The man with the decapitated head – eyes wide open and mouth frozen in a silent scream – saw his coming death. If the corpses bothered other soldiers, it did not show. I envied those stoic comrades of mine. I realized then what I was: their replacement.
The distant pounding of artillery from German 88mm cannons shook the earth. “Incoming!” someone yelled. Everyone scurried for cover, like insects beneath a rock suddenly exposed to sunlight. A German artillery shell landed in the middle of the now empty road followed by others on the road and in the surrounding fields, each blast exploding with a deafening roar and leaving giant craters.
The screaming meemies came zooming in as the earth exploded all around us, coating us in mud, dirt, and smoke. I shoved my face deeper into the loam to one side of the dirt road, half expecting to be torn asunder by those man-eating pieces of shrapnel.
While I did not fear dying, I worried that I would be too scared to perform my job well. My father told me “Bring no shame.” How would I react to the heat of battle? In Japan, we would be expected to fight and die. Now, I wished I was anywhere but here.
I joined the 442nd regimental combat team in Italy. I was one of the 676 replacements that joined the unit before we landed in Southern France. We proudly wore the red, white, and blue regimental combat patch emblazoned with the Statue of Liberty on our shoulder.
The 442nd was an all-Japanese American combat unit formed in 1943 by President Roosevelt led by mostly white officers. Col Charles Wilbur Pence, the unit commander, would tolerate no bigotry among his officers.
The unit was formed to counter Japanese propaganda regarding America’s racist internment of citizens of Japanese descent. Many of us put ourselves in harm’s way to fight for the freedoms denied to us by our own country.
The unit had distinguished itself in hard fighting in Africa and Italy, suffering a 300 percent casualty rate. By the end of the war, the unit would be the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the United States.
In some ways it was better to serve with men of your own kind and not be subject to the racism that you would face in mostly white military unit. Also, you did not have to fear being intentionally shot by your own comrades in the fog of war.
Before shipping here from the states I had the unfounded feared the war would end before I saw action. We were soon engaged in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.
It was mid-October. We were now in France in the Vosges Mountains, near the German border. They were fighting for their homeland. The bad weather and rough terrain limited use of our air power. No army in history had ever successfully traversed the rugged mountains. Sarge waved us forward. “Move out!” he growled.
The small sharp roadside pebbles cut the palms of my hands. A wounded man groaned in pain. “Medic!” someone yelled. A medic with a red cross over a white circle painted on his steel helmet and on an armband ran past me.
Bruyéres lay ahead. Large army trucks – deuces and a half – drove us to our new encampment and we bivouacked in tents near the city. We drove past Epinal where the Army would soon begin digging fresh graves for fallen American warriors. I thought was a beautiful final resting place. I had never dreamed of even visiting France before the war started.
In camp, the Hawaiians played their ukuleles and sang songs. Other men played cards and waited in the chow line. Chaplain Higuchi took our photographs.
Eager to prove my loyalty to America, I joined the army to kill America’s enemies. The government incarcerated us at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, rounding up 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in the Western United States and holding them in ten concentration camps, scattered throughout the most desolate places in the country.
On December 7, 1941 I went to see a movie with my friends in downtown Seattle. When we left the theater, newspaper boys hawked their periodicals on the street shouting “Japs bombed Pearl Harbor! Japs bomb Pearl Harbor!” I could feel the people on the streets staring at us with contempt and hate. We were like rats caught in the headlights with no place to hide. When we were ordered to evacuate, many of our erstwhile neighbors descended upon our home to buy cheap furniture.
I can hear my father: “Be careful for what you wish; it may come true.” He is in at the Minidoka Relocation Center with my mother, sister and little brother living in hastily constructed tar paper and wood barrack with other families, separated by bed sheets hanging on clotheslines.
We stacked wood crates to use as shelves and sealed knotholes by nailing old tin can tops over them. When I think about the camp, surrounded by barbed wire, and watch towers, I can taste the dry dust in my mouth. Minidoka had more volunteers for the Army than any other camp.
We took an oath of loyalty and pledged to serve in the United States military if called. The men who refused to take the oaths were arrested and taken away to special camps.
