Seventy-five Years After Liberation, the French Remain Grateful
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
As Americans pause this Memorial Day to remember fallen military members from the nation’s current and past wars, residents of two small hamlets in northeastern France will be hard at work finalizing their plans to honor the Japanese American soldiers who liberated them and gave them back their lives 75 years ago. This fall, they will welcome the soldiers’ families to their towns with open arms and grateful hearts.
For the last 15 years, the French government has been working to identify the AJA soldiers who fought in the Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or northern France campaigns prior to May 1945 in an effort to present them their country’s highest civilian honor — the Legion of Honor medal.
According to Guillaume Maman, honorary French consul in Hawai‘i, approximately 174 Hawai‘i veterans have already received the French Legion of Honor for their part in liberating France. Among the first was Medal of Honor recipient Barney Hajiro, who was presented his French Legion of Honor award in 2004.
On June 1, six more Nisei veterans from the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Team will be presented the medal in a ceremony at the Hawai‘i Convention Center. The French government will honor liberators Hidenobu Hiyane of the 100th Battalion and five 442nd veterans: Royce Higa, George Oide, Ikuzo Shiraishi, Koichi Harry Tokushige and Paul Watanabe.
Maman will present the Legion of Honor medal to four more Nisei veterans in private ceremonies later. They are unable to attend the Hawai‘i Convention Center ceremony due to health reasons. He will also make presentations later to two more 100th Battalion veterans — 99-year-old Yoshiyuki Fujita and 100-year-old Kaua‘i resident Ikito Muraoka.
Last month, Maman held private award ceremonies for 442nd veteran George Furukawa, age 95, at Kuakini Medical Center and for 103-year-old 100th Battalion veteran Akiyoshi Kuriyama at his home in Kailua.
THE VOSGES: WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
In 1944, Hitler had fortified his Nazi forces in the Vosges Mountains in northeastern France. There was to be no retreat, he ordered, for an Allied breakthrough would mean the end of Germany.
The battle for the liberation of Bruyeres began on Oct. 15, 1944, when the 100th Battalion and the 2nd Battalion of the 442nd attacked the key road and rail center of the French town, according to battlefield accounts compiled by Nisei veterans. Bruyeres was retaken on Oct. 19 and Biffontaine on Oct. 23.
Of the seven months that the 100th/442nd spent in France, October 1944 was the deadliest, contributing to the unit earning the distinction of being the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service.
Maman said France would never forget the heroism and sacrifices of the Nisei soldiers. “We are forever grateful for your courage,” he said.
FRANCE SAYS “MERCI BEAUCOUP”
California-born Jeff Morita has been helping veterans of the Vosges campaign with the paperwork required to apply for the medal. A Gardena native, he spent nearly four decades as a military and civilian military intelligence specialist before retiring.
To date, the 62-year-old sansei has helped 67 veterans gather up the documents needed to prove their French wartime service that would qualify them for the French Legion of Honor, which Napoleon Bonaparte created in 1802. The order is conferred upon men and women — French citizens and foreigners alike — for outstanding achievements in military or civilian life.
Morita’s efforts are especially crucial since time is of the essence for the Nisei veterans, most of whom are in their mid- to late 90s, some even older. The application for the Legion of Honor and the highest rank of chevalier or knight must be filed while the veteran is still living.
Morita said the screening process could take as long as a year. Some recipients, like Morita’s own uncle, Cpl. James Morita, who served in the 442nd, died before his application was approved in 2015. Despite James Morita’s passing, the French government allowed his award to be presented to his family.
Jeff Morita said his uncle was the first AJA from Los Angeles County to be drafted in 1940. He was assigned to one of the infantry units that liberated Bruyeres and Belmont-Biffontaine and participated in the rescue of the 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment, the unit widely referred to as the “Texas Lost Battalion.”
Morita’s 2014 application for his uncle was his first effort to win recognition for the Nisei. Two years later, he submitted his first application for Staff Sgt. Masayoshi Nakamura of Hawai‘i.
Morita himself enlisted in the Army in 1975, straight out of Gardena High School. He said he wasn’t ready for college.
“I had a strong desire to serve my country and see some of the world,” he said. “I had intended to serve one tour, get out and use my GI bill for college.” But he found that he liked the military and his overseas life.
Morita re-enlisted and served as a military intelligence specialist in Germany, South Korea, Japan and Hawai‘i. In 1985, he graduated with honors in Japanese from the Defense Language Institute and later studied under Goro Yamamoto, one of the original Military Intelligence Service language school instructors at the Presidio in Monterey.
After retiring from the Army in 1997 after 22 years of service, Morita spent another 17 years working as a civilian intelligence operations specialist.
“As I was processed for retirement (from U.S. Army civil service), I made the decision to devote my time and effort to locate current surviving 100/442 veterans who served in France and nominate as many as possible for the French Legion of Honor before we lose them all to father time,” he said.
To date, he has submitted 27 applications on behalf of AJA veterans. The French government is currently reviewing them.
