Ito spent a long year in Oklahoma, repairing cars and trucks with other Japanese-American soldiers who had been relegated to jobs as orderlies, gardeners, and chauffeurs. In the spring of 1943, however, he was selected to be a member of the 442d Regimental Combat Team, and was shipped first to Camp Shelby in Mississippi for training and then to the war in Italy.
The fighting was fierce. At night, he said, he could hear the shells flying through the air.
He carried with him three things. The first was a small heart-shield Bible, the front made of engraved gold-finished steel, sized to slip into his breast pocket to protect his heart. The cover, now scuffed, is inscribed with the words, “May this keep you safe from harm.”
He carried a thousand-stitch belt made of muslin, called a senninbari, that his mother made for him at her internment camp. A senninbari is a traditional Japanese piece that soldiers wore into battle.
Finally, he carried a 35mm camera, he said, with which he took thousands of pictures.
He still has many of them, images of captured German soldiers, hands over their heads, marching ahead of him in Bavaria; of the howitzers that soldiers used to shoot shells in high arcs to fall on their enemies; of himself, young and smiling, with three other soldiers who have since died.
From Italy, Ito traveled to France, where his unit set off to rescue the Lost Battalion. Others had tried and failed to rescue the Texans. According to the National Veterans Network, Adolf Hitler personally ordered the annihilation of the 36th.
Ito’s division moved slowly through the woods, darting from behind trees during the day under steady fire from the Germans and digging foxholes as the sun set. All night long, he said, the Germans fired shells into the trees above them.
After about five days, they reached the Lost Battalion, and the Texan soldiers came up from their foxholes grinning from ear to ear at the remaining members of Ito’s unit. The Lost Battalion, said Ito, had dug in so far that their foxholes had become elaborate caverns.
“We’re honorary Texans now,” Ito said.
After France, Ito fought in Germany, where he helped liberate a subcamp of the Dachau concentration camp, and helped break up a death march. He remembers passing hundreds of Jews who had been imprisoned, dressed in striped suits as they fled Dachau.
When the war was over, Ito used the GI Bill to go to college. He got a PhD in biology and embryology, and taught at Cornell Medical School before joining Harvard Medical School. He married his wife, Minnie, in 1948; she died last June. They had four children, one of whom died. Ito has five grandchildren, the youngest a 6-year-old granddaughter.
He has donated almost all of his mementos of the war to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. His photographs and thousand-stitch belt have been displayed in America and Japan, he said, and now the medal will be displayed across the country.
The medal, he said, is a source of pride for many Japanese-Americans.
“At the time, I didn’t think much about the effect it would have on the rest of our ethnic community,” he said. “But I have seen many people saying that they really appreciate what we did, to make their place in this country acceptable.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.