Speaker of the House John Boehner, left, hands the Congressional Gold Medal to a Japanese-American veteran on Wednesday.

Story highlights

More than 20,000 Japanese-Americans served in World War II

They were honored in an event Wednesday in the U.S. Capitol

Rep. Adam Schiff: The event "demonstrates the greatest of America"

Sen. Daniel Inouye: Recognition "a long journey, but a glorious one"

Washington CNN —  

Nearly seven decades after the attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese-American World War II veterans were honored Wednesday at a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony held at the U.S Capitol.

In a rare moment of unity, Democratic and Republican Senators and members of the House of Representatives praised Japanese-American soldiers of the 442nd Regiment Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion and veterans of the Military Intelligence Service for their contribution to the war.

“Aloha and welcome,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, at the start of the invitation-only event inside the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall. About 1,000 people witnessed the ceremony in person, including several aging Japanese-American honorees and their families who waited years for this day.

When World War II began, Japanese-Americans were not invited to serve. Two years into the war, the U.S. military created an all-volunteer Japanese-American combat team who soon adopted the slogan “Go for Broke.” Most of its roughly 20,000 members were born in the United States to Japanese-born parents. They went on to become one of the most decorated American units in the war, yet when they returned home, many faced discrimination.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Wednesday’s “long-overdue honor” is now “bestowed on American heroes.”

“You fought not only the enemy, you fought prejudice, and you won,” Pelosi said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, said the ceremony “demonstrates the greatest of America, a nation that recognized that it made mistakes, corrected them and moved on to become a stronger country and we are proud to defend the freedoms and ideals that this country represents.”

Read a profile of one of the veterans, Susumu Ito

President Barack Obama signed legislation last year approving the creation of a Congressional Gold Medal for Japanese-American veterans.

The medal states in part, “The United States remains forever indebted to the bravery, valor, and dedication to country that these men faced while fighting a two-front battle of discrimination at home and fascism abroad. Their commitment demonstrates a highly uncommon and commendable sense of patriotism and honor.”

One recipient, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, received a standing ovation when he rose to speak at the event. He said the road to recognizing Japanese-American World War II veterans “has been a long journey, but a glorious one. I’m certain those who are resting in cemeteries are pleased with this day.”

Inouye, who lost his right arm while leading his men of the 2nd Battalion, 442nd Combat Team in an attack against German machine gun nests in Italy, received the Medal of Honor 55 years later, in 1999.

George Otsuki, now almost 92, who was a sergeant serving in the 442nd, called the recognition “wonderful.”

“The public found out what we did,” he told CNN, “and that’s the main thing.”

Frank Mizufuka, who was born in Los Angeles and served as a sergeant in the same unit, said “it was a once-in-a-lifetime, extraordinary event.”

Mizufuka, 89, said he spent a year in a hospital recovering from a chest wound he received in combat.

“I didn’t believe I’d live to see this day,” he said.