Story of 442 is American Story
HOUSTON, December 19, 2013 — Susumu Ito’s posture is stooped, and at 94, he walks with care. But his voice is strong as he says, emphatically, “Yes.” Yes the young Nisei—second-generation Japanese Americans—who made up the 442 Regimental Combat Team felt they had something to prove, fighting Hitler’s armies in Italy and France and rescuing the “Lost Battalion” in one of the most remarkable if little known combat stories of World War II. Their patriotism.
“And we were gung-ho about proving it,” Ito says. “We as a group could either distinguish or disgrace our group. Virtually all of us were completely loyal to the U.S. and wanted nothing to do with Japan. And we were going to do the best we could in spite of the fact that many of our parents and relatives were in internment camps.”
The 442nd—battle cry: “Go for Broke”—certainly distinguished themselves, individually as well as a group, ending the war one of the most decorated units in the American military history for its size and length of service.
They earned seven Distinguished Unit Citations, more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, seven Presidential Unit Citations, and a large number of individual decorations for bravery, including 21 Medals of Honor, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 588 Silver Stars. In 2011 Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on the three World War II Nisei units, the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service.
Ito was among seven members of the shrinking number of Nisei World War II veterans, now in their late 80s and 90s, on hand at the Holocaust Museum Houston for the December 19 opening of a traveling exhibition, American Heroes: Japanese American World War II Nisei Soldiers and the Congressional Gold Medal. The Smithsonian Institution and the National Veterans Network, a nonprofit organization that promotes greater awareness of the Nisei contribution to the war effort, partnered in the tour.
Holocaust Museum Houston is hosting the exhibition because elements of the 442nd that included Ito and Nelson Akagi, who was also on hand for the opening, liberated subcamps of Dachau in the closing days of the war.
Despite their advancing years, Ito, a retired professor at Harvard Medical School, and Akagi, a retired machinist, remember vividly what they did and saw 70 years ago and happily shared their war experiences in an interview before the opening ceremony.
Ito, a forward artillery officer attached to Company I of the 442nd, was in the thick of the fight to save the Lost Battalion, he said. In October 1944, near the French-German border, more than 200 members of the 141st Texas Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division, also known as the Texas Division, had been ordered to advance four miles beyond allied lines. They ended up trapped on a ridge, surrounded by some 6,000 Germans.
Despite having just finished 10 days of hard fighting, the 442nd was ordered to the rescue.
The rugged terrain posed as big a problem as the Germans, Ito recalled. “It was heavy, dense pine forest, No roads except for trails. Very mountainous. And we were fighting against an enemy we could not see. To this day when I walk into a dark forest on a bright day—or even when I think about it—I get goose bumps.”
Six days of hard fighting were required before the 442nd broke through to the trapped Texans. “Our unit of about 160 men was reduced to 8 riflemen—it was virtually decimated,” says Ito, who still can’t figure out how he came through without a scratch.
The 442nd suffered casualties two to three times higher than the 211 fellow soldiers they saved. But those 211 were “unbelievably relieved when we reached them,” Ito said. “They came out of the deepest foxholes I’ve ever seen.”
For Akagi, coming across concentration camp survivors near death, abandoned by their fleeing German guards, seared itself in his memory.
“During our advance we didn’t know what was in front of us especially when we were near the Dachau subcamps after Dachau was liberated,” he said. “It just so happened that the subcamps were in our route. So we just stumbled across them.”
Soldiers were told they should not give solid food to the emaciated survivors, that it would kill them. So Akagi and his troop mates threw their leftovers into a garbage can filled with water. “But low and behold they dipped their hands into that dirty old garbage can and started to eat the solid food,” Akagi said, shaking his head.
He was 20 years old. “It was just terrible, something you never will forget and don’t want to happen again.”
But there were joyful experiences too. Akagi’s captain asked a group of liberated inmates if any spoke English. An 18-year-old Lithuanian Jew named Larry Lubetzky—Akagi can still recite the inmate number the Germans tattooed on his arm, 82123—announced he could speak English and German. So the captain made him the company translator.
“Almost 70 years ago but I could never forget that kind of incident,” Akagi said. “That was April 30 or May 1, 1945. After we picked him up we had him in our Charlie Battery. The captain put a GI uniform on him, and we treated him like one of us.”
After the war the 442nd vets tracked down Lubetzky, who was living in Mexico City, and he attended one of their reunions.
The 442nd was officered by Caucasians, randomly assigned from the officer corps. Relations between the Nisei enlisted men and white officers were generally good, Ito said. “Most of us admired them very much.”
Ironically, during training it was cultural differences among the Nisei themselves that proved a hurdle, he said. About half the men in the 442nd were from Hawaii—members of the pre-war Hawaii National Guard in many cases. The other half hailed from the mainland United States.
“Two completely different breeds,” Ito said, laughing.
“Most of us could not understand the pidgin English they spoke. And they had some animosity toward us because we sounded more like Caucasian employers in Hawaii—many came from sugar plantations and laboring jobs.”
But the unit cohered around the single goal of demonstrating Japanese American commitment to the war effort.
Speaking at Asia Society Texas Center at ceremonies held in conjunction with the exhibition, Secretary of Veterans Affairs and former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, a Nisei himself, said, “I do not know a better, more compelling, nor more moving story of what it means to be an American than the wartime performances of the men who served in these three legendary units we honor tonight—and their families.”
Fritz Lanham is a freelance writer in Houston.