Hiroshi Miyamura, a former Army corporal who killed at least 50 Chinese Communist troops in a firefight near Seoul during the Korean War before being taken prisoner, and who, while captive, became the first living Japanese American to be awarded the Medal of Honor, died on Tuesday at his home in Phoenix. He was 97.
His death, which was announced by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, leaves Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., 95, a former Army Ranger, as the last surviving recipient of the medal for gallantry in Korea.
Mr. Miyamura was drafted in 1944 and assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese American unit that compiled a storied World War II combat record in Europe while people of Japanese heritage on the West Coast were placed under armed guard at desolate inland internment camps, feared as security risks, which they were not.
By the time Mr. Miyamura was sent overseas after stateside training, the German surrender was only days away.
He enlisted in the Army reserves after his discharge in 1946 and was recalled to active duty with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. He became a squad leader in the Third Infantry Division in an integrated Army, the military having been desegregated after World War II.
Corporal Miyamura’s unit of 15 or so machine-gunners and riflemen came under attack while defending an outpost near Seoul, the South Korean capital, on the night of April 24, 1951.
He killed 10 enemy soldiers with his bayonet, but it soon became clear that the squad would be overwhelmed. So he blasted away with his machine gun, a rifle and grenades and wielded his bayonet again to allow the retreat of his men, several of them wounded.
“He killed more than 50 of the enemy before his ammunition was depleted and he was severely wounded,” said the Medal of Honor citation he eventually received. “He maintained his magnificent stand despite his painful wounds, continuing to repel the attack until his position was overrun. When last seen he was fighting ferociously against an overwhelming number of enemy soldiers.”
Corporal Miyamura, having been wounded by a grenade, feigned being dead, but was discovered by an enemy soldier and taken prisoner. He was held captive for 28 months and suffered from starvation and dysentery.
Startling news awaited him when he was among a group of American prisoners of war released on Aug. 20, 1953, following the Korean armistice.
The Army was aware of his impending release and alerted broadcasters and newspaper correspondents, even bringing a reporter from his hometown newspaper in Gallup, N.M., to the site.
Brig. Gen. Ralph Osborne, the commander of the Army installation known as Freedom Village, which processed newly freed POWs, ushered him into a tent, where he was asked to tell his story.
“I want to take this occasion to welcome the greatest V.I.P., the most distinguished guest, to pass through this center,” General Osborne said. “Miyamura, you have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.”
“All I could say was, ‘What?’” he recalled in a 2016 interview with the American Legion. “I was doing my duty. I didn’t want to see my men killed. I didn’t think I was doing anything heroic.”
The medal had been awarded in December 1951, eight months after Corporal Miyamura was captured. He was listed as missing at the time, but some four months after the honor was bestowed in secret, his name was included in a partial list of POWs provided by the Chinese.
The Army did not reveal the awarding of the medal until he was released, since it feared his captors would take vengeance on learning of it. As General Osborne told him, “You might not have come back alive.”
In October 1953, Mr. Miyamura, then a sergeant, was formally presented with the medal, the military’s highest award for valor, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a White House ceremony.
The first Japanese American to receive the medal, Private Sadao Munemori, was decorated posthumously in 1946 for falling on a live grenade to save two fellow soldiers on the Italian front in April 1945.
In June 2000, President Bill Clinton presented the medal to 20 Japanese Americans and two others of Asian descent who had fought in World War II, 14 of them honored posthumously. The belated presentation was an outgrowth of a Pentagon inquiry to identify Asian Americans who may have deserved the Medal of Honor in the war but who did not receive it, presumably because of prejudicial attitudes. None are still alive.
Hiroshi Miyamura (known to friends as Hershey) was born on Oct. 6, 1925, in Gallup, a son of immigrants from Japan. His father was a coal miner.
He told the New Mexico newspaper The Farmington Daily Times in 2013 that he had not experienced prejudice as a young man. “Gallup was a town of immigrants,” he said. “Everybody grew up in families working in the coal mines. Everybody was accepted.”
But he said that when he was in the Army, “you had to shed blood to prove your loyalty to the United States.”
Mr. Miyamura returned to Gallup after the Korean War, worked there as an auto mechanic and owned a service station. He made visits to South Korea to tell of his experiences.
His survivors include three children as well as grandchildren. His wife, Tsuruko, known as Terry, died in 2014. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Miyamura’s granddaughter Marisa Miyamura graduated from the United States Air Force Academy. She was stationed with a communications squadron at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois when her grandfather gave the keynote speech at an Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month conference there in May 2010.
“It’s very emotional listening to him tell his story,” Lieutenant Miyamura said. “He’s the reason why I’m serving in the military today. He has lived his whole life with honor, and that is a great legacy for me.”