HONOLULU (KHON2) — In these woods, boys became warriors, men became legends.
It is a tale of glory and sacrifice, but as the years go by, there are fewer left to tell it.
December 7, 1941: The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt has announced.
“Sunday morning, I saw the zeros fly by,” said Robert Kishinami. “It was unbelievable. Later you come to realize these are Japanese.”
“I’ll never forget that Sunday morning,” said Norman Ikari. “Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. This is no kidding this is real.”
“My brother and I both volunteered,” said Tom Kawagushi. “They threw us out of the recruiting office.”
“They said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re a Jap. We don’t want Japs in the navy. Get out of here.’ I was in shock. I said I’m an American. 1943 comes along and they decide to form the 100th battalion,” said Lawson Sakai.
And so began the journey of the 100th infantry battalion. Of the 10,000 who volunteered from Hawaii, 2600 made the grade. They were joined by 1500 Nisei from internment camps, eager to prove their loyalty, determined not to bring shame on their families.
“I remember the letter from my mother. She said, ‘Son, you’ll be fighting the enemy. My son, do not be a coward. Be brave for your father and your family,” said Hiromo Suchiro.
“I knew I might die,” said Masayuki “Spark” Matsunaga. “I believed that as a result of our sacrifice, my folks back home, and posterity, would have a better life.”
The young soldiers would not have to wait long to show their mettle. Next stop, Africa, and onward to Italy, now a battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. And their go for broke spirit proved indefatigable in victories at Anzio, Benevento, Monte Cassino, Castellina Marittima, to the very gates of Rome while suffering tremendous casualties.
“People tend to find something romantic about war. It’s horrible and that’s an understatement,” said Hiro Takusagawa.
On the battlefields of Italy, many would earn their purple ribbons and the respect of their superiors.
“You have demonstrated on field of battle. You’re always willing to close with the enemy. He has no bluff on you and you’ve always defeated him. America is proud of you,” said General Mark Clark.
But Italy would prove to be the prelude to a new and dangerous mission, one that would affirm the reputation of the 100th battalion, 442nd as the fiercest fighting unit in Europe.
Leaving silently the port of Napoli, four navy transports would slip past Sardinia, through the Strait of Bonifacio to the southern shores of France.
The fall of France was the feather in Hitler’s cap. The Nazi occupation would formulate an intense allied campaign that would send forces to all borders.
For the Nisei, the campaign would start in Marseille, where they proceeded north to Aix En Provence, Avignon and finally to the region of France known as the grand est, very close to the German border.
There they joined the 36th Division of the Seventh Army under General John Dahlquist, an ambitious two-star general, with no combat experience.
His orders: Take the German-occupied village of Bruyeres.
I don’t think they realized what a difficult ground we had to traverse,” said Shuji Taketomo. “There are four hills above Bruyeres and we had to take those hills for the town to be free.”
“Bruyeres, that was really a battle we had to fight they didn’t give up, the Germans,” said Tsuneo Takemoto.
“The French were overjoyed to see us,” said Stanley Akita. “But then after the liberation, we witnessed the town’s wrath on collaborators. Male collaborators were beaten. Female collaborators were shaved bald and marched through the town.”
“The Hawaiians gave candies to my son, cigarettes to my husband and they paid me for the cabbages they took from my garden and even asked my permission to do so,” said Villager Josephine Voirin.
It was a victorious march through the liberated village. They marched again on Sunday, December 7.
“It’s really incredibly moving,” said Rep. Ed Case. “I’m choking up being here and thinking about the history and to read Audrey’s uncle’s war memoirs, talking about fighting in that hill over there…irreplaceable.”
“People from Hawaii and France celebrating what it means to fight for peace,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “And I feel honored to be here, to be a part of this 75th anniversary.”
At nearly every corner Bruyeres honors the Nisei.
“George Washington Suyama was an ordinary soldier like thousands of others who came and fought and died and I didn’t want him to be forgotten,” said Carl Williams.
