Combat Medic Jimmie Kanaya

Combat Medic, Combat Medic Badge

Jimmie Kanaya at Veterans History Project WWII Reunion, 2004

Discover Nikkei / Japanese Migrants and Their Descendants

When Jimmie Kanaya was born in Clackamas, Oregon, on October 3, 1920, there was no way to predict he’d grow up to be a combat medic, decorated war hero, and the first American soldier of Japanese descent to become an officer in the US Army. Even when Kanaya volunteered for the Army in 1941, he probably had no inkling what his future would hold, that he would travel the world, and make history.

Kanaya was posted to a number of Army bases in the US and did tours of duty in Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. He was held captive as a POW in Poland.

Medical command / operations and training was Kanaya’s specialty but he was an invaluable POW interrogator, too. He saw battle in Rome-Arno, the South of France, Rhineland, the Korean Offensive and Counteroffensive, the Chinese Intervention, and in Vietnam. Kanaya became a commissioned officer in June, 1946, a time when the roster of US Army officers contained no other Japanese-American names.

A self-proclaimed ‘high school drop-out (nearly),” Kanaya put the Army’s educational opportunities to good use. Studying during nights, weekends, and during extended leaves from active duty, Kanaya earned five bachelor’s and master’s degrees. His studies took him to no fewer than 17 colleges and universities.

As a combat medic on active duty, Kanaya described life as one long series of jeeps, trucks, and fox holes. Baths and meals were few and far between so Kanaya made it a mission to cook and eat at every opportunity, no doubt a life-saving plan when held in captivity. He lost 40 pounds during his time as a POW. In addition to missing regular meals during times of combat, Kanaya says he missed peace, quiet, and entertainment, too.

One of Kanaya’s most vivid memories involves a long night in a fox hole with a full bladder, a condom, and an invading German army breathing down his neck. The urine-filled condom ripped on a snag in the fox hole and soaked Kanaya and the clothes he was wearing, who had no choice but to grin and bear it. Still wearing the same uniform two days later, he was captured but his German interrogators cut the interview short, probably looking more for fresh air than information from the now very rank-smelling Kanaya.

During his service to the US Army, Kanaya served as combat medical support to infantry divisions, was an advisor to the Korean and South Vietnamese armies, and worked in interrogation and intelligence-gathering roles for Japanese and North Korean captives. He also worked with POWs returning from captivity in Manchuria and Russia. His medical practice involved training the Army’s medical doctrine and basic medical procedures to research and development of medical military documents.

During his service, Kanaya received the following awards, metals, and citations:

  • Silver Star
  • Bronze Star
  • Legion of Merit Award
  • Purple Heart
  • POW Medal
  • Commendation Medal
  • Distinguished Unit Citation
  • Meritorious Unit Citation
  • Vietnam Unit Citation, Army Medical Department Recognition Medallion for Faithful Service
  • The French Legion of Honor
  • Ambassador of Peace from Korea

Among the many life lessons learned from his military experience, Kanaya says he finds it most important to be loyal to one’s country, stay healthy, and to do the best possible job with the materials, personnel, and other resources on hand.