Memorial Day: Remembering Our Fallen Heroes
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
What is Memorial Day and why do we commemorate it? Many people think of it as a long weekend that marks the start of summer and beach outings, but what should we really be thinking about on the holiday?
Observed on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. This year, it falls on May 31. Veterans Day, observed every Nov. 11, recognizes all who have served in the Armed Forces.
Armed with this knowledge, we should be cognizant of some of the protocols involving the holiday. For example, it is not correct to wish someone a “Happy Memorial Day!”; it is a solemn day of remembrance.
My father, Victor Isao Yamashita, was a Nisei soldier in World War II and fought in Italy and France with the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Wounded twice in combat, he returned home to marry Tomiko Itokazu and have four sons, Byrnes, Boyden, Bryan and Barry. Over 700 Nisei soldiers and their families were not as fortunate — they lost their lives in the war.
About Victor Isao Yamashita
Named Isao when he was born, my father later acquired the name Victor sometime during his early school years. My father never talked about how it came about, but it was common in those days for Caucasian teachers to assign English-sounding names to their Japanese American students if they couldn’t pronounce their Japanese names. I’m guessing that’s what happened to my father.
After returning from the war, he legally changed his name to Victor Isao to reflect that he was proud to be an American. Therefore, people who associated with him when he was a young boy growing up in Wailuku, Maui, knew him as Isao, while people who knew him as a teacher and later principal on O‘ahu knew him as Victor or Vic. Many Nisei soldiers had this dual-name situation.
In about the fourth grade, he met a boy named Masaru Tengan. They played and swam in the ‘Ïao Stream next to my father’s home and became best friends. Masaru enrolled at Lahainaluna High School his freshman year; my father joined him his sophomore year.
Masaru was a gifted athlete and played sports. Dad was busy working in the school farm’s motor pool, training to become an auto mechanic. Career opportunities for young Nisei men were limited primarily to blue-collar positions before the war, so this was intended to be his path to future employment.
The friends were juniors in high school when the war started in December 1941. When the call for volunteers for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was made in February 1943, they both ran 2.5 miles down the hill from their boarding school to Lahaina town, to sign up. Both were eager to prove their loyalty to the United States despite it being questioned after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The 442nd RCT and 100th Infantry Battalion
Victor and Masaru were accepted and inducted into the U.S. Army at the Lahaina courthouse on March 25, 1943, which was recorded in a famous picture showing the 77 young Nisei men who volunteered from Lahaina. They later received their high-school diplomas in the mail while training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
In early 1944, a call for volunteers went out amongst the men of the 442nd RCT to join the 100th Infantry Battalion, which had preceded them into battle first in Northern Africa and then in Italy. At that point, the battalion had suffered. Many soldiers were killed and wounded in hard-fought battles in Italy; for their courage, they famously earned the nickname “The Purple Heart Battalion.”My father stepped forward as one of the first replacements from the 442nd RCT to join the 100th Battalion for the Anzio beach landing in Italy.
His photo later appeared in a famous photo of some of the 100th Battalion men marching alongside a dusty road as a jeep roared by. This image appears in almost every book on the 442nd RCT and was chosen as the poster image when the original “Go For Broke” Exhibit toured the U.S. in the mid-1980s. My father was surprised when he saw himself in the poster when the exhibit came to Hawai‘i.
The 442nd RCT joined the 100th Battalion in Italy in June 1944 after which the battalion was merged into the 442nd. However, due to their outstanding combat record, the battalion kept its original unit designation instead of being redesignated as the 1st Battalion of the 442nd. Today, this fact is still a source of great pride amongst the members of the 100th Battalion Veterans club.
According to Ben Tamashiro of Victor’s 100th/D Company, because the two childhood friends were assigned to different companies,“…the two made a vow to get together at least once a month for a trip into town for a steak dinner or so.” Even later, when both men were U.S. soldiers in Europe, they saw each other when possible. Said Victor about Masaru, “This guy was very important to me. When the 442nd came over (to Civitavecchia), I made it a point and sought him out. We spent one late evening together and that was the last time we really got together,” recounted Tamashiro in a 1981 issue of the 100th club’s newsletter, the Puka Puka Parade.
Saying Goodbye to Masaru
On July 4, 1944, my father’s best friend Masaru Tengan was killed by artillery fire near the Cecina River. He was 19 years old. My father heard of his death and was able to visit his grave in a temporary cemetery where he said goodbye to him. Masaru’s remains were returned to Hawai‘i after the war; he now rests at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl not far my father’s niche in the columbarium. Best friends united once again.
In Honor of Masaru and All Veterans
Thanks to the GI Education Bill, my father attended college and became a high-school teacher. He later advanced to school administration and completed his educational career as the principal of Mänoa Elementary School. I think his story was somewhat typical of many Nisei men who were able to advance their careers through schooling made possible by their military service.
Many years after the war, he joined the Love Company Chapter of the 442nd RCT Veterans Club in honor of Masaru who served with soldiers in this company during the war. It was his way of paying tribute to a friend who was not able to come home and live a full and long life. My brothers and I grew up attending chapter parties thinking that our father was with his buddies from the company in which he had served during the war. It was only later that I learned of his purpose of joining the Love Company Chapter.
Each Memorial Day, I think about Masaru Tengan and men like him who gave their lives for the United States of America to prove their loyalty beyond all doubt. Their sacrifice deserves our remembrance of, and appreciation for, their service to our country.
May your Memorial Day holiday be a meaningful one.
Note: For more on Yamashita, see Tamashiro’s in-depth interview, “The Things That Count,” in 100thbattalion.org/archives/puka-puka-parades/veterans/soldiers/the-things-that-count.
Byrnes Yamashita is a retired engineer and volunteers with the Nisei Veterans Legacy, a non-profit organization that preserves and promulgates the contributions of the Nisei soldiers of World War II.