NVC Newsletter

Speakers Series: "Three Amigos" Retrace WWII Nisei Combat Journey in France and Italy

by May Sasaki
February 2014, Volume 64, Issue 2

On January 25, 2014, Keith Yamaguchi, Chris Sketchley and Paul Murakami - the Three Amigos - were featured presenters for the Speakers Series to talk about their trip to Europe in September 2013.  They made the trip to ostensibly pay tribute to their Nisei relatives and friends who were killed in the Rescue of the Lost Battalion (France) and the Battle of the Gothic Line (Italy).

Keith wanted to drape a Congressional Medal on each of their loved one’s grave cross but was informed that adornments were forbidden and could not be left in a military cemetery. So instead, they draped the Congressional Medals on each cross and took a photo in remembrance. They showed the graves in the slideshow and stated that 39 Nisei men still remain buried in Europe. The US Army brings soil from the United States to the European cemetery when interring their soldiers so that wherever American soldiers died, they would always be buried on US soil.

The Three Amigos, joined by four others, first landed in Paris, France and stayed in a “Gite”, equivalent to our Bed & Breakfast, which provided them with food, lodging and fresh vegetables grown in the nearby field.  The gite’s owners, Herve and Sylvie Claudon, became their guides as well as local historians and museum docents displaying collections of artifacts from the actual combat sites and German foxholes in the forests of the Vosges Mountains.  In fact, they found an old WWII rifle in the forests and the guys were told to bring it back for the NVC Museum. (The Amigos did take some time to see the usual tourist destinations: Notre Dame, Eiffel tower, Arc De Triomphe, the Louvre and the Seine River.)

The Amigos were then told to visit a 90-year-old lady called Adrienne Noel, who had helped a group of Nisei soldiers when they had gotten separated behind enemy lines.  She and her father secretly brought them food for several days at great risk to their own lives since the Germans were occupying their farmhouse.  She recalls having to tiptoe over the sleeping Germans to get past them at night.  She says she often wondered if the Nisei soldiers made it back to their unit when they left.

They also met Ferdinand Didier and his wife Marie-Colette who were only teenagers during the war.  He was a member of the French Freedom Fighters (FFI) and helped locate German tanks and artillery for the Allied soldiers and was awarded the French Croix De Guerre at age 17. After the war, he recounted how the FFI shaved the heads of all the French women who had been friendly with the Germans.

An amusing incident happened when another Frenchman, Claude Virlot first saw Paul…he enthusiastically hugged him in the street, thinking he was a Nisei because of his smaller stature.  The Nisei soldiers he said were about Paul’s size in WWII.  Mr. Virlot vividly recalls the liberation of Bruyeres by the Allies after five years of German occupation.

Among other interesting tidbits shared, were that the Germans smelled like leather while the Nisei smelled like cigarettes.  But mostly, they remembered the extreme generosity of the Nisei soldiers to the French people. Marcel Haton and his friend Dominique Aubert were born in the 1930’s and both lived in Chamois-devan-Breyeres.  As the allies moved toward Bruyeres, they talked about the Nisei soldiers of the 100th/442nd who bivouacked on their property and how efficiently quick they were in setting up their gear, ready for action.

They heard a funny story about the cows and the hedgerows of Normandy. The cows are curious beasts and the allies used the natural curiosity of the cows to locate the German troops using the hedgerows as cover—the cows gave away the location of the German troops, every time!

 The Moselle River Crossing is an annual celebration in commemoration of the crossing of the River by the 141st Regiment, 36th Infantry Division.  There is a plaque to mark the place where the Nisei soldiers were covertly led by the French to safely negotiate the treacherous crossing.  Young French men, costumed in WWII uniforms, annually re-enact the event, an indication of how important it was to them.  A memento was presented to NVC: a stone from the Moselle River.

