Preserving memories of the 100th Battalion
|Reader tributes to the 100th Battalion|
|Photo gallery: Battalion clubhouse|
|Photo gallery: Battalion scrapbook|
|•||100th Battalion special|
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Catherine E. Toth
Robert Sato will never forget the feeling of shrapnel tearing through his right thigh that day in mid-October 1944 in Bruyeres, France.
Lying amid the wounded and the dead, Sato knew he had to stop the bleeding. But his hands were shaking so much he couldn't bandage his leg. He was rescued by soldiers from another battalion and spent 11 months in the hospital recovering from his wounds.
About 40 soldiers were hit that day as they tried to capture the strategic town overlooking the Meurthe River.
But Sato, 89, isn't concerned about people remembering his role as a soldier in World War II.
He doesn't want anyone to forget the other nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans, with whom he served in the 100th Infantry Battalion.
Those boys — that's what he calls them — are heroes, he said.
"I think we cannot brag too much," Sato said. "Nobody knew how brave we were, but we turned out to be the best soldiers in the United States ... Our boys died for our country. I think about that a lot."
It's a common feeling among 100th Infantry Battalion veterans. They don't like to boast. They don't often talk about the war. And they don't want people to remember them separately but as a unit — one of the most decorated in military history.
The 100th Infantry Battalion — dubbed "One Puka Puka" and later absorbed by the better known 442nd Regimental Combat Team — was the first all-Japanese-American battalion comprising volunteers from Hawai'i.
The unit was officially activated on June 12, 1942 — 65 years ago this month. Of the more than 1,400 soldiers in this unit, about 450 are still alive.
Most of them live in Hawai'i, but they're in their 80s now and running out of time to tell their story. This year's commemoration of their fallen brothers may well be their last hurrah.
It's not about them, they insist, but about those who died on the battlefield to prove themselves as loyal Americans, to protect their families back home and to fight in the name of honor. It was, they say, the right thing to do.
And now, the thing to do is assure that their legacy lives on.
Their clubhouse on 520 Kamoku St., built from $2 monthly donations they collected beginning 65 years ago, will soon get an education and resource center, thanks to $1 million from the state.
The center will be a place where people can learn more about the storied history of the unit that came to be known as the Purple Heart Battalion.
"It is our dream to have students visit the clubhouse and be able to learn from what we've been through during the war and after we returned, first-hand, while we're still here," said Robert Arakaki, 84, president of the 100th Battalion Veterans Club.
They have stories about discrimination, being stripped of their weapons and interrogated by U.S. commanders about their loyalty.
They talk about spending days in cramped quarters on ships heading to California or traveling in boxcars used to transport horses in France.
They have memories of spending days in wet, muddy foxholes; of suffering from trench foot; of fighting in snow, navigating minefields and watching buddies die in combat.
Their sacrifice and bravery for a country that, at the time, considered them enemy aliens are too important to be forgotten once the surviving veterans are gone, their children say.
"What they did transcends their race. It was about all minorities and how we need to look beyond the color of people's skins and treat everyone fairly," said Sato's daughter, Pauline. "They had to fight for that. They had to prove that with their blood. ... We all have to remember what they went through. We can't forget."
A MILITARY FIRST
There had been nothing like the 100th Infantry Battalion in U.S. military history.
It comprised Japanese-Americans, all from Hawai'i and all drafted in 1940 to serve in the Army's 298th and 299th Infantry Regiments of the Hawai'i National Guard.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. government wasn't sure if it could trust the nisei soldiers.
During the next few months, nisei soldiers were discharged or segregated out of their units, and more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans — most of them U.S. citizens and more than half children — were relocated to internment camps surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers.
In June 1942, about 1,400 Japanese-American soldiers volunteered to serve in a newly formed battalion — the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate).
"When the company commander wanted to send us to war, I figured I wasn't coming back," said Shizuya Hayashi, 89, who became one of 21 Japanese-Americans to receive the Medal of Honor in WWII. "I didn't get to say goodbye (to my family)."
Demonstrating bravery in battle, these soldiers would soon reverse the belief at the time that Japanese-Americans, despite their U.S. citizenship, would remain loyal to the homeland of their immigrant parents.
Their actions during and after the war would change the nation's perception of the community and dismiss any doubts about where their allegiance lay.
