Age: 103
100th Infantry Battalion

Takeshi Kitaoka awoke on Dec. 7, 1941 to the sounds of an explosion, followed by another. Outside his Kaimuki home, there was chaos in the sky, with strike planes soaring toward Pearl Harbor and billows of smoke rising over West Oahu. War was unfolding, and Kitaoka knew immediately he would be entangled in it. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, this is it,’ the now 103-year-old said about Japan’s assault. I knew I had to go back to serve."

The war experience stays with me. It's part of me, and I dream about it at night.

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Only months earlier, the Hana, Maui native had been honorably released from the Hawaii National Guard, with plans to start a law career that had been put on hold.

But those early-morning bombs, which drew the United States into World War II, sent Kitaoka on a mission alongside other Nisei soldiers that ultimately would alter both the course of world history and the destiny of Japanese Americans.

Reflecting on what transpired more than seven decades ago, Kitaoka, who became a judge after his service in the 100th Battalion, says he never set out to become a war hero or a crusader against injustice. Rather, like thousands of other Japanese American soldiers who served during World War II, he focused on one goal — to honor his family and country.

Although World War II may seem distant to younger generations, Kitaoka believes it’s important for everyone to understand the past, because Nisei soldiers paved a better path for Japanese Americans, not just during their day, but for future generations.

“Hawaii had changed because of us,” he says.