Sus Ito shivered as he recalled the march into the pitch-black pine forest of the Vosges Mountains in France in the fall of 1944, on a mission to rescue the “Lost Battalion” — Texans from the 36th Division who had been surrounded by German troops.
His unit — the 442d Regimental Combat Team, composed mostly of Japanese-American soldiers — rode to the forest’s edge in the middle of the night, and then set off on foot.
Ito was with the lead company. The 442d would save the 211 trapped Texans, but would lose two to three times as many men to death and injury in the fighting.
“To this day, whenever I enter a dark forest, or a damp area, shady and cool, I get goose bumps all over,” said Ito. “Even thinking about it. It’s left an indelible mark on me.”
Ito, now 93 and living in Wellesley, fought in Italy, France, and Germany during World War II. Last week, he traveled to New Orleans to join the launch of the Smithsonian’s national tour of the Congressional Gold Medal, which he was awarded in 2011 along with other Japanese-American soldiers who fought in the war.
They served even though thousands of Japanese-Americans, including Ito’s family, had been rounded up after Pearl Harbor and sent to internment camps across the country.
The medal will be displayed at the Louisiana Pavilion of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans from Jan. 12 to Feb. 17 before continuing on to six other cities: Honolulu; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Chicago; and Houston.
During an interview at Ito’s home last Thursday, a bronze replica of the medal sat on his coffee table, inscribed with his unit’s motto: “Go For Broke.” The 442d is one of the most highly decorated units in US military history, according to the Smithsonian, having been awarded, together with the 100th Infantry Battalion, more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, 560 Silver Stars, seven Presidential Unit Citations, and 21 Medals of Honor during WWII.
Ito, who walks with a slight stoop after a fall years ago off his garage roof, still has a shock of white hair. The only ill effect of aging he has suffered, he said, laughing, is the loss of five inches of height. He wore a bolo tie bearing his combat team’s insignia: the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
“The Japanese are very proud to have their children or boys in the military. They respect the military very highly,” he said. “I think, by and large, not only myself, but all my colleagues in the service, really felt that our service was an opportunity to demonstrate that we were Americans.”
Ito was born in 1919 in Stockton, Calif., where his parents were sharecroppers, growing asparagus, celery, and sugar beets. At 21, his number came up for the draft, and he entered the service in early 1941 in a nonsegregated unit in Southern California, working as a mechanic. It was a good life, if a little boring.
But on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, killing more than 2,000 and pulling America into the war. Everything changed.
Ito was out on a pass on that Sunday, and when he came back to his base, officers were waiting for him. Officials had begun rounding up the Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the area, people they considered potential saboteurs, and Ito was asked to help interrogate them. He refused.
“These were school teachers, priests, community leaders,” he said. “That was not my idea of a war.”
A few months later, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the creation of “military areas . . . from which any or all persons may be excluded” to protect the country from “espionage” and “sabotage.” This order created internment camps, which held around 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans until the war was over.
Ito’s mother, father, and two sisters were given a couple of weeks to dispose of everything that did not fit into a few suitcases, and were moved to Rowher Internment Camp in Arkansas.
Ito himself was yanked from his nonsegregated unit and sent to a base in Oklahoma.
“When the war started, there was some apprehension that we wouldn’t be loyal,” he said. “After Pearl Harbor, they took our guns away.”
Ito said he was not angry, only disappointed. The Japanese have a phrase, he said: shikata ga nai. It means, “It can’t be helped.’’
The internments were unjust, he said, and when the American government formally apologized in 1988, it was the right thing to do. But at the time, he said, neither he nor his family fought the government.
“This is a consequence of the war, and shikata ga nai,” he said.Continued...