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 battalion – the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed mostly of Japanese-American soldiers – was driven in Jeeps to the forest’s edge in the middle of the night, and then set off on foot. Ito was in the lead company. He went in with 185 men; he returned with eight, including himself. The battalion as a whole lost more than half its men to death and injury.
“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. On Friday, he is scheduled to travel to New Orleans to join the launch of the Smithsonian’s national tour of the Congressional Gold Medal, which he won in 2011 along with other Japanese-American soldiers who fought in the war.
They served despite the fact that after Pearl Harbor thousands of Japanese-Americans, including Ito’s family, were rounded up and sent to internment camps across the country.
The medal will be displayed at the Boeing Center 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 his home on Thursday, a bronze replica of the medal sat on his coffee table, inscribed with his battalion’s motto – “Go For Broke.”
The 442nd is one of the most highly decorated units in U.S. military history, according to the Smithsonian, having won, in connection with the 100th Infantry Battalion, more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, 560 Silver Stars, seven Presidential Unit Citations and 21 Medals of Honor.
Ito, who walks with a slight stoop after a fall years ago off his garage roof, still has a full shock of white hair. The only ill effect of aging he’s suffered, he said, laughing, is the loss of five inches of height. At his throat, 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, California, 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 non-segregated unit in Southern California, working as a mechanic. It was a good life, if a little boring.
But on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese 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.”
Ito’s mother, father, and two sisters were given a couple weeks to dispose of everything that didn’t fit into a few suitcases, and were moved to Rowher Internment Camp in Arkansas. They were among around 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans held in these military zones until the war was over.
Ito himself was yanked from his non-segregated 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 word, 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.
Ito spent a long year in Oklahoma, repairing cars and trucks with other Japanese-American soldiers who had been relegated to orderlies, gardeners and chauffeurs. In the spring of 1943, however, he was selected to be a member of the cadre, or the core, of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and was shipped first to Camp Shelby in Mississippi for training and then to the war in Italy.
Ito was happy to be fighting, but the battle was fierce. At night, he said, he could hear the shells flying through the air. They sounded like freight trains.
He carried with him three things: the first, 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 from her internment camp. A senninbari is a traditional Japanese piece that soldiers wore into battle to keep, and is adorned with 1,000 stitches, each sewn by a different woman’s hand.
And he carried a 35 mm Argus 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 massive Howitzers 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.
“I think we were just getting accustomed to what war was like,” he said. “When you’re close enough, rifles and machine guns are firing at you. Your colleagues are being hurt, wounded. My high school classmate was with the infantry. I was not with the group. He was killed on the first day of the encounter. They were just marching up the road and they were ambushed. He used to live across the street from me.”
From Italy, Ito traveled to France, where he set off to rescue the Lost Battalion. Two battalions had tried and failed to rescue the Texans from the forest of the Vosges Mountains.
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 over their heads into the trees above them.
“I’ve been back a couple of times after the war,” he said. “There are still these foxholes, moss covered depressions in the ground. And the trees had so many shell fragments and shrapnel in them, that it would ruin lumber saws. I remember going to a lumbering area where they had piles of shell fragments.”
After five days, they finally reached the Lost Battalion, and the Texan soldiers came up from their foxholes grinning ear to ear at the remaining members of Ito’s division. The Lost Battalion, said Ito, had dug in so far that their foxholes had become elaborate caverns underground.
“We’re honorary Texans now,” Ito said.
After France, Ito fought in Germany, where he helped liberate two sub-camps of the Dachau concentration camp. He remembers passing hundreds of former Jewish prisoners dressed in striped suits as they fled Dachau. He remembers seeing their bodies along the road. Snow was falling, he said, and it covered them.
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 this past June. They had four children, one of whom died. Ito has five grandchildren, the youngest a six-year-old granddaughter of whom he speaks with pride.
He has donated almost all of his mementos of the war 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.