“His whole identity was formed around being here, fighting with his brothers, and so to be here where it happened it’s everything,” said Joe Sakato’s daughter Leslie Sakato.
“Now that I’m on-site, you can tell I’m choked up. There’s family history here and that means a lot. There are three of us, two nephews and a niece so I’m hoping he feels our presence,” said Lindsey Sagami, the nephew of Yohei Sagami.
Twelve-year-old Michel Pierat watched as Yohei and his unit marched out of the woods, past his father’s farm. Soon after an explosion sent a shard of shrapnel into Yohei’s throat. He was the first to die in Laval Sur Vologne. He was 22.
After the war, despite extreme poverty, the townspeople scraped up enough francs for a wooden monument, later replaced by stone. Michel’s father vowed that the Pierat family would watch over it. Michel, now 87, has tended to the stone for 70 years, keeping it clear of dust and weeds, tasks his son Pierre Frederique will soon take over.
The gifts are letters, pictures, and snacks, but what is really being exchanged here is gratitude, for a promise to a fallen soldier, and for a life given for a family’s freedom.
“On Saturday, memorial services were held. I didn’t go,” Minoru Masuda said in his letter to his wife. “You know how I feel about funerals. There are many sad memories of friends who fell in battle, young, fresh-faced, eager, beautiful lads with whom I had volunteered from Hawaii and the camps. What a price they paid for all of us.”
“It’s an inspiration to every person that takes an oath to defend the country,” said Retired USAF Col. Edwin Hawkins Jr. “People before did heroic things and you are carrying on their legacy.”
“There’s a lot of people, Yonsei generation that don’t know about the 442nd and 100th battalion. This is an incredible story to share,” said Maya Caldwell.
“I only got about 13 years with my grandfather. It brings to light who was part of my family,” said Kenneth Leong.
“Being Jewish, I never would have been born. So the sacrifice of these soldiers, who not only liberated France but they saved the lives and liberated the United States,” said Richard Turbin.
“My father, one of his dying wishes was that I come here to visit, so this wasn’t just an opportunity to visit my grandfather but also to make good on a wish my father had,” said Theresa Maman.
“His granddaughter married a Frenchman, the people he had saved so the blood he shed was not in vain,” said Honolulu French Consulate Guillaume Maman.
They have come in search of that final piece of the puzzle of an unspoken past. Perhaps at Epinal they will find some measure of peace and a deeper understanding of the legacy that is now theirs to uphold.
Immortalized in music by Debussy, the Vosges is a legend for its halcyon splendor. But this mountain range will forever be remembered for one of the most pivotal battles of the French campaign. Beyond these trees is Germany.
Against the advice of his officers, General Dahlquist orders the 36th infantry division, known as the texas battalion to push relentlessly into the hills. The premature move soon finds the 275 men surrounded by germans.
“General Dahlquist, a man who was obsessed to be the first general to reach Germany and a man who broke many of the basic rules of command,” said Young Oak Kim.
The Texans weren’t actually lost, they knew exactly where they were. And so did the Germans. It was implied this battalion was doomed.
“On your feet, we’re going up. It was so dark that night you couldn’t see the hand in front of you,” said Shuji Taketomo.
“We held on to each other’s coattails until we made contact with the enemy,” said Ichigi Kashiwagi.
“All hell is breaking loose, they shooting at you, this is the final stand for the Germans,” said Ed Ichiyama.
“You saw the guys fall left and right. You saw their bodies. We’ve lost half the men because of the eight days of battle,” said Lawson Sakai.
“It was so bad, in fact, I prayed,” said Yukio Sumida.
Days pass, the Texans wait, their ammo and food nearly depleted, their numbers cut down every day.
“After a week we wondered, will they be able to come and get us? When are they gonna come?” said Buck Glover.
“Tanamachi got up and he got shot. The body went limp and I knew he died and I cried. Hugged him, “God why, why?’ I laid him down, looked all the blood on my hands, took the Tommy gun and zigged and zagged up there,” said George “Joe” Sakato.
