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The San Francisco Chronicle Sunday, September 24, 1995 · Page 4/Z1
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The Conflict Behind the Battle Lines
The Japanese Americans who fought in World War II were engaged in another, private battle, against prejudice and misunderstandings

Tara Shioya, Chronicle Staff Writer

As the barbed-wire fences and tar paper barracks went up at the Salinas rodeo grounds in the spring of 1942, Shiro Takeshita and his friends watched -- but said nothing.

In the following weeks, they would be forced from their homes and incarcerated in internment camps, accused of disloyalty toward the American government, yet guilty of nothing but their Japanese heritage.

Still, they said nothing.

Shikataganai, the first-generation Japanese Americans, or Issei, said to their American-born children. It can't be helped; that's how things are.

At Poston, the Arizona detention camp where his family had been sent, Takeshita, then 21, settled into camp life and his duties as a recreation director. Anger faded to resignation.

But when camp officials announced that the U.S. Army would allow Japanese Americans to serve in a special segregated unit, Ta- keshita decided to volunteer.

``It was the only thing I could think of to do,'' said Takeshita, now 74, a retired San Leandro logistics engineer. ``I felt that was the only way we could be recognized as being loyal Americans.''

That sentiment rang true for many of the 18,000 Nisei -- second- generation Japanese Americans -- like Takeshita and his three brothers, who fought in the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion during World War II.

This year, upon the 50th anniversary of the war's end, Nisei veterans quietly celebrated their wartime achievements. For them, there was no question of allegiances. Even as the world has marked Japan's defeat, the Nisei veterans remain unequivocally loyal to their country -- the United States.

As a military unit, their record in North Africa and Europe was extraordinary. After almost two years of fighting, the 100th/442nd emerged from the war the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history.

They fought in seven major campaigns in Europe, made two beachhead assaults and captured a submarine. In France, they liberated Bruyeres, and rescued the ``Lost Battalion'' -- 275 Texas infantrymen who had been trapped inside German territory for almost a week.

In late spring of 1945, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion -- part of the 442nd -- was among the first Allied units to liberate prisoners from Dachau. Days later, heading farther south through Germany, the 522nd helped save more than 5,000 Jewish prisoners from the Dachau sub-camps who had been on a forced march toward the Bavarian Alps.

The unit's valor earned more than 18,000 individual citations and eight Presidential Unit Citations. Known also as the ``Purple Heart Battalion,'' with more than 700 men killed and 9,500 Purple Hearts, they suffered the highest casualty rate in U.S. Army history.

Today, the veterans of the 442nd and the 100th are in their 70s and 80s, and among them is a growing sense of urgency to tell their stories before it is too late.

But while the Nisei veterans are eager to talk about the past, they are not inclined to boast about their wartime accomplishments. Instead, they talk about the war in simple, unexaggerated language, without the flourishes or tales of mythical feats that war stories often engender. Theirs is a quiet pride -- one rooted in historical fact.

``We weren't going around bragging about what we did, because we didn't think we did anything special,'' said 522nd veteran George Oiye, 73. ``It was just part of the war, as far as I'm concerned.'' Classified as 4-C Enemy Aliens whose loyalty to the U.S. government was deemed ``questionable'' after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were ineligible to serve in the armed forces. But in February 1943, the government created a special all-Japanese unit, with Japanese enlisted men and Caucasian officers.

Most of the volunteers came from Hawaii, but roughly a third came from the mainland camps, where more than 110,000 Japanese Americans -- including 70,000 native-born American citizens -- had been interned. At first, the two groups appeared to have nothing in common but their Japanese ancestry. Where they came from, how they behaved, how they talked -- everything was different.

In 1943, the year the 442nd began training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, Japanese Americans made up roughly a third of the population of Hawaii. Many worked on sugar plantations for Caucasian landowners, seldom venturing outside the plantation camps where they lived and worked.

