Story by George Tanabe
Photos by James Anshutz
In June 1942, 1,432 Hawai‘i soldiers were shipped out under cover of night on the SS Maui. All of them were nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, and, recalls one of the men, Sonsei Nakamura, “We had no idea where we were going.” Most had been drafted into military service before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but after the attack their loyalty was in question. Edward Ikuma, another in the group, remembers suspecting they were all headed for a POW camp. After three weeks at sea, they arrived in Oakland and boarded trains with tightly curtained windows, still in the dark about where they were bound.
Their destination turned out to be Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and, after that, Camp Shelby in Mississippi, where, to their relief, they began training for combat in the European Theater of World War II. Organized into the 100th Battalion, the nisei soldiers landed in Salerno, Italy, in September 1943 and battled their way north toward Rome. The fighting they saw was “gruesome,” recalls Takashi Kitaoka. He points to Cassino, “our first big battle. The attack began around 5:30 or 6 in the morning. I was with Company B. We went in with 187 men, and twelve hours later there were 29 of us left.”
In the summer of 1944, the 100th Battalion joined with the other nisei unit from Hawai‘i, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Hard fighting and heroism continued across Italy and France, and by the end of the war, the 100/442nd had become the most decorated unit in the US Army. Almost seventy years later, in 2011, Congress recognized that achievement when it awarded all of the nisei WWII soldiers with the Congressional Gold Medal. The Smithsonian is now sending the veterans’ gold medal across the country on an eight-city tour, and it will be on display at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum through April 14, 2013.
“Let me put it this way,” says Kitaoka, who today is 101 years old, “I’m very happy and pleased Congress has recognized our deeds during WWII. It was an uphill battle to prove ourselves, but each one of our soldiers did his best for our country, there’s no question about it. We are proud of our record.”