Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The documentary “One Puka Puka,” which highlights the experiences of the 100th Infantry Battalion in Italy, is a two-hour TV special, produced, written and narrated by Bob Jones. The documentary will be aired for the first time since it debuted in 1992 as a tribute to the late journalist and to honor the Nisei veterans. The air dates are as follows (subject to change): Thursday, June 16 at 7 p.m. on K5; Saturday, June 18 at 7 p.m. on KGMB; and Sunday, June 19 at 3 p.m. on KHNL. This review is a reprint from The Hawai‘i Herald’s June 19, 1992 issue, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the formation of the 100th Infantry Battalion.
For dozens of Nisei veterans and their families, it was a combination of celebration, honor and bittersweet reflection of triumphs and horrors from a half-century past. Gathered together in a nondescript restaurant somewhere Italy, they sang “Auld Lang Syne,” sang from their hearts about the good old days being long past. They lifted their glasses in salute to the friends around them, present that night in body or in spirit, friendships forged amidst the victories and the casualties of battle and tempered with the passage of the years. And the feelings they dared not express directly in words showed clearly in their faces, their voices and their song.
It’s a scene that resonates with unmistakable clarity even when viewed as a videotape snapshot – one brief moment out of 18 days that were an emotional roller coaster for the group of veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion. They had traveled thousands of miles from their Hawai‘i home back to the land where their lives were changed forever. The trip is the focus of an upcoming television tribute to the men of the l00th on the 50th anniversary of the battalion’s formation.
“One Puka Puka,” happened “by accident,” said Bob Jones, who produced, wrote and narrated the two-hour documentary.
Until he talked with a couple of veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion just before last year’s Pearl Harbor anniversary commemoration, “like other people, I didn’t know that much about them. I didn’t realize they were mostly draftees, segregated out of their units when Pearl Harbor was attacked, then went through some of the worst combat in Italy nine months before the 442nd Regimental Combat Team arrived, and never got recognized, or even welcomed home after the war.”
Jones shakes his head. “I was stunned. I found it incredible,” he says. So the idea was to tell the story of the 100th, “to get them the recognition they deserved but never got.” It’s a story of valor best told by the veterans themselves, through their own memories and recollections of their experiences. Jones, cameraman Peter O’Callaghan and 75 battalion veterans and their families made the trip to Italy in April to shoot material for the documentary, and to turn the clock back by almost five decades.
For many of the veterans, retracing their footsteps and reliving the war was not easy. “When we went to places where we were involved in combat, sometimes it got emotional,” said Sakae Takahashi, who served in the 100th from its formation. “Some of the people started talking about what they experienced, recounting it all … it got very emotional.”
“Even though some people thought they would anticipate how they would feel, I think most of them were surprised by feelings that came up during the trip,” said Toshiko Fukuda. Her husband Mits served in the 100th and rose through the ranks as an officer, one of the few AJAs to do so. He died several years ago, but she made the trip, and shared in the collective experience. “You’re going through impressions and emotions, everyone thinking and feeling the same thing. That’s a very moving experience.”
“For the boys who were there, there were a lot of heart-wrenching feelings. But,” she says, “don’t ask them to talk about it, because they won’t.”
It’s the way of the Nisei, explained Jones, “cultural baggage, not to talk about it. Getting them to open up was hard at first. But going back was something a lot of them wanted to do.”
“I’ve always wanted to see those places again,” said Takahashi, noting that he hopes the program will be “another way of documenting what happened to those of us who wore the uniform of our country, but who were not trusted by people in power.”
“I still don’t understand what motivated them to be such heroes,” Jones said. “After being plucked in such an undignified way out of their units and guarded by other soldiers. I could understand if they had just gone through the motions, but they didn’t. They were known as the ‘can-do’ battalion.”
There was no other choice, Takahashi explained. “It gave us a chance to prove our loyalty. I really feel people should know the background of the times. We were not only fighting the enemy, but we were fighting prejudice.”
Fighting on two fronts, Jones believes, had a significant effect. “When they talk about each other today, they still refer to themselves as ‘the boys.’ The bond is stronger than in any U.S. Army unit in modern history. It was like one entire family went to war together.”
“And when they came back, they changed the way we live in Hawai‘i,” Jones added. “They made people rethink the way Americans of Japanese ancestry were looked at, because there was just no question when they came back that they were Americans. It gave them the absolute right to claim a piece of the American pie.”
That, said Toshiko Fukuda, is what she hopes people who watch the documentary will understand. For AJAs, she said, “I hope it would give you an appreciation of yourself and your identity, to hear and know these stories.”
And for the thousands of others who will watch, “I think it should flush out the persona of Japanese Americans,” she said. “And I hope that people of different backgrounds can relate to certain stories about the 100th and say, ‘I know what that must have felt like,’ and understand what these men went through.”
“That,” she said, “would be the best thing that could happen.”
What has happened since the events on which those stories are based is now legend. “We’ve made great strides,” Takahashi said, but there’s more to be done. “There’s still a lot of racism. War is terrible. There should be no more war. But look at Yugoslavia now, look at Sarajevo …”
Lessons to be learned from the bravery and loyalty and courage of the men of the 100th, the story of “One Puka Puka.”
“For Auld Lang Syne,” they sang. The good old days, long past. For auld lang syne …