Rafu Staff Report
Susumu “Sus” Ito, a World War II veteran known for helping to liberate Holocaust survivors and for his extensive collection of photographs of his fellow Nisei soldiers, passed away peacefully on Sept. 29. He was 96.
A long-time resident of Massachusetts, Ito also had a long and distinguished career as a professor at Harvard Medical School.
His death comes just weeks after the closing of “Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images,” which ran from July 14 to Sept. 6 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. Ito appeared at events held in conjunction with the exhibition.
Dr. Greg Kimura, president and CEO of JANM, said, “I was scheduled to meet him next Thursday or Friday in Cambridge, so it came pretty quickly. I think we’re all in mourning right now because he was such an amazing person and a genuinely inspirational person in the community as well. He was very much engaged in the work of the museum and, of course, the recent exhibit.”
Ito, who turned 96 in July, was so full of energy that he seemed 10 or 15 years younger than his age, Kimura recalled. “He was vital, sharp as a tack, had his wits about him, a tremendously funny sense of humor … He was a really compassionate person too, genuinely interested in everyone at the museum from the security people to the folks who were helping out. He was just so appreciative to have this exhibit here … He acknowledged everybody he ran into … That’s why there’s bit of a cloud over the museum.”
On a positive note, Kimura said, “I’m so gratified that he was able to see that (exhibit). He was always smiling … not because it drew any attention toward him but because his photographs drew attention to his peers, many of whom died during the war or have since passed away.”
“Before They Were Heroes” may be taken to the East Coast, Kimura added. “That’s one of the reasons I was going out to Harvard, talking to a couple of venues out there … ideally one of the Harvard museums … I’m still talking with folks there to see if that’s possible. It would have been great for him to see it in his hometown. Folks that he worked with as a researcher and professor would have the opportunity to see this other side of his history.”
Dr. Lily Anne Yumi Welty Tamai, who curated “Before They Were Heroes,” said, “Over the course of the last year as I conducted research for the exhibition, I learned many personal details about the life experiences of Susumu ‘Sus’ Ito. Sus’ life was cinematic: He grew up in the California Central Valley, where his parents were Japanese immigrant sharecroppers, served in the 442nd/522nd fighting on European battlefields, followed his intellectual passion of becoming a research biologist, received a Ph.D. in biology and taught at the Harvard Medical School.
“His motto was ‘Life Is Good!’ and he often closed his emails and ended his phone calls with that phrase. Sus had a bit of a mischievous streak, and thought that some rules could be bent a little bit. Because of this, he brought his camera with him and took hundreds of photographs of his time in World War II, capturing the everyday lives and visually humanizing the brave soldiers.
“Sus was so optimistic about life and exuded such positive energy, it’s almost difficult to describe unless you talked with him. His mind was so sharp and he could recall details about things from decades ago. I am so glad our paths crossed and I will treasure what he taught me.”
The Go For Broke National Education Center said in a statement, “It is with heartfelt sadness that we learn of the passing of Susumu ‘Sus’ Ito. The automobile mechanic turned Harvard professor became known for the photographs that he took while a member of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion fighting in Europe. He afterwards devoted his life to cell biology and to teaching others the history of his fellow Nisei soldiers.
“Just this past January, he was one of five World War II Japanese American veterans honored aboard our Go For Broke float in the 2015 Rose Parade. Dr. Ito will be fondly remembered for his ever-present smile and his positive outlook on life. It is with much sadness that we say farewell to yet another Nisei hero.
“The 522nd Field Artillery Battalion had a reputation as one of the most accomplished artillery units in the European Theater during World War II, and it was known for its speed and efficiency. The 522nd was part of the larger 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and it supported the infantry by providing artillery fire from its heavy weapons. About 650 men served in the 522nd, and the unit had the distinction of liberating survivors of a Dachau sub-camp and a death march near Waarkirchen, Germany, in spring 1945.”
On Ito’s Facebook page, friends and acquaintances have been posting messages remembering him as a role model and mentor.
A friend in Japan wrote, “I first met Sus in 1988, when I came to HMS to study with him. Since then, he not only supported my research, but also helped my family living in Boston. After returning to Japan in 1991, we kept in touch with him. When he came to Japan, he sometimes stayed my house … The last time I met him was just two years ago in Boston, when I visited his house with my colleague. I believe that Professor Susumu Ito was a greatest mentor to me.”
