Punchbowl tradition binds members of 442nd
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By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
While members of the Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team streamed into Honolulu from all points yesterday for the start of the legendary unit's 60th anniversary reunion, a few have paid their visit to National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific to honor fellow soldiers killed in action during World War II.
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Donald Kameda, a veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, tends to the grave of brother Fred, who died on the first day the famed unit saw action in Europe.
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"Fred was the first person in I Company to die."
Kameda, who had seven brothers, joined the 442nd after Fred's death. Since the memorial tradition of visiting the Punchbowl cemetery began in 1950, he he has been there every year to place flags on the graves of 442nd soldiers.
Kameda is the sole survivor of eight brothers, four of whom fought in World War II. Fred and Donald were in the 442nd; Robert, a younger brother, served as an Army interpreter in another unit.
Then there was the older brother who was on the other side.
"You know, we fought against my older brother, Shigeo," said Kameda as he paused to gaze at an acre of red-white-and-blue banners fluttering in the breeze. "He was studying at Meiji University in Japan when the war broke out and joined the Japanese navy."
Kameda was among a contingent of 442nd survivors yesterday who quietly carried bundles of small American flags, meticulously placing them along rows of markers in Section D of Punchbowl.
The graves of soldiers from the 442nd's highly decorated unit are scattered in sections throughout Punchbowl. But the largest concentration of 442nd soldiers an estimated 400 gravesites is in Section D.
Yesterday, for the first time, flags were placed on each of the more than 500 markers in the section. In addition to members of the 442nd, those graves included members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, which was assigned to the regimental combat team, as well as unit members who died after the war.
"Not all are Asians of Japanese ancestry some were, maybe, officers," said Takegawa. "So, give 'em a flag."
According to Calvin Matsumoto, cemetery representative, no one is certain how many of those buried in Section D were killed in action with the 442nd. "We have no numbers," said Matsumoto.
Terry Aratani, 80, said that over the years the flag tradition remained a function of various chapters of the 442nd Veteran's Club.
"Every year each chapter comes out and puts flags on the individual gravesites," he said. "So, this year we thought, instead of just putting flags on those killed in action in the 442nd, why not put flags out for the 100th Battalion also? Then we thought, why don't we put flags out for everyone buried in Section D? This is the first time we've done that."
An estimated 800 survivors of the 442nd are expected to show up for the reunion, which begins with registration today and continues through Sunday. The unit, activated on Feb. 1, 1943, was segregated from the regular armed forces because of questions about the loyalty of Japanese Americans.
By the time the war ended in September 1945, the famed "Go for Broke" 442nd had become the most decorated U.S. fighting unit of its size and length of service. It also was one of the most decimated units in U.S. military history. Of the approximately 10,000 Japanese-American men who served 442nd, 9,486 received Purple Hearts.
Even before the anniversary reunion began, there was talk about this week being "the last hurrah" for those still living. The youngest are pushing 80. Survivors of the 100th Battalion the older, more seasoned fighters who led the newly formed 442nd RCT into Europe's battlefront in June 1944 are on their way toward 90.
Still, at least couple of survivors at Punchbowl yesterday weren't convinced the shouting is over.
"When we were here for the 50th reunion they thought that was the last one," said Aratani with a twinkle in his eye. "Now, we're at the 60th, and they're saying that's the last. Maybe they're right. I don't know. But I hope I'll be doing this again in 10 years."
Added Ronald Oba, 80, one of the organizers of this year's event: "I don't like to call this the last hurrah. Because we're going to keep right on celebrating."
Reach Will Hoover at email@example.com or 525-8038.