Associated Press
Alan Rhoads gives a flag to veteran Theodore Wakai before the start of Saturday's parade in Waikiki.

HONOLULU — Hundreds of Japanese-American veterans of World War II were honored Saturday with a parade in Honolulu — nearly 70 years after they volunteered to fight for their country even as the government branded them "enemy aliens."

About 200 veterans rode in convertibles, troop carriers and trolleys past a cheering crowd of tourists, family and local residents. The event celebrates the Congressional Gold Medal the veterans received last month.

Fragile health prevented many of the surviving veterans — the youngest of whom are in their 80s — from traveling to Washington, D.C., to attend a ceremony at which the medal was presented.

So their supporters decided to hold a celebration for them in Hawaii, where two-thirds of the veterans were from.

The medal recognizes the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion which together saw some of the most brutal fighting in the war as the soldiers pushed their way through Italy, France and Germany.

By the end of the war, the combined unit became the most highly decorated military unit in U.S. history for its size and length of service.

Masato Doi, 90, said he was surprised and a little overwhelmed by the celebration.

"It really is an honor," Doi said at a luncheon where the veterans received a replica of medal.

Doi, who was a member of the 442nd, said he was proud that his service led to greater tolerance and acceptance of Japanese-Americans among the general public.

Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki, a 69-year-old former Army chief of staff and a Japanese-American, told them their service enabled him to grow up without having people doubt his loyalty.

"Except for your service and bloody sacrifice, my life's work would not have followed the path that it did. And so to you and your family members — we are indebted to all of you for giving us lessons about living our lives with purpose and dignity," he said. "From my generation to yours — I thank you."

Thousands of Japanese-Americans served in World War II even as the government viewed them with suspicion because their ancestors were from the country that bombed Pearl Harbor. Some on the mainland enlisted from internment camps, where the federal government had imprisoned 110,000 Japanese-Americans.

Those in the parade Saturday wore hats with the names of their units on them, and some included the saying "Go for Broke," which had been the motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat team.

The medal also honors Japanese-Americans who served as translators and interpreters against Japan, often on the front lines with Marines and soldiers fighting from island to island across the Pacific.

As members of the Military Intelligence Service, they deciphered key Japanese communications, including one that tipped off the U.S. to the flight plans of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto — the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor — in 1943. The U.S. shot down his plane, dealing a major blow to Japan.

The parade also honored members of the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion who were stationed on Oahu during the war.

The elite medal has been given selectively since 1776, when George Washington was awarded the first. Other honorees include the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Rosa Parks and the Dalai Lama. The Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of black fighter pilots, received the medal in 2007.