A friend in France wrote, “I feel very honored for having met Sus, during the Lost Battalion Symposium — Austin, July ’08. He was an incredible man, so kind, so great. Living where he served during this terrible month of October 1944, we never forget him.”
Ito was born on July 27, 1919 and raised in Stockton. He was drafted by the Army in the fall of 1940, inducted in February 1941, and spent five years in the military service. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he served in a non-segregated Quartermaster Corps, Heavy Maintenance unit located in Camp Haan in Riverside. After Pearl Harbor, he was disarmed and switched to non-military work while his family was incarcerated in the Rohwer camp in Arkansas.
In the spring of 1943, he was selected to join the 522nd. He served in all of the 442nd’s campaigns in Europe, including the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” of the 36th Division in France’s Vosges Mountains.
In April 1945, his battalion was sent to eastern France and Germany, where the 522nd was credited with rescuing some 5,000 Holocaust survivors. In later years, Ito and other 522nd veterans were invited by the Jewish community to speak at Holocaust commemorations.
In an interview with The Rafu Shimpo, Ito emphasized that Dachau was made up of more than 100 sub-camps and that his unit only liberated one of them. He said he was “totally surprised” to encounter the survivors, many of whom were left unguarded after their Nazi captors had fled.
His photos include a freed prisoner near Dachau, German POWs, and 522nd soldiers searching an abandoned Nazi airplane.
During his time in Europe, Ito kept with him a small Bible, a senninbari (Japanese thousand-stitch cloth belt traditionally given to soldiers who are going to war, made for Ito by his mother and the other women at Rohwer), and a 35mm Agfa camera. With the camera, he took thousands of photographs documenting his life on the road; the young soldiers are seen posing next to their jeeps, walking in the snow, swimming in a river, playing chess, and even visiting tourist destinations while on leave.
Ito went to great lengths to preserve the negatives, even having some of them developed at villages along the way. He wanted to send photos back to his mother so that she would know he was all right.
After the war, he attended college on the GI Bill, received a Ph.D. in biology from Case Western University, and taught at Cornell Medical School. In 1960, he joined Harvard Medical School, where his research centered on ultrastructural (electron microscopic) studies of the gastrointestinal system, and he became a tenured professor in 1967. After his retirement in 1990, he received the title of James Stillman Professor of Comparative Anatomy Emeritus.
Ito was one of interviewees in Junichi Suzuki’s 2010 documentary “442: Live with Honor, Die with Dignity,” part of a trilogy about Japanese American history.
In 2011, Ito was among the Nisei veterans honored when the Congressional Gold Medal was presented to the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd RCT, and Military Intelligence Service at the U.S. Capitol. He commented, “For my fellow Nisei veterans and me, to serve in the military was in itself an honor as well as a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate our dedicated patriotism, which we tried to accomplish by living up to the tradition of ‘Go For Broke’ or going all out for everything asked of us.
“Having the Congressional Gold Medal bestowed on the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team and the MIS will be a most cherished award that must be dedicated to those among us who lost their lives in World War II; to the many veterans no longer with us; and to those who cannot be here for the medal presentation. We who are still able to be here accept the Congressional Gold Medal with pride and humility.”
Ito’s wife of 64 years, Minnie, passed away in 2012, and their son Daniel in 2007. Ito is survived by three children, Linda Ito-Adler (husband James) of Belmont, Mass., Celia Doe (husband Barry) of Belmont, and Bruce Ito of San Francisco; daughter-in-law, Ellen Ito of Falmouth, Mass.; and five grandchildren, Justin, Jayson, Lisa, Jesse and Amanda.
Grandson Justin Ito-Adler wrote, “Rest in peace, Grandpa. Five-foot-nothing, but the biggest badass I have ever met. Grew up in farmland fixing beat-up cars and got a Harvard Ph.D. Fought off Nazis and bigotry in WWII only to come back and face it again. Raised four children. Inspired everyone around you. Lived for love and honor. Spent nearly 100 years doing whatever made you and those around you happy.
“I can’t have anymore time with you, but everything you taught me will stay with me as long as I am around. You made me laugh and smile every time I saw you. Wherever you are, you are undoubtedly making someone else a little bit happier and I am thankful for that.”
A private service will be held. In lieu of donations, the family requests memorial donations to the charity of your choice.