"Historically, this was the worst time to be Japanese-American," said Dennis Ogawa, chairman of the American Studies department at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa and an expert on the Japanese-American experience. "Within that context, what the 100th did was start to turn the tide of history. And they're going to do it from the standpoint of what Americans respect the most — by action."
The soldiers were quickly sent to Wisconsin for training. No one, not even the government, knew what to do with them.
For six months — with several weeks in the harsh winter — they trained for combat. For most of them, this was their first experience away from Hawai'i — and in the snow.
"We didn't know what was going to happen to us," Sato said. "We weren't trusted by the government. We were the enemy's sons."
In January 1943, the 100th Infantry Battalion left Wisconsin for Camp Shelby, Miss., where they met up with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The two groups didn't always get along. There were fights between the Hawai'i and Mainland Japanese-American soldiers.
"We were very cohesive," said Shigeru "Stu" Tsubota, 89, who served as an officer with the 100th Infantry Battalion. "Of course, there were some fights between us and the 442nd. We had a lot of pride."
So much so, in fact, when the 442nd RCT absorbed the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 100th was allowed to keep its name. (The other two battalions within the 442nd RCT were called the 2nd and 3rd battalions.)
"Throughout the war, the 100th really had a very separate identity," said Franklin Odo, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and author of "No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai'i During World War II."
"And they maintained that identity even after the war. They were very proud of that, and justifiably so."
SAME, BUT DIFFERENT
The entire 100th was composed of Hawai'i-born Japanese-Americans. The 442nd RCT, by comparison, was made up of Japanese-Americans from both Hawai'i and the Mainland.
The soldiers of the 100th were several years older than those in the 442nd RCT. And they had about seven months more combat training and experience than their younger counterparts.
"They treated us like kid brothers," said Stanley Akita, 84, one of 150 soldiers from the 442nd RCT selected to be replacements for the 100th. "They were always telling us what do to. Don't do this, don't do that. But because of that, I'm alive today."
Both groups had one thing in common: They felt they had to prove their allegiance to the United States.
"We had to prove we were loyal," Tsubota said. "We had to prove we would fight."
In September 1943, the 100th Infantry Battalion arrived in Oran, North Africa to guard supply trains from Casablanca to Tunisia. Two days later, the unit was assigned to the 34th Infantry Division to engage in combat in Italy.
Tsubota remembers the first time they went into combat: Sept. 29, 1943, near Naples, Italy.
In capturing Benevento, an important rail center and road intersection, Tsubota was hit by enemy fire. He suffered wounds in his right shoulder and leg that required skin grafts.
Sgt. Shigeo "Joe" Takata, a baseball star from Waialua, was the first member to be killed in action, his head struck by shrapnel.
"I was lucky," Tsubota said.
COVERED IN GLORY
For almost two years, the soldiers from the 100th — and later the 442nd RCT, which joined the 100th in Italy about eight months later — fought the Germans in Europe, suffering heavy losses.
More than 800 soldiers in the entire 442nd RCT — 338 in the 100th alone — were killed in action during the war.
The all-Japanese-American units received more than 18,000 individual decorations, including 21 Medals of Honor, 559 Silver Stars and 4,000 Bronze Stars. But what set these units apart from the others was the remarkable number of Purple Hearts awarded to them: 9,486.
The 442nd RCT, which included the 100th, is considered the most highly decorated combat unit of its size and length of service in U.S. military history, receiving eight Presidential Unit Citations.
But it's not the individual awards and medals most veterans want to be remembered for. They hope their legacy transcends their service during the war.
They want to be remembered as fathers, brothers, sons, grandfathers and neighbors — as well as soldiers willing to fight for what they believed in.
Even after the war, the veterans returned to Hawai'i with service in mind. They changed their motto from "Remember Pearl Harbor" to "For Continuing Service" and have spent the years since giving back to the community they fought for.
For 60 years, the veterans have remained a close-knit group, connected by experiences sometimes too painful to recall. But they will share what they can with anyone who asks.
"Their record speaks for itself, and they should be remembered for that," Ogawa said. "But people have got to understand that their sacrifice also helped to shape the next generations. They did it to create a better life for everything. They did it for the sake of their children. These people should never be forgotten."
Reach Catherine E. Toth at email@example.com.