“We kept pushing I could see in the distance. I saw this gi look straight in my direction,” said Mutt Sakamoto.
“I was on the outpost and I strained my eyes and see an American soldier,” said Edward Guy.
“I see this dark-skinned kid. Here was a brother of mine coming to save my life,” said Glover.
“We yelled our heads off and shot at everything that moved or didn’t move. Finally, we broke through.”
“They broke their way through. These two are Americans and they proved it with the full measure of their loyalty.”
“We threw down our weapons and everyone hugged each other, saying, ‘Thank you, thank you.”
“You’re in the same area, the same foxhole and he told Saburo where the Germans were and said stay down but Saburo got up to look and that’s when he got shot. When he fell he fell in Joe’s arms, yeah.”
“This waterhole was the only waterhole not only for the lost battalion but for the Germans so they would take turns coming down with their canteens and getting water. I know it was difficult to dig the foxholes because of the roots of the trees but it was the only thing the soldiers could do for protection. There’s a painting of the Banzai Charge hanging in the Pentagon,” said Historian Tom Graves.
“In the military, you always want the higher ground because it’s easier to shoot down on the enemy who have to come up the hill to get you. It just speaks of the courage that it takes,” said Retired USAF Col. Edwin Hawkins Jr.
After a month of fighting, 2/3 lay dead or injured. In the rescue of the Texans alone, Nisei casualties were four times the number of men rescued.
“Dahlquist wanted the 442nd to pass in review, said to the colonel, ‘When I order everyone to pass in review, I mean everyone. This is the first time we saw the colonel cry. He said this is all have left,” said Rudy Tokiwa.
In the months following the rescue, the 100th rejoined other units of the 442nd. Some returned to Italy or the south of France, others crossed the border to rescue the prisoners of Dachau. Seven months after the Battle of Bruyeres, the men of the 442nd get the word.
And 3 months later…
“When they told us the war was over everyone was solemn. No celebrating, we just smiled,” said Kazuo Takawa.
“Just think darling, I’ll be home for Christmas, just as this guy on the radio’s singing about,” said Minoru Masuda in his letter to his wife. “I’d better stop now before I get maudlin. Gee, I love you so doggone much. “
“The doorbell rang. There stood min with his face beaming. He twirled me around again and kept repeating it’s so good to be home,” said Hana Masuda.
“When I saw my father we grabbed each other and danced with joy. I come home and they graded me and jumped up and down,” said George Morihiro.
“We need to keep the story alive,” said Larry Oda. “Every town we went through they said the Nisei saved our lives. They teach their kids. We need to teach our kids.”
“Seeing these people who celebrate year after year the sacrifice my ancestors made has just been incredible. It makes me proud to be Japanese-American,” said Kimi Emiki Andrew.
“What touched me is where the children sang Hawaii Ponoi. And they raised the American and French flags together. It was so touching,” said Lenny Yajima.
“Our responsibility is to remember the soldiers of the 100th and 442nd, what they did for us so we can live the lives we live,” said Rev. Jay Shinseki.
“It brings back full circle what our parents went through. Now we need to continue so nobody forgets,” said Margaret Masunaga.
“Today at long last we award the congressional gold medal to a group of Americans who are as deserving of it as I have ever known,” said Sen. John McCain in 2011.
“We remember those for whom today came too late and particularly to those who never came home,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi in 2011.
“Through them, I was inspired to serve,” said Admiral Harry Harris 2016. “They also had two deal with discrimination, distrust, and hostility from the very same country they were defending with their very same lives.”
“We recognize them with the medal of honor. They fought in France and liberated towns that still remember them with memorials. They took 800 casualties in 5 days in southern France to rescue the lost battalion of Texas. The medal of honor is awarded to Barney F. Hajiro, George Sakato, Robert Kuroda, Joe Nishimoto, James Okubu,” said Former President Clinton in 2000.
“This has been a long journey but a glorious one,” said Sen. Daniel Inouye. “I’m sure those resting in cemeteries are pleased with this day.”