The city of Bruyeres reflects a strong alliance with the 442nd because you see the colors of the 442 and Texas State flags perpetually on display at City Hall.  You see many places with 442 signs in buildings and on sidewalks – “Road of 442nd” and “Freedom Trail”.  Bruyeres took heavy shelling from the Americans because of its close proximity to Germany’s border.  Even today, the damage to the buildings and churches are extensive and one can still see evidence of shell and shrapnel holes in the pews and walls.

Hill 167 was the site of the Lost Battalion where the Texas unit was rescued by the Nisei soldiers of the 100/442 after suffering over 800 casualties themselves. (It is known as one of the top 10 major battles of US History).  Hill D within earshot of Bruyeres was so heavily shelled that the mountain was completely bald.

The Three Amigos saw how dense the forests of the nearby Vosges Mountains were…so dense that daytime seemed as dark as night and one could picture the constant bombardments of “tree bursts” from German artillery fire. You could almost see the Honor Guard standing in parade formation to honor the dead with William Imamoto in the background, and they saw the place where Jimmie Kanaya was captured.

As a special surprise for Keith, their guide Herve made a plaque and presented it to Keith in honor of his dad, Shiro Yamaguchi of 100/442 who was awarded the Bronze Star for Heroic Action.  They nailed the plaque on a tree and Keith explained that his dad lost a leg to gangrene after stepping on a mine.  One of the persons travelling with the Three Amigos was Garrett Tatsumi, nephew of Takaaki Okazaki.  On the road to Biffontaine, he placed a plaque on a tree to honor his uncle. 

Then the Three Amigos visited the Epinal American Cemetery in France, located in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, containing 5,255 US military dead who lost their lives from the campaign in Northeastern France through the Rhine River and beyond into Germany. They paid tribute to the dead Nisei soldiers by draping the Congressional Gold Medals on their grave crosses.  Then they had a delicious dinner in an excellent restaurant with a breathtaking view and bid farewell and thank you to their wonderful hosts, Herve and Sylvie Claudon in Bruyeres, France.

The next stop on the Three Amigos' Journey was Italy’s Masa/Carrera and the site of the Gothic Line. They spent 13 hours on trains to get to Lerici, Italy, rented a car to get around and amassed $600 in fines due a lack of understanding of the signage and no-drive areas. Davide del Giudice is an elementary school teacher in the Masa/Carrera area and also a guide specializing in the history of the 100thBN/442RCT, and a good friend of Paul from a previous visit.

Davide met with the group and Chris was especially anxious to find a certain medic shack, described and drawn by Tak Momoda, (now deceased) to see if it was still there on Mt. Folgorito. So they climbed up the mountain to the summit to see the command caves used by the Germans to call in artillery fire.  The area was heavily fortified with trenches and bunkers.  A granite marker indicated the Gothic Line and there was a tall white cross on top of the ridge.

The Gothic Line was impossibly difficult for the Allies to break because of the difficult terrain with German fortifications above...they would call for artillery fire against the climbing soldiers and were able to kill them like ducks in a shooting gallery.  The 442 Nisei soldiers were called in and climbed the steep granite terrain for 8 hours straight in the middle of the night under absolute silence and caught the Germans asleep at the top!  A fantastic military feat!

After scouring the map of Mt. Folgorito and looking at the drawing that Tak drew and matching the ridge line in the long photo they had, Chris was able to locate the medic shack on the mountain…it was there, just as Tak drew it.  Unfortunately, Tak died before Chris was able to tell him.

Next they went to Tendola, Italy, to visit the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial located on the hills set in the corolla of a magnificent natural setting honoring the final battle of the Gothic Line, on April 23, 1945.  A plaque paid tribute to the sacrifice of Beanie Tadao Hayashi and soldiers of the 442nd RCT of the United States.  They draped the Congressional Gold Medals on the dead Nisei soldiers’ grave crosses again, in honor of their ultimate sacrifice.

All in all, the Three Amigos (Keith Yamaguchi, Paul Murakami and Chris Sketchley) felt it was a truly worthwhile and meaningful trip.  They recommend to others, Sansei and Yonsei, to retrace the combat journey of the WWII Nisei Soldiers in Europe to fully appreciate what they accomplished.