Last column (http://tinyurl.com/z3nxm7u) I referenced in passing a recently published book titled “Honor Before Glory: The Epic World War II Story of the Japanese American GIs Who Rescued the Lost Battalion” by Scott McGaugh. I noted that I hoped I could interview the author for an upcoming column.
I was in fact able to chat with McGaugh about “Honor Before Glory,” which is, as its title suggests, an account of a true story that most observers and historians contend is the most incredible feat among the many of the storied 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team: its high-casualty rescue of the so-called Lost Battalion during WWII.
I do, however, need to disclose up front that I’m still in the process of reading “Honor Before Glory” — but I do have some impressions from what I’ve thus far read, and can share some “behind the scenes” information about McGaugh, what inspired him to focus on the 442 and how he went about writing this book.
Although “HBG” is McGaugh’s seventh book published since 2004, writing books is his avocation, not his main occupation. Based in the San Diego area, McCaugh is the USS Midway Museum’s marketing director. With that profession, it’s fitting that his books all have a military theme, with three of his books about the Midway. Another one, “Surgeon in Blue,” is about Civil War-era surgeon Jonathan Letterman, while “Battlefield Angels” deals with the history of military medicine.
It was while researching one of those books that the idea of writing one about the 442nd was initiated. “In the course of ‘Battlefield Angels,’ I came across the 442nd and medic James Okubo. In reusing the 442nd’s rescue mission to make some points about WWII medicine, I was moved by the 442 story, and I kind of stuck that in my back pocket,” said McGaugh about what would become a three-year-long undertaking. It was published Oct. 11.
As mentioned, I’m still reading the book. If I had any initial criticisms, it’s that there are some misspellings of Japanese surnames that I caught. I do like, however, the granular details of the story that McGaugh was able to piece together, including that of the German side.
Part of his research involved taking a trip to France’s Vosges Mountains and spending four days on the logging trail, where the 442 successfully extracted the 36th Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion 141st Infantry, which was not so much lost as it was surrounded by German soldiers. And, while there were a few in-person interviews that he conducted, McGaugh credited several Japanese American community resources that helped to make the book: the Japanese American National Museum, Pacific Citizen, Densho, etc. But he gave much of the credit to the Go for Broke National Education Center.
Go for Broke, of course, has had since 1998 a program called Hanashi, its oral history project. It was one of the many research sources McGaugh used and it underscores the foresight GFBNEC’s early staffers had in recording those recollections, since so many surviving WWII veterans have since died. Those who are still living, meantime, are in their 90s, with many infirm or suffering from the effects of dementia. Those oral histories of the 100th/44nd vets recorded while still lucid are, then, truly a treasure.
That collection was “absolutely indispensable” and was what McGaugh said made the book possible. “Go For Broke and other organizations, but primarily Go For Broke, has a remarkable collection of oral histories that are relatively recent, relatively fresh and relatively unseen,” McGaugh said. “Nearly 100 of those were made available to me from the Go For Broke National Education Center, most of them not online, not yet published, not readily available. It really provided a remarkable, poignant and oftentimes deeply emotional insight into what those men endured during that week.”
Every story needs its villains as well as its heroes, of course, and while “villain” may be deemed by some to be an unfair term to use, Maj. Gen. John Dahlquist — the commanding officer of the 36th Infantry Division — is given the same mercy in McGaugh’s account that Dahlquist gave the soldiers of the 100th/442nd: not much.
While we can celebrate how heroic the 100th/442nd was in the Lost Battalion’s rescue, many of the 442 men who weren’t among the hundreds killed and wounded, including Dahlquist’s fellow Caucasian officers from the 442nd, look askance at his leadership and orders in that campaign.
Yes, those fellow Americans from the 1st Battalion 141st Infantry were saved, thanks to Dahlquist’s orders. But the cost was unbelievably high, and it appears that it was also Dahlquist who also had the 1/141 advance into German-held territory in the first place, on his belief there were no more Germans there.
When I asked McGaugh if there was something memorable or unexpected that he learned while researching and writing the book, he said it was the “intimacy of the battlefield” he discovered while in France.
“Spending several days on that six-mile ridge and seeing that German and American foxholes were 20, 30 yards apart, separated by a couple of trees,” McGaugh related. “Sitting in a foxhole and seeing a German machine gun cartridge and an American machine gun cartridge in the same foxhole — how’d that happen?
“When you read after-action reports, and they talk about dozens of casualties in a day’s progress of a hundred yards — well, we think we know what a hundred yards is from watching football games. But when you sit in a foxhole and realize how short a distance 100 yards is going up an impossibly steep ridge, and then imagining that many men falling dead or bleeding day after day after day, following weeks of battle prior to this mission, the intimacy of the battlefield endured by these 20- and 21-year-olds probably moved me as much as any particular aspect of the research.”
Longtime readers of this column probably already know that I’ve for years written that there still needs to be a big-budget, big-screen movie made that does justice to the saga of the 100th Battalion/442nd RCT. The general public barely seems to know about Japanese American incarceration during WWII, and the story of the 442 even less known. (The general knowledge of the contribution of Japanese Americans who served in the MIS would have to be right up there with the number of people fluent in Esperanto!)
Hollywood has, however, done pretty good business making WWII movies — Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” is the latest drama set that era — but none among the major studios comprising Warner Bros. Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, et al, have bothered to touch the subject, even in this post #OscarsSoWhite era. Getting a movie produced about American soldiers with Japanese faces, compelling as it may be, doesn’t seem to be on any studio’s radar.
But, if there is an enterprising, would-be producer out there in Rafu Shimpo reader land, I learned from McGaugh that while feelers are being put out by his literary agent, no one has approached him about optioning his book to be adapted into a movie or TV production.
Meantime, McGaugh said, “There’s been discussion of doing some sort of author’s event with Go for Broke, perhaps after the first of the year.” If you’re interested in asking him some questions after reading “Honor Before Glory,” The Rafu Shimpo is bound to publish that news. And, if you’re someone with the wherewithal to turn a book into a movie or TV production, you could probably chat with McGaugh about optioning his book live and in person when he comes to Los Angeles.
Finally, “Honor Before Glory: The Epic World War II Story of the Japanese American GIs Who Rescued the Lost Battalion” is published by Da Capo Press, is 304 pages, has a suggested retail price of $25.99 and its ISBN is 9780306824456.
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 this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.