Seventy Years Later, Coast Guard Honors One of Its Own – Rafu Shimpo

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During a ceremony held June 10 at the Los Angeles-Long Beach Coast Guard Base, Capt. Rebecca Ore presented a medal to Rikio Izumi.

By LANCE IZUMI

The following is the introduction to“Rikio Izumi: Proud Service to the Nation,” which is a private family book commemorating Izumi’s recent Coast Guard medal-pinning ceremony.

This beautiful book, put together with love by my wife April Izumi, documents an incredibly special day — the medal-pinning ceremony hosted by the United States Coast Guard for the beloved patriarch of the Izumi family and my dear father, Rikio Izumi. 

This amazing ceremony was the culmination of my effort to get official recognition for my father’s service. Little did I know that in the process I would discover just how great and heroic a man my father was and is.

At the beginning of 2022, it occurred to me that Dad should be eligible for the National Defense Service Medal. President Eisenhower had signed legislation granting the NDSM to all members of the Armed Forces who had served during the time of the Korean War.  Since Dad served in the Coast Guard from 1951 to 1953, which covered the span of the Korean conflict, he was entitled to the medal, but was never awarded it.

Dad may have been entitled to the medal, but how to get the Coast Guard to award it to him? I asked my good friend Steve Smith, a Coast Guard veteran, to assist in navigating the bureaucratic waters. The Coast Guard replied positively to his inquiries saying that all they needed to approve the medal was Dad’s discharge paperwork. But how would I find those papers?

Rikio Izumi then and now. He served in the Coast Guard from 1951 to 1953.

Providentially, though, it turned out that my brother Rick had, unbeknownst to me, contacted the Veterans Administration a year earlier and had requested our father’s discharge papers. Amazingly, those papers had finally arrived just before I called Rick to tell him that the Coast Guard required those documents. God truly wanted Dad to receive that medal.

With the discharge papers in hand, the Coast Guard quickly approved the NDSM for our father. Eventually they mailed it to him. However, the last thing I wanted was to have the medal end up in a drawer and gather dust. Seven decades had passed since the time when Dad should have been awarded that medal and when he actually received it. Something more needed to done to honor Dad and his service appropriately.

I again contacted my friend Steve Smith and told him that I wanted to arrange a medal-pinning ceremony at a Coast Guard base. Steve followed through and contacted Capt. Rebecca Ore, the wonderful commander of the Los Angeles-Long Beach Coast Guard base, and she agreed to host a ceremony at the base. 

For about a month before the June 10, 2022 ceremony, I worked with Ensign Jonathan Burke and IS1 Shaun Onedera to plan the details of the ceremony. In putting together the agenda of the ceremony, they said that I would be given time to make remarks on behalf of Dad and our family. 

In order to write my speech, I interviewed Dad. What an interview it turned out to be.

The Izumi family (from left): Rick, Mikuri, Rikio and Lance.

Although I have always been proud of Dad’s service in the Coast Guard, I only had a broad outline of his time in the military. Having grown up first in Hilo and then Honolulu, I knew that Dad had been in the Hawaii Air National Guard. I knew that he and his best friend Bobby Kanemaru decided to enlist together in the Coast Guard. I knew that several of his other Hawaii friends also enlisted  

I knew Dad’s years of service and knew that he had received his basic training in Oakland. I also knew that he had chosen to be stationed in Boston rather than Alaska, the other choice given to him. And I knew that he became a member of the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Casco. In addition, I knew that the Casco had been involved in the events surrounding the Fort Mercer and the Pendleton, two huge tankers that had broken in two during a storm on the same day in 1952, which served as the basis of the great movie“Their Finest Hours.” 

I knew all those things, but I did not know what Dad actually did on the ship. So, I asked him and what he told me made my jaw drop.

I had assumed that Dad’s duties on board the ship were menial. I could not have been more wrong. Having grown up in Hawaii, Dad was an excellent swimmer. Because of his swimming prowess he was assigned to the ship’s rescue unit tasked with rescuing people from the water.

The Casco would often be assigned hurricane duty. When one hurricane was about to make landfall in Florida, the Casco received a message that four elementary-school-aged children had been swept out to sea in Miami. The Casco reached the area quickly and lowered my dad and Bobby Kanemaru, who was also a member of the rescue unit, in a small boat to go out and rescue the children. 

The hurricane winds and rough seas, however, prevented the small boat from getting to the children, so my father and his friend jumped into the ocean and swam to the children. My dad grabbed two small girls and held each of them up so they could breathe as he attempted to swim on his back. The waves were huge and the children were ingesting seawater, but somehow he was able to make it to shore. Bobby also managed to save the other two children. 

When he reached the shore, the children’s frantic mother could not stop hugging Dad and his friend. Dad told the mom that she should hug her children instead. That’s the kind of guy he is. Once back on the Casco, the captain thanked and praised my dad and his friend profusely, saying he was now so happy to have sailors from Hawaii on his ship.

Saving those children in hurricane conditions was not the only act of selfless bravery that Dad recounted.

During another severe storm, the Casco was sent to help a fishing boat that had capsized.  The fisherman was in the water so Dad was lowered in the Casco’s small boat to go rescue the man. Again, because of the rough seas, the small boat could not get to the drowning man, so Dad dove into the cold raging ocean. 

When he got to the fisherman, the frightened man tried to bear-hug my father, but Dad told him to just hang onto his shoulders or the both of them would end up drowning. Dad then told the man to hold his breath as he dove beneath the 20-30-foot wave that was about to crash down on them. As an experienced body surfer, Dad knew that the only way to survive such giant waves was to swim beneath them.

Dad dove the waves several times with the fisherman hanging onto his shoulders. Thankfully, one of his shipmates was able to steer the little boat so that Dad could reach it. He had saved the fisherman’s life.

Several weeks later, Dad and his friend Bobby were on shore walking by some restaurants. They stopped in one restaurant and, lo and behold, it was owned by the fisherman he had saved. The fisherman recognized Dad and he hugged him. He told them to order anything they wanted and it was on the house. In fact, the fisherman said that the food would always be free for my dad whenever he visited.

These stories were a revelation to me. One often hears about how the children of veterans only learn about the heroic exploits of their parents accidentally or many years later. Such is the case for me. Until I talked to Dad a few days before his medal ceremony, I had no idea that he had risked his own life by courageously and heroically rescuing people from sure death in violent seas. Had it not been for the medal ceremony I would likely never have found out about this incredible chapter in my father’s life.

The ceremony itself was more than any of us could have ever imagined or hoped for. The Coast Guard rolled out the red carpet for Dad and our family and friends. In addition to my father, my dear mother Mikuri, and our small party (including my daughter Lauren, who flew out from Indianapolis to attend), around 30 or so Coast Guard personnel attended the ceremony, which was held outdoors next to a memorial on the Los Angeles-Long Beach base. It was a perfect morning, with overcast skies, cool temperatures, and huge ocean liners passing in back of the ceremony site.

Ensign Burke welcomed the attendees, introduced a Coast Guard chaplain to give the invocation, and then introduced Capt. Ore, who gave gracious and heartfelt remarks. She then called up Dad and pinned…

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