Fierce battle still haunts WWII hero
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.
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.”