Korean War veteran will always recall friend’s ultimate sacrifice

LIHU’E — When American war veterans celebrate the 50th anniversary of the

start of the Korean War today, Kaua’i veteran John Iwamoto won’t be among them.

Instead, Iwamoto, 71, of Lihu’e, will be celebrating Sept. 18, 1951.

It was

the day Noboru Nakamura of Mau’i, a fellow Army infantryman, saved his


During a battle for “Heartbreak Ridge,” a combat zone located

northeast of Seoul and the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the

three-year conflict, Nakamura blocked a grenade meant for Iwamoto, and was

killed instantly.

Because of Nakamura’s sacrifice, Iwamoto was able to

return home to Kaua’i, get married, raise a family, work in private and

government jobs and become a contributing member to the island


“I led a full life because of him,” Iwamoto said. “I owe him a


On Sept. 18, 1951, Iwamoto was assigned to the Love Company, 23rd

Infantry of Regiment of the Army’s Second Division.

While on an

artillery-ravaged slope on Heartbreak Ridge, it was Iwamoto’s job to clear

enemy troops out of bunkers.

Iwamoto recalled he was about to fire his

automatic weapon into one when, to his surprise, it jammed.

Iwamoto stepped

back from the bunker, kneeled part way and tried to unjam the weapon.


of the corner of his eye, he saw a flicking light and a trail of smoke — a

telltale sign of a live grenade heading his way.

He froze


Nakamura jumped in front of Iwamoto, fell on the grenade and

shielded Iwamoto and other troops from the blast and died. The heat of battle

prevented Iwamoto from stopping to check on Nakamura’s condition.


recalled he subsequently unjammed his weapon and moved from one bunker to

another to kill enemy troops.

Fellow soldiers knew the two men had a close

bond, and didn’t want to tell Iwamoto about Nakamura’s death until the fighting


Nakamura and Iwamoto were strangers when they went through boot camp

training at Schofield Barracks on O’ahu in the early months of 1951, after

Iwamoto was drafted. They shipped out to Korea the best of friends.


really respected him. He was a good athlete. He excelled in judo,” Iwamoto

said. “He worked hard and believed in honor. I felt the same way.”


their last furlough before both were shipped out to Korea, Iwamoto visited

Nakamura’s home on Maui before he returned to Kaua’i to visit his own family,

possibly for the last time.

On the eve of that battle, Nakamura had a

premonition he would not survive, Iwamoto said.

“He says to me, ‘Angel

(Iwamoto’s nickname), I was with my mother last night,'” Iwamoto said. “He knew

he was going to die.” Nakamura had been in Korea only two months before he was


The day after the battle on Heartbreak Ridge, the full weight of

his friend’s death hit Iwamoto.

“I was in the back of the hill by myself,

and I was crying,” he said.

On the same day Nakamura was killed, Iwamoto

said he captured 14 prisoners and engaged other enemy troops until he and other

American troops were overrun by waves of enemy troops.

From a platoon of 50

men, only Iwamoto, Tamotsu Morimoto from Ai’ea, O’ahu and 10 other soldiers


The instinct was to pull back, but they were told by a superior

officer to hold the ground, partly to allow the dead and wounded to be taken


Iwamoto and Morimoto were in harm’s way.

Amid sniper fire, they

defended ground on a bare ridge that had been swept clean by artillery fire.

Around them, they could see bodies, but they waited.

At night, taunts

filled the air from Chinese soldiers who dug in foxholes not far from Iwamoto

and others.

“The Chinese troops yelled ‘Tonight you die, GI,'” Iwamoto

said. “I told them in Japanese, and they understood, ‘Come this way. I am

waiting for you.'”

During a lull in the fighting, Iwamoto and Morimoto,

though wounded, made their way down the hill to safety.

“I don’t know how

we survived,” Iwamoto said. “We were just plain lucky.”

American forces

wanted to take Heartbreak Ridge because enemy troops had fallen back to it

after relinquishing “Bloody Ridge,” a neighboring ridge that had strategic

military importance.

From the ridge, North Korean forces could see United

Nation defenses and troop movements, and plan combat strategy.

On Sept.

13, 1951, the 2nd Division, of which Iwamoto was a member, got the nod to take

Heartbreak Ridge.

After a month of fighting, American-led forces took it,

but at the expensive of massive casualties.

The 2nd Division alone had more

than 3,000 casualties. Communist losses were estimated at 25,000.


fighting on the ridge on Oct. 8. Iwamoto sustained a leg wound, was

hospitalized, and was sent back to the front lines.

Iwamoto said he never

enjoyed the fighting, but did what he had to do because “of duty.”


times, the sight of bodies of soldiers in the battlefield repelled him,

Iwamoto said.

“Even when you were killing soldiers, you asked yourself

what is going on,” Iwamoto said.

“The people I killed, I can still see

their faces now.”

On Christmas Eve, 1951, he took a life and saved a


During the assault of an enemy outpost, he lobbed a grenade into a

trench, injuring an enemy troop, Iwamoto said.

He looked over the trench,

saw the man and opened fire.

“I had to shoot him. It was my duty,” Iwamoto

said. “That was the last time I killed somebody.”

On the same day, Iwamoto

saved the life of a fellow infantrymen, Yoshiro Nakamura from Kaneohe, O’ahu.

Nakamura was wounded in the leg and couldn’t walk.

Under fire, Iwamoto and

another man carried him to safety, earning a Silver Star for bravery under


Following a nine-month tour, Iwamoto was rotated out of Korea on

April 1, 1952. He was then transferred to Fort Ord in California, and trained

men for combat until the end of the war.

The Korean War had no special

significance to Iwamoto in 1950.

Iwamoto had graduated from Kaua’i High

School in 1946, and was making plans to live on the Kaua’i the rest of his

life. He worked as a carpenter for Maeda Construction Company. At age 21, he

was living at home with his family, which included five brothers, two of whom

who had served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and four


Then, Iwamoto was drafted.

In March 1951, he and 16 other

Kaua’i men flew to Schofield Barracks on O’ahu to prepare for war.

“We were

scared. But we felt better because we were with others from Hawai’i,” Iwamoto

said. “We didn’t know what Communism was. But they told us to fight like hell.”

Of the 16 men who left Kaua’i with Iwamoto to go to war, only one didn’t

return, Vernard Ho’okano of Pakala. After the war ended, Iwamoto resumed his

life on Kaua’i.

He worked as a cane processor and electrician for Lihu’e

Plantation, an electrician at the Lihu’e Airport for the state Department of

Transportation, and an electrical inspector for the County of Kaua’i before he

retired eight years ago.

For the past 27 years, he has been a scoutmaster.

He and his wife also participate in community events.

Nearly a half a

century after the conflict ended, the Korean War and Nakamura are still a part

of his life, Iwamoto said.

In 1997, Nakamura received the Silver Star

posthumously, because of Iwamoto’s efforts.

“What he did went way beyond

the call of duty,” Iwamoto said. “Something made him do it, possibly his sense

of duty. He wanted to help me.”


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