On the mainland, however, Japanese Americans totaled less than 1 percent of the population. Many owned their own farms or were living in cities. As a matter of necessity, they had tried to assimilate into the majority Caucasian culture.

The Hawaiians had a reputation as a carefree bunch who loved to gamble -- ``Ganbare,'' or ``Go for Broke!'' they would say. The Japanese from the mainland, on the other hand, seemed quieter, more reserved. Many were preoccupied with thoughts of the families they had left behind in internment camps, hopeful that distinguishing themselves in combat might secure early releases for their families.

While the Hawaiians spoke pidgin -- an amalgam of English, Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Filipino and Spanish -- the mainlanders spoke ``proper'' English.

Arriving at Camp Shelby from Montana in 1943, Oiye was overwhelmed by the number of Japanese Americans assembled there.

``Oh man, I never imagined there were this many Japanese people,'' Oiye said. ``I thought they were just rounding us up to send us to some prison camp or Japan or something.''

The Japanese people he had known in Montana were nothing like the Hawaiian Japanese.

``They were not exactly a polite, sophisticated people,'' said Oiye, nicknamed ``Whitey'' by the Hawaiians for the fairness of his skin. ``They would squat on the floor, they'd go barefoot because they weren't used to wearing shoes. They seemed extremely rude and crude in their language.''

As for the Hawaiians, like Tadashi Tojo, most of them had never left the islands. Many had grown up together on the plantation camps.

``Until I joined the Army, the little camp and my house was my whole world,'' said Tojo, 71, an affable man who returned to Honolulu after the war.

To the Hawaiians, the mainlanders seemed aloof, unfriendly and stuck-up.

``They talked too much,'' said Tojo, laughing. ``They were on the defensive too, because we outnumbered them. But we felt so damned insecure and intimidated because they spoke better than we did.''

At Camp Shelby, fights between the mainlanders and the Hawaiians broke out regularly, often provoked by something as small as a sideways glance or an offhanded comment.

The Hawaiians became known as ``buddhaheads,'' from the Japanese word ``buta,'' meaning ``pig.'' Mainlanders, in turn, were called ``kotonks,'' -- after the sound of an empty coconut falling on the ground, or the sound of a head hitting a wall during a fist fight.

So frequent and serious were the fights that the Army considered disbanding the unit. In an effort to defuse hostility among his soldiers, the unit's commanding officer, Colonel Charles Pence, arranged a weekend visit for the Hawaiians to a nearby internment camp at Rohwer, Arkansas.

The soldiers set out for Rohwer singing and strumming their ukuleles, wearing aloha shirts and grass skirts. But when they returned to Camp Shelby, their faces were somber.

Like many of the Hawaiians, Tadashi Tojo knew nothing about the mainland internment camps until he saw Rohwer.

``That really befuddled me,'' said Tojo, who was 19 at the time. ``You talk about oppression. Even now I feel that twinge, all those barbed wire encampments.'' At the dances at Camp Shelby, the girls from the nearby internment camps seemed cheerful and lighthearted. Tojo could not believe this was how they were living.

When Tojo saw the camp graveyard, his heart sank. He thought of the people who had been uprooted from their homes, who had been brought to a strange place and had died there.

``It really worked on me,'' he said softly. ``It really hurt me.''

And for the first time, Tojo and the other Hawaiians understood the soldiers from the mainland -- who rarely talked about the camps and the forced evacuation.

``That's when I started to think a little -- how these people were American citizens just like us, but they had been treated this way.''

After the Rohwer visit, the fights ceased. The 442nd went on to distinguish itself as much for its valor as its cohesiveness. The unit adopted ``Go for Broke!'' as its motto, the phrase used by the Hawaiians.

As a commanding officer of the 442nd now-retired Colonel Jim Hanley has nothing but praise for the Nisei soldiers. Bright-eyed, well-dressed and well-mannered, Hanley said, the Nisei unit looked sharp.

What the soldiers lacked in physical size -- their average height, 5'3'', average weight, 125 pounds -- they made up for in spirit, he said.