Morita describes his efforts as “a public service” and emphasized that it is not limited to AJAs only, but to any surviving World War II veteran.
The application must be accompanied by a copy of the veteran’s military separation record (honorable discharge) and a current identification document with a photograph. If possible, it should also include copies of citations for all decorations previously received in France or in the United States indicating meritorious action during wartime operations.
Approximately 93,000 people have been awarded Legion of Honor medals. They include Gens. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, Adm. Michael Mullen and, as an institution, the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who received the Medal of Honor for his service with the 442nd in France and Italy, was presented his Legion of Honor medal from then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011.
In 2009, Sarkozy presented a French Legion of Honor medal to former Käne‘ohe resident Sgt. Maj. Zane Schlemmer for his service with the 101st Airborne Division. Schlemmer parachuted into France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The community of Picauville, Normandy, placed a bronze plaque in the field where Schlemmer landed.
And, just last year, the honor was bestowed upon retired admiral and U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry B. Harris Jr., the first Japanese American to head the U.S. Pacific Command based in Honolulu.
SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER
This fall’s commemoration events will be held in Biffontaine on Oct. 19 and, the next day, in Bruyeres, which located just west of the Rhine River on the German border.
“This occasion is to continue telling, 75 years later, that France will never forget the work, courage and bravery it took to travel half way across the world to fight over Europe as the 100/442 did,” Maman told The Hawai‘i Herald. “The people they saved in Bruyeres, Biffontaine and elsewhere, who were alive in 1944, have not forgotten. Their children and their grandchildren have not forgotten. We, the French people, know exactly the deep appreciation we owe to the 100/442.
“Our eternal gratitude needs to be translated, not only by commemorating the 75th anniversary of the battles of Bruyeres and Biffontaine, but also by our moral obligation to perpetuate the legacy and honor the courage of the 100/442 for many generations and to continue to profoundly thank the valiant veterans for their sacrifice.”
Maman said the Hawai‘i delegation’s itinerary will include a visit to the beautiful and peaceful Epinal American Military Cemetery near Bruyeres, where 5,255 Americans lie under perfectly aligned white crosses and Star of David grave markers. Epinal holds special meaning to Maman, as well. His wife’s grandfather, Staff Sgt. Jack Tilley, is buried there.
One of the crosses stands over the grave of Staff Sgt. Tomosu Hirahara, the first 442nd soldier from Hawai‘i killed in the Vosges Mountains. Besides Hirahara, 10 other Nisei soldiers from Hawai‘i and the Mainland are buried there.
Hirahara, a McKinley High School graduate, was only 21 years old when he became the first Hawai‘i soldier killed in the liberation of Bruyeres. The French people pleaded with Hirahara’s family to allow them to bury Tomosu at Epinal. They promised to look after his grave. After much agonizing, the Hirahara family relented, and there he lies.
Unlike the 50th anniversary of the liberation, which was attended by more than 500 Nisei veterans and their families from Hawai‘i and the Mainland, Maman said he doesn’t think any of the surviving Nisei veterans will be able to make the hard pilgrimage back to their wartime battlefield this time around.
Among the World War II veterans in attendance in 1994 were two German soldiers — Joseph
Schwieters and Karl Schmid — who were captured by the soldiers from Hawai‘i.
“I thought Japan had entered the war and had come to Germany,” said Schmid, expressing surprise at seeing that his captors had Japanese faces.
The Japanese Americans liberators are remembered fondly in this part of France. In the forest outside of Bruyeres stands a monument dedicated to the liberation of the town. A second monument in Biffontaine memorializes the rescue of the “Lost Battalion.” The Nisei soldiers and Hawai‘i are memorialized in three other locations in Bruyeres: Rue du 442eme Regiment Americain d’Infanteri, Rue de Honolulu and with the naming of Staff Sgt. Tomosu Hirahara Square.
In 1961, during the 17th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Bruyeres, then-Mayor Neal Blaisdell formalized efforts by former 442nd Sgt. Wilbert “Sandy “Holck to establish a sister-city relationship between Bruyeres and Honolulu. Holck later served on the Honolulu City Council, from 1974 to 1979. He died in 1999.
The ties between Honolulu and Bruyeres have remained strong over the decades.
This past April, Bruyeres Mayor Yves Bonjean and his family visited Hawai‘i to meet with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Gov. David Ige about plans for the October pilgrimage. Ige’s father, Tokio Ige, fought in France with the 100th Battalion.
Bonjean also met with leaders of the 100th Battalion and the 442nd veterans clubs to work on details for the October anniversary. Bonjean was also honored at a lü‘au hosted by the Nisei veterans and their families at the 100th Battalion veterans clubhouse.
In 1994, the 50th anniversary, hundreds of the townspeople waving tiny French and American flags lined the streets of Bruyeres as the veterans, then healthy and in their 70s, marched through the streets. Former state Senate President and 442nd veteran John Ushijima joined the pilgrimage.
Later, he recalled, “Bruyeres is where the tears flow . . .”