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U.S. President Bill Clinton on Wednesday presented the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military accolade, to 22 Asian-Americans, including 20 of Japanese descent, for their bravery in World War II.

In a ceremony held at the South Lawn of the White House, Clinton praised the recipients — who included a Chinese-American and a Filipino-American — for their valor and dedication “above and beyond the call of duty.”

Beyond that, Clinton said the recipients accomplished their wartime valor “in the face of painful prejudice” against Japanese-Americans. “In so doing, they did more than defend America,” he said. “They pushed us toward that more perfect union of our founders’ dreams.”

Among the Japanese-Americans honored by Clinton are 75-year-old Sen. Daniel Inouye from Hawaii and Barney Hajiro, 83. Most of the Asian-Americans honored Wednesday served in the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — both highly decorated U.S. Army units in World War II.

The 442nd Combat Team, organized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1943, consisted mostly of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, enlisted from internment camps across the United States.

The team, which fought in seven major campaigns in Europe, is recognized for its bravery on the battlefield and has since been known as the “Go for Broke” regiment.

“As a unit, we were used like cannon fodder,” one of the medal recipients, Japanese-American George Sakato, recalled of his days in France as a soldier of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. “I was willing to die for my country,” he said in an interview with Cable News Network television.

The exploits of Inouye, for one, became the stuff of legend.

In the closing days of the war in Europe, Inouye, then a lieutenant, led his men in an assault on a heavily defended hill in Italy, even though he had a bullet wound in his stomach and his right arm was shattered by a German grenade. He destroyed two German machinegun nests in the campaign.

Despite his storied exploits, Inouye earlier received only the second-highest medal, the Distinguished Service Cross.

The bravery of Inouye and thousands of other nisei who fought for the U.S. during the war had not been fully recognized until recently.

Due to wartime bias and discrimination against veterans of Japanese ancestry, Congress initially was strongly against plans to grant the Medal of Honor to Japanese-Americans.

Daniel Akaka, a Democratic senator from Hawaii, questioned the fairness of the award process, leading Congress to direct the Pentagon to review the actions of 104 soldiers of Asian and Pacific ancestry.

“The review found indeed that some extraordinarily brave soldiers never did receive the honors they clearly had earned,” Clinton said.

The army recommended last month that 21 soldiers be awarded the medal, and the administration later added the late James Okubo to the list of honorees.

POW abuse hearing

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) A U.S. Senate committee will hold a hearing next Wednesday to examine historical and legal issues surrounding the forced labor of U.S. prisoners of war by the Imperial Japanese Army and Japanese companies, a leading Republican senator said Wednesday.

The hearing, sponsored by the Judiciary Committee, will feature the personal testimonies of several former POWs as well as legal experts, Sen. Orrin Hatch from Utah said.

“This is a crucial time in our lives and our fight for recognition of the literal hell we endured at the hands of the Japanese companies,” Harold Pool, a former POW now residing in Salt Lake City, said in a statement.

Sen. Hatch said, “Be assured that I will pursue this issue until fair and complete justice is achieved.”

Last July, California became the first U.S. state to establish a law giving state courts jurisdiction to hear WWII slave labor cases and extend filing deadlines to Dec. 31, 2010. Prior to enactment of this legislation, forced laborers had little recourse with either the firms or the Japanese government.

Based on that law, some 30 lawsuits have already been filed by former POWs against Japanese companies over their wartime forced labor.

While the California law was originally targeted at victims of unpaid labor imposed by Nazi Germany, those who took legal action have interpreted it as also covering victims of forced labor imposed by Japanese companies.

The Japanese government maintains that the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty stipulates the final and complete resolution of the compensation issue between Japan and the Allied nations.