By J.K. YAMAMOTO
“Valor with Honor,” a new documentary about the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, had its Los Angeles premiere Feb. 5 at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum with about 60 people in attendance.
San Jose-based filmmaker Burt Takeuchi interviewed 35 Nisei veterans and spent three and a half years editing the documentary. In addition to the interviews — in which the vets recall painful memories that they have not even shared with their own families — it includes archival footage and some historical re-enactments.
Takeuchi also interviewed survivors of the 141st Texas Regiment, the “Lost Battalion” that was trapped behind enemy lines and rescued by the 442nd after six days of fierce fighting in France’s Vosges Mountains. To save 211 Texans, 216 Nisei lost their lives and 856 more were wounded.
A Holocaust survivor who was liberated by the 522nd Field Artillery, part of the 442nd, also appears in the film.
“Valor with Honor” was shown last year in Auburn, Placer County, to raise funds for a monument to local Nisei veterans, including a statue of a 442nd soldier helping a member of the Lost Battalion. Screenings have also been in San Francisco’s and San Jose’s Japantowns. According to Takeuchi, every showing leaves some members of the audience in tears.
Among those attending the Los Angeles screening were 442nd vets Jimmy Yamashita and Harry Kanada, and Ivan Houston of the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated African American unit also known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”
Chris Komai, spokesperson for JANM, commented after the screening that the Nisei soldiers embodied the values of their Issei parents. “So much of the way that Japanese American soldiers fought had to do, I think, almost entirely with their cultural heritage … The truth is that Japanese Americans fought like Japanese, and by that I mean that they were told there are worse things than dying, one of them being, of course, to bring shame to your family.
“The other is that camaraderie that they had, and their desire to protect their comrades was more important than their own lives … The cultural values of gaman, gambatte and shikata ga nai and all those things, I think, were extremely important in the way they conducted themselves.”
Noting that the vets in the film recalled being treated as second-class citizens and being called “Japs” upon their return to America, Komai observed, “That affected our community so much that to a large degree we had to keep telling everyone how American we are. But in doing so, we were repressing part of our cultural heritage that our parents, our grandparents brought from Japan. That was of equal importance to the way that these soldiers conducted themselves and how they were able to accomplish as much as they did.”
Recalling the initial interviews, Takeuchi noted, “It was so arduous to get these gentlemen to talk” because he was basically telling them, “I don’t know you, but can you tell me the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in your life — on film?”
He was able to persuade them about the need to record their stories. “These things will last for generations and they become more important because they define us, the next generation, and how we see ourselves and the world around us. It’s not just about war. It’s about overcoming hardship and what these young men were willing to do about it.”
Takeuchi compiled much more material than he could use in the film, and at times felt that he had dug himself into a deep hole. “I tried to get it down to like an hour and 20 minutes,” he said. “It’s still pretty long, but it was like six hours when I started out … It took about three and a half years to get to this point. I had to work a full-time job. That was the hard part. If I didn’t have to work, maybe I would have done it in two years.”
He added, “Some of you probably wept during the film. I was weeping every night … It’s an emotional experience.”
Takeuchi got a little choked up when he talked about the nightmares and flashbacks that many vets suffer from, and the difficulty they have talking about it. Today that would be called post-traumatic stress disorder, but at the time they were told that “it was a sign of weakness,” he said. “It’s not. It’s a psychological reaction to trauma … It should be accepted as something normal. It shouldn’t be shunned and people shouldn’t be looked down upon.”
Keeping those experiences bottled up is “like holding your breath for 60-70 years,” he continued. “Let it out, get mad about it, show your feelings, talk to your friends … One veteran that I talked to said, ‘I killed so many people in that war.’ He said that it was so difficult for him to tell his own family because how can you be a father or a leader in your community when you’ve killed other men in war? How do you justify that?
“So it was important for me to finish this film. Even if it killed me, I was going to do it … I felt that if they were willing to give me these stories, share a part of their lives and agonize over it, I have to finish it. So here it is.”
Takeuchi’s interest in the 442nd goes back to his childhood in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District. A neighbor, Nob Shimotsuka, was a veteran who loaned his wartime photo albums to Takeuchi to take to school for show and tell. “He wasn’t a very talkative guy. He didn’t talk a lot about the war, but he was very helpful. He was interesting because he got me started learning about the 442nd.”
Over the years, Takeuchi also got to know veterans in Northern California like Rudy Tokiwa, who appears in a famous photo of 442nd soldiers with German POWs. Like Shimotsuka, he has since passed away.
While many veterans’ oral histories have been recorded by groups like the Go For Broke National Education Center and Seattle-based Densho, Takeuchi said, “I thought making a feature documentary was what I really wanted to do …. I felt like ‘Why not just give it a shot?’ ”
He added that he felt a sense of urgency as he made the film. “Its value will become more important over time, because pretty soon there’s nobody left to tell these stories … I was like ‘Oh my gosh’ … I think at one point they were saying that 850 World War II veterans a week were passing away, close to a thousand now. That’s a lot. All of these stories are going with them.”
Three of the interviewees, Henry Arao, Robert Kashiwagi and Tom Kizuka, died before the film was completed.
Takeuchi is still working on the DVD. Extras might include some of the veterans’ funny stories that were omitted from the film.
“Valor with Honor” will be screened at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans in May, which is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The Association for Asian American Studies will be holding its national conference in New Orleans from May 18 to 21.
Regarding future screenings, Takeuchi said, “I don’t know if it’s catching fire, but people are getting wind of it. People are becoming more interested … Another one will probably be in New York, of all places. I didn’t there were that many Nikkei in New York … Hawaii, that’s another one.”
Showings in San Francisco, San Jose and Stockton are tentatively planned, and Takeuchi promised to return to Southern California.