew, 97, of Faulkton.