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Harvard Medical School Professor Emeritus Susumu Ito was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s most prestigious award that can be given to a civilian, last Wednesday for his service in World War II along with thousands of Japanese-American veterans.
“The thought of receiving this medal after so many years ... was somewhat of a surprise for me,” said Ito, 87.
Speaker of the House John A. Boehner presented the medal to members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service, units that were composed mostly of Japanese-Americans.
Coming so many years later, the awards were another marker of conciliation between the U.S. government and Japanese-Americans who faced injustices, including mass interments, during the Second World War.
Ito said that he “never felt much discrimination at all,” but expressed gratitude that he and his fellow veterans have finally received recognition.
“I feel very good ... that [our service] is finally being acknowledged as a significant contribution to the war effort,” Ito said.
Ito is now world-renowned for his research on the gastrointestinal tract, but his beginnings were unassuming as a son of a sharecropper in rural California.
After graduating from high school, Ito first went to junior college, but transferred to auto-mechanic school before being drafted into the military in 1940 immediately before Pearl Harbor. Assigned to the 442nd Regiment, Ito started out as a motor sergeant.
He then volunteered for the perilous position of forward observer, excited to get into the thick of the action.
“It was more like being in the war,” Ito recalled. “They told me it was the most dangerous position you can have, and the expectancy of being a casualty was amongst the highest.”
After his military service, Ito went on to earn a Ph.D. in biology, using the G.I. Bill to fund his education.
Colleagues said that Ito has been equally adventurous in his academic career.
“He would try things that other people would think was crazy,” said Morris J. Karnovsky, a fellow HMS professor emeritus.
Karnovsky recalled that when Ito needed a sample for his research, he “biopsied his own stomach” by forcing a tube down his throat.
Fellow scientists also emphasized Ito’s humility.
“He’s a completely unpretentious, but very accomplished person, who [goes] out of his way to be helpful to everyone around him,” said Thomas D. Pollard, who graduated from HMS in 1968 and is now a cell biology professor at Yale. Pollard worked in Ito’s lab as a medical student.
Ito said that the award symbolizes the recognition of his own service and his fellow soldiers.
“I take [the award] with pride and primarily for those that were killed in the war and the many that have passed on since then,” Ito said.
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