Karleen C. Chinen
With each passing year, there are fewer and fewer of them. But for those surviving Nisei veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service and 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion, remembering their brothers in service who died in combat over 70 years ago and other lifelong friends with whom they served, but have lost to age, is a vow they strive to keep. And so they gathered once again at the National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl on the blustery Sept. 27 morning to honor the men who served their country with valor in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific theater.
They were joined by family members, supporters and admirers — from Hawai‘i Gov. David Ige, whose own father served in the 100th, to Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the son of a Japanese mother who rose to become the U.S. Navy’s top commander for the Asia-Pacific region, to Consul General of Japan Yasushi Misawa, Japan’s representative in Hawai‘i.
For decades, the memorial service has been held on the last Sunday in September, which is the Sunday closest to Sept. 29, when Sgt. Shigeo “Joe” Takata of the 100th Infantry Battalion became the first Japanese American to be killed in the war. Takata died in Italy just a week after the 100th entered battle in Salerno.
In an attempt to share the soldiers’ inner thoughts as they progressed through the war, three actors — Devon Nekoba, portraying 100th Battalion soldier Shukichi Sato from Kaua‘i, who was killed in action in Italy; Chance Gusukuma, portraying 442nd RCT soldier Jack Wakamatsu; and Daniel Akiyama, portraying MIS soldier William Hiraoka — read moving excerpts from letters the three Nisei had written to their families back home.
More than a dozen organizations offered floral wreaths in honor and remembrance of the fallen soldiers with musical accompaniment by Herb Ohta Jr., the Sounds of Aloha and the 111th U.S. Army Band.
This year’s service, which was hosted by the Nisei Veterans Legacy Center, paid special tribute to the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In March 1945, while pursuing the German army as they retreated from France into Germany, the 522nd soldiers came across Lithuanian Jews, who had barely survived the Dachau death march. They rendered aid and gave whatever food they had to the starving prisoners.
This year’s memorial address was delivered by Rabbi Ken Aronowitz of Temple Emanu-El. Aronowitz said that in 2004, he and his wife purchased a home in Pälolo Valley, next a family by the name of Matsumoto. Mr. Matsumoto was a 442nd veteran. Each Veterans Day, Aronowitz would accompany his wife next door to honor Mr. Matsumoto with some flowers in celebration of the day.
“I wish I knew then what I know now,” the rabbi said of what he has since learned about the service of the Nisei soldiers.
Growing up in New York, Aronowitz said World War II was covered in his social studies classes. However, he never learned about the sacrifices the Nisei soldiers made to prove their loyalty to their country and their exemplary service in spite of it until he settled in Hawai‘i.
He said Jewish people and Japanese Americans were two groups of “dehumanized people” during the war. Aronowitz recalled Dachau survivor Solly Ganor’s story about a Nisei soldier who gave him a Hershey candy bar. Ganor said it was the first time a person in uniform had demonstrated any humanity towards him.
Aronowitz urged the veterans to share their stories. “Everyone needs to hear it,” he said. “Tell your stories, for you were eyewitnesses to the Holocaust.”