By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
This past Sunday before Veterans Day, I had the pleasure of dining with Dr. Susumu Ito of Wellesley, Mass., and Eric Saul of Morgantown, W.Va. In fact, I was able to sit in between them and it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime treat.
Both were in Los Angeles for events related to the military service by the Nisei during WWII, namely the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service. On Sunday, the French government awarded 11 Nisei WWII vets its National Order of the Legion of Honor in the rank of Chevalier (Knight). The honor was for the segregated 442nd’s service in WWII for driving the Germans out of the towns of Bruyeres and Biffontaine.
Receiving the highest honor France gives its civilians and foreign nationals were Tokuji Yoshihashi, Harry Kanada, Hiroshi Nishikubo, Don Miyada, Fumio “Steve” Shimizu, Takashi “Frank” Sugihara, Harry H. Yoshimura, Noboru “Don” Seki, George S. Kanatani, Makoto “James” Ogawa and Takashi Wada.
The day after Veterans Day was the launch of the Japanese American National Museum’s exhibition “Go for Broke: JA Soldiers Fighting on Two Fronts,” curated by Saul, on how the Nisei who chose to fight for the U.S. in the Pacific and Europe were also battling institutionalized racism in American society. (I also heard from Daisy Satoda of San Francisco that she saw The Rafu’s J.K. Yamamoto on Monday at the National Japanese American Historical Society’s MIS Historic Learning Center at Crissy Field, Presidio of San Francisco, so maybe we can look forward to his report on that.)
Back to Sunday night, I had been invited by Saul to attend the dinner, and I was quite happy to have been able to do so. Both he and Ito were instrumental and integral in my 2006 short-form documentary, “Going for Honor, Going for Broke: The 442 Story,” in which they both appeared.
If you’re unfamiliar with Ito, he served during WWII in the 442nd’s artillery arm, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion. In my documentary, he spoke of defying his mother’s wishes that he not serve in the military. He also spoke of how, on April 29, 1945, he and the others in the 522nd stumbled across one of the German-run extermination camps at Dachau, where Jews were being held and executed. Ito noted how he and the rest of the men were shocked and unprepared for what they found.
Ito, now 94, is still active as a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, where he served for 30 years as a professor of cell biology and anatomy. (You can see that to be one of those artillery guys, you had to have some smarts.) That Sunday evening he told me he had to take an evening flight out of LAX back to the East Coast because that next day he planned to go into the office and do some work. Amazing.
I have to credit Saul, meantime, for inspiring me to apply for the CCLPEP (California Civil Liberties Public Education Program) grant that funded “GFHGFB” back in the early 2000s. Though it was unplanned, he appeared in the documentary thanks to intrepid work by the videographer at a 442 vets reunion in Hawaii, where I interviewed Ito and two other men. (Sadly, one of those other men, Henry Nakada, has since died, as has Young Oak Kim, whom I interviewed here in Los Angeles for the documentary.)
Saul was just speaking extemporaneously to some visitors at the University of Hawaii’s library, and I incorporated his words into the documentary. That he became a living encyclopedia of 442 history was thanks to his former job at San Francisco’s Presidio Army Museum, where he first became aware of the 442.
To this day, he is a tireless promoter of the service and heroism of the Nisei vets. For Saul, I’m sure he’d say it’s his obligation as an American to see that these unique heroes get the recognition they deserve, as well as his mitzvah as a Jew, especially after learning of how the Nisei soldiers were involved in the liberation of Dachau.
Attesting to his extemporaneous speaking ability, Saul lined up and sat three of the 442 vets and two of the MIS vets present at Sunday’s dinner and then proceeded to “talk story” about the 442’s heroics (and some humorous antics, too) in Europe.
When given the chance to speak, I found Ito’s comments insightful. Paraphrasing here, Ito said that he and many other Nisei who served were actually happy to be segregated because it gave them a chance to really show, as a group, that they were worthy and loyal as any other Americans.
As for the JANM’s “Go for Broke: JA Soldiers Fighting on Two Fronts” exhibition, it’s running through March 2, 2014. Sharon Yamato, Ann Kaneko and Joanne Oppenheimer’s documentary “A Flicker in Eternity” — about artist and 442 soldier Stanley Hayami — will be screened continuously in conjunction with the exhibition.
Meantime, you can see the video I shot of Saul and the aforementioned vets on your computer or mobile device at http://tinyurl.com/kgdjhzt.
Ujifusa Speech Link Dept.: Back in my Oct. 3 column, I mentioned that the recording I made for note-taking purposes of Grant Ujifusa’s speech made at the JACL PSWD award luncheon could be obtained by emailing me. I got three emails asking for it, and I finally have made Ujifusa’s recollections available for anyone else interested in hearing what he had to say about the run-up to the eventual success of redress. You may download it at: http://tinyurl.com/legcpft.
Flipping Over Flipboard Dept.: Last column I wrote about creating “magazines” via the Flipboard app, accessible via your smartphone or tablet. Since then, I’ve gained a few subscribers and gotten some good feedback. Thus far I’ve created Nikkei Nation: Obituaries, Nikkei Nation: Japan & Asia, Nikkei Nation: Community News, Nikkei Nation: Arts, Entertainment & Media, Nikkei Nation: Business, Science & Technology and Nikkei Nation: Sports. If you own one of those just-mentioned devices, download Flipboard for free from iTunes or the Google Android store and you can view or subscribe to any of those magazines, also for free.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of any organization or business. Copyright © 2013 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.
(Editor’s note: The print version of this column, which was published on Nov. 14, incorrectly stated that Yasunori Deguchi, who was interviewed in “Going for Honor, Going for Broke,” had passed away. We regret the error.)