[NOTE: The following article was originally published in the Northwest Nikkei, March 1991 edition.]
Nisei soldiers killed in action. Just barely out of high school, many died so young.
While not even old enough to vote during that period, they were old enough to take a strong stand, in difficult times, for what they believed in. A stand which established a legacy of opportunity for all Japanese Americans.
Looking back, the timing of world events placed these men at a critical crossroad point in history. A crossroad requiring decisions and action that would set a course for every generation of Japanese Americans thereafter.
For them, World War II was this crossroad point. A war which found the United States fighting a Nazi Germany and an Imperialist Japan.
To the Nisei generation, America was the only home they knew. For those raised in Seattle, places like Garfield or Broadway High were their alma maters. Sports like football, basketball, and baseball were their activities. Even the many Japanese cultural organizations they belonged to were uniquely Americanized.
However, unlike other American soldiers, many Nisei reported for duty after being released from mass detention camps, leaving behind their family and friends who remained incarcerated for the duration of the war.
Unlike other American soldiers, the Nisei faced an outright racism and discrimination beyond comprehension to those who did not experience it, including their own Sansei children just one generation later.
Unlike other American soldiers, the Nisei were denied virtually all civil rights of being an American citizen, except the “right” to serve and fight for their country. A right they exercised to the fullest extent.
In all, 33,000 Nisei served in the Army in WW2. Assembled into racially segregated units, most Nisei served either with the 100th Battalion/442nd Regiment Combat Team (RCT) or the Army Military Intelligence Service (MIS).
As the most decorated military unit for its size and length of service in the armed forces, the 100/442nd RTCT fought in seven major campaigns in Italy, France, and central Europe from September 1943 through May 1945.
While their accomplishments have since been received considerable recognition and publicity, their efforts were not without a price. In nearly 20 months of combat, the regiment sustained over 9,400 casualties with 680 men killed in action.
As a highly-decorated member of the 100/442nd RCT, Shiro Kashino of Seattle discussed two major battles which brought recognition to his regiment. The first occurred in France, known as the “Rescue of the Lost Battalion.” In three days of fierce combat, the Nisei soldiers rescued a battalion of Texan soldiers cut off from their 36th Infantry Division. He recalled, “We accomplished our mission of rescuing the Lost Battalion, but ended up losing more men than we saved."
The other battle was in Italy, known as the “Gothic Line”. According to Kashino, “This was a heavily fortified area where the German troops had held off the Americans for over five months. The 100/442nd RCT were called in and were able to crack the German line in one day of combat."
“We were fortunate to be successful in accomplishing our mission and thereby receiving the recognition that we did”, he said. “However, with each successful campaign, we suffered tremendous causalities.”
Having been wounded himself on five separate occasions during the war campaign, Kashino feels fortunate to be a survivor. He remembers a number of fellow Nisei soldiers who were killed in action. Many fought side by side with him.
As a native of Seattle, Kashino remembers men such as Manzo Mon Takahashi who was killed in April of 1945. Takahashi had been wounded pretty badly in the Rescue of the Lost Battalion. Despite being hurt, he returned to fight bravely at the Gothic Line.
“Mon was a big guy, kind of on the quite side. He was a good soldier”, Kashino said. “At the Gothic Line, the only way to expose the enemy was to draw fire from them by exposing ourselves. As we charged forward, I heard German machine gun fire”.
“After it was over, I came back and found Mon had been hit with a fatal shot”.
Another fallen soldier was George Sawada, who served as a medic. A Franklin High School graduate and finishing near the top of the class at the University of Washington prior to the incarceration, George had plans of entering medical school after the war.
Kashino recalled fierce fighting on the day Sawada was killed. “They were calling for more medics and I saw George moving up to the forward wearing his white helmet and white armband. I stopped to talk with him for a short while”.
He continued, “We in the war had an unwritten law that we do not shoot at medics. However, I heard later George was killed by sniper fire.”
Reaching back into memories of a difficult period in his life, Kashino remembered other Nisei soldiers such as Yukio Sato and Theodore Watanabe, both brave men killed in action.
At the conclusion of the war, a number of veterans including Kashino, returned to the Seattle area and organized the Nisei Veterans Committee (NVC). For $1,000, the local kendo association sold their old building to the Nisei Vets.
“The building was in terrible shape so we worked hard to fix it up”, Kashino explained. “To raise money, we charged $100 for life memberships; we promoted boxing matches, and even held stag parties!”
Kashino credited 100/442nd RCT veteran Albert “Lefty” Ichihara for his tireless dedication to restoring and maintaining the building.
In remembrance of their fallen comrades, the remodeled building became known as the Nisei Veterans Memorial Hall. Serving as the NVC’s second Commander, Kashino recalled, “It was important for us not to forget those who died in the war”.
Over 40 years later, the NVC’s 43rd Commander Mas Fukuhara rededicated himself to the spirit of honoring the Nikkei war dead. He, along with past Commanders Mack Shoji, Mas Watanabe, Popo Yorozu, Joe Nakatsu and other veterans started to research the lives and identities of the 62 Nikkei soldiers from Washington State who died while serving their country.
According to Fukuhara, “I became curious about the 62 war dead . . . the lack of biographical data on these men seemed like an oversight which needed to be corrected. These men deserve more than then the comparative obscurity and anonymity of their names simply inscribed on a monument.”
As a result, over the past two years the Nisei Veterans Committee members have been busy creating a more personalized memorial exhibit in honor of the Japanese American soldiers from Washington State killed in the line of duty.
The memorial will exhibit not only their pictures, but also a biography for each man. At least, at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Hall these men will no longer be relegated to simply having their name inscribed on a stone monument. Their own unique past will soon be presented.
A ceremony to formally dedicate this memorial exhibit was held March 23rd, 1991 at the Nisei Veterans clubhouse.
In a Seattle Times interview in 1990, Mas Fukuhara stated, “Given the discrimination that they faced, these soldiers had little incentive to fight. And yet, fight - and die - they did”.