``They were like regular soldiers, only better,'' said Hanley, 90, from his Mountain View home. ``They were a lot easier to handle than the average unit. They obeyed orders, and they always tried.''

At a 1945 White House ceremony honoring the 100th/442nd, President Truman commended the Nisei soldiers on their wartime accomplishments. ``You fought not only the enemy, you fought prejudice, and you have won.''

But that wasn't entirely true. Even during training, the Nisei were scrutinized and treated with suspicion. At Camp Shelby, the Army searched their mail, confiscated their diaries and kept files documenting their daily activities.

As if the Nisei needed reminding, ``Remember Pearl Harbor'' was assigned as the official motto of the 100th Infantry Battalion. In the last days of April 1945, the 522nd was headed south through Germany, toward Hitler's headquarters in Berchtesgaden. A team of forward observers from the 522nd, including Oiye, had been assigned to scout out the territory.

Near the resort town of Bad Tolz, they stopped their jeep when they noticed several oddly shaped mounds along the side of the road. With the butts of their rifles, they brushed away the snow.

``There were people underneath,'' said Oiye, a small, wiry man who still speaks with a soft Montana twang. ``Some of them had been shot, or had frozen to death. The others were almost skeletons -- folks who had been starved or beaten.''

The survivors were among more than 8,000 prisoners who had been forcibly marched from Dachau four days earlier. SS chief Heinrich Himmler had ordered the Jewish concentration camp prisoners to be taken to the Bavarian Alps and killed, to ``remove'' evidence of Hitler's genocidal activities.

But as the Allied troops approached, the Germans dropped their guns and fled.

Many of the prisoners who had fallen along the way had been shot. Those who survived the gunshots lay still in the snow, pretending to be dead. Others had simply collapsed from hunger and exhaustion. When the 522nd arrived, survivors were perplexed by the Japanese soldiers in American uniforms.

The Nisei soldiers gave them food, medicine and bedding. Although Oiye's unit was ordered to move on, others stayed and set up temporary soup kitchens for the survivors.

``We didn't know who they were, or why they were there,'' Oiye recalled, his voice trailing off. ``It was pretty horrifying, and bewildering. And disgusting.''

Several leading Dachau historians and the U.S. Army have said the records do not show that the Nisei regiment was there. But photographs -- like the one George Oiye took with a camera he ``liberated'' from a dead German soldier -- prove otherwise. The photo shows Dachau subcamp prisoners giving the ``Heil Hitler'' salute to Nisei soldiers, assuming they belonged to the Japanese Imperial Army.

After the war, many Nisei veterans attended universities and colleges under the GI Bill. Some, like U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye, returned to Hawaii and rose to prominent positions in business and politics. But many of the Nisei were disheartened to find that despite their wartime efforts, prejudice still thrived.

After rejoining his family in Detroit, Shiro Takeshita moved back to the West Coast. In 1950, he and his new bride were looking at apartments in Alameda. At one building, the couple who managed the apartment peered at the Takeshitas from the window as they walked up to the door. ``It's been taken,'' the man said.

But the Takeshitas knew that was impossible. They had called just moments earlier.

Even in the years after the war, as anti-Japanese state and federal laws were gradually dismantled, Japanese Americans continued to feel the sharp sting of racism. Some Caucasian Americans, remembering Pearl Harbor, bore a deep hatred for anyone of Japanese ancestry. In the late 1980s, Nisei veterans led the campaign for redress that resulted in a formal apology and compensation from the U.S. government to Japanese Americans who were interned.

In the living room of his home in the San Leandro hills, Takeshita admits he was disappointed at how little the racial climate changed in postwar America.

Still, Takeshita said the decision to volunteer was unquestionably worthwhile.

``I think we were very successful, seeing the record of the 442nd,'' he said. ``As far as I was concerned, I was satisfied.''

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Sunday, September 24, 1995 · Page 4/Z1 © 1995 San Francisco Chronicle