SPEARFISH — At a ceremony honoring him with France’s highest distinction - the French Legion of Honor medal – Kenneth Higashi seemed distant at times.
The Spearfish resident and World War II veteran is wheelchair-bound and mostly mum.
But it was a small gesture by South Dakota’s Maj. Gen. Jeffrey P. Marlette during the ceremony that spoke volumes about Higashi’s character and Marlette’s respect for the 97-year-old.
Higashi’s foot had fallen from the foot rest on the wheel chair. While one of the ceremony speakers detailed Higashi’s wartime service, Marlette rose from his seat, walked over to Higashi and gently placed his foot back on its rest.
“He looked agitated. I just wanted to help him,” Marlette said.
More than 16 million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II including Higashi and other Nisei or second-generation Japanese Americans.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, just under 1 million U.S. WWII veterans were alive in 2015. The men and women who fought in the war are now in their late 80s and 90s with an average of 362 dying every day.
So, given the chance to honor just one of the veterans is a collective thank you to all, said South Dakota Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden.
Consul General of France to the Midwest region, Guillaume Lacroix, officially presented the Legion of Honor medal to Higashi at the ceremony at Meier Hall on the Black Hills State University campus.
Lacroix said it was truly an honor to be in Spearfish presenting the award to Higashi as a representative of French President Emmanuel Macron.
The French Legion of Honor is the highest distinction that France can bestow upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds for France. Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor recognizes eminent service to the French Republic. Recipients of this honor are named by decree signed by the President of the Republic.
Lacroix reminded those on hand Friday that in 1802 South Dakota was still a French territory.
Lacroix said he is sure that once President Emmanuel Macron saw the application for Higashi it didn’t take long to determine he needed to receive this very special recognition by the French people.
“He is already an American hero. He’s now becoming a French hero by an official decision of the French Republic,” Lacroix said. “The French people will never ever forget the sacrifice of Mr. Higashi and all the service men and women who served in Europe for their country, but also for my country.”
Lacroix said that in serving America, Higashi saved France.
“That is friendship,” he said. “What he did goes beyond words.”
Lacroix said the honoring ceremony for Higashi also was an opportunity to remember those who didn’t return from war and are buried in France.
“We will take good care of them forever,” he said.
In addition to Higashi, others in South Dakota honored by France with the Order of the Legion of Honor were Jimmy J. Traupel of Mitchell and Orville B. Lerew of Faulkton.
Higashi was born in Belle Fourche in 1921 where he spent the first few years of his life before moving to Spearfish. His family had a 16-acre vegetable farm and sold a lot of their produce to Twin City Fruit.
Higashi graduated from Spearfish High School in 1941. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ken and his family were visited by U.S. government officials were ordered to surrender their firearms and radios.
They were also given the choice of having one of their sons serve in the military, or be relocated to an interment camp. Ken volunteered to go as he thought it better that his brother stayed and continue to work as a mechanic to help provide for their family.
Ken enlisted in the U.S. Army in February of 1942, and was assigned
to C “Charlie” Company, 100th Infantry Battalion. The 100th Infantry Battalion was joined with 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a famous Japanese American special fighting force.
During his service he was an infantry assault squad leader. He participated in the North Apennines, the Po Valley, the Rhineland (France: Vosges) and Southern France campaigns.
For his service, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Medal with three Bronze Battle Stars, the WWII Victory Medal, the Distinguished Unit Badge with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, the Combat Infantryman Badge, The honorable Service lapel Button-WWII, the Sharpshooter Qualification Badge, two Overseas Service Bars. He is also a recipient of the United States Congressional Gold Medal.
Sgt. Kenneth Higashi was honorably discharged in November of 1945.
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