On August 15, 1944, three American and three French divisions landed at the Riviera in Southern France and drove northward up the Rhone Valley. Two months earlier on June 6, the Allied Army landed at Normandy. Allied planes and armies and Free French forces hammered away at the retreating German Army trying to escape encirclement.
The 19th Army of the Wehrmacht led by General Heinrich Friedrich Wiese made its stand in the Vosges Mountains in Northern France. The general gathered together a ragtag force of newly formed mountain troops from Bavaria and Austria and convalescing soldiers, young boys, old men, and foreign troops to try to stop the large approaching Allied juggernauts from crossing the Rhine.
Other 442nd units launched an attack taking the surrounding hills and then the town, taking it house by house. We could hear the firefight in the distance as we waited in support. Many of the enemy soldiers – who were Russian prisoners – wore German uniforms and surrendered easily.
We fought battle hardened SS-police units and the 21st Panzer Division at the railroad tracks in the heavy rain. The police units were experienced soldiers used to fight Yugoslav and French partisans. They did not give up easily.
Sarge, holding his Tommy gun, led us into the city. He peered over a concrete barricade before collapsing into a crouch. He turned his head and motioned us with his left hand to go into a crouch too. “Down, boys. Down.”
Our engineers cleared mines and roadblocks while under machine gun and sniper fire from the fortified stone houses. Tanks and artillery supported our attack as the Germans brought up reserves to replace their fallen men.
The Germans counterattacked but we drove them back in bloody close quarters combat. One of our sergeants won a Distinguished Service Cross after he knocked out an attacking tank with an anti-tank rocket.
Our artillery blasted away at the German soldiers hiding in the railway tunnel. We took many prisoners fighting for the Germans, including, Poles, Yugoslavs, Somalis, and East Indian troops.
The four thousand townspeople emerged from their cellars, many of them feting us with wine and cheese. Many were surprised their liberators were Asian men small in stature with epicanthic eyes and dressed in American uniforms. Gen. Dahlquist took us off the line after we captured Bruyéres.
Soon afterwards, we learned the Germans cut off a battalion of the Alamo Regiment of the Texas Division. Two other battalions tried to break through the German line to rescue the group but were driven back. Our regiment was ordered to rescue the men.
We marched toward the surrounding hills, through thickets and fallen trees. Francois, a local French partisan, led the way. “We kill Nazis,” he said. All of the enlisted men of the regiment were Niseis, second-generation Japanese Americans, their fathers, and mothers from Japan.
Most of the officers were white. Our battalion was led by Lt. Col. Pursell who insisted every man be treated with dignity and respect. He oftentimes was in the middle of the action. He in turn received our loyalty.
Sakamoto, a schoolteacher from Portland and the oldest man, nodded. “Vosges Mountain. Last line of defense before the Rhine. Maybe a rough one. Stick with me kid.” Most of the enlisted men of the unit were in their early twenties or teenagers.
By the time we moved into position, night had fallen. We dug our trenches in the dark black forest. The trees looked like angry black gnarled skeletons in the darkness. We scrapped through the plant roots and hard dirt of the ancient forest where Roman legions roamed. It was cold. Rain poured down, filling my shallow foxhole with water.
Eddie, the guy next to me, coughed. He was just 17. His mother consented for him to join the army. The men covered the tip of the barrels of their M-1 Garrant riles with condoms to keep their rifles dry.
Sakamoto put his wet socks under his armpits to keep his socks dry. Men massaged their feet with shaving cream to prevent trench foot. Trench foot caused by wet feet could cause a soldier to lose his feet or toes.
“Do you like basketball, kid?” asked the five-foot-two Sadao.
“I play center on my high school team,” Sadao said grinning.
Although all the enlisted men were Nisei, we were still divided between those from Hawaii called buddhaheads and those from the mainland called kotonks. The buddhaheads were generally poorer and spoke Pidgin English while the Kotonks spoke better English and Japanese.
The buddhaheads also were not interred in concentration camps unlike many of the kotonks. The rivalry of the two groups caused fistfights between the two groups. We were oftentimes at each other’s throats until they visited one of the concentration camps that housed our families.
There seems to be something in human nature that always agitates to label other groups as “others.” We always seem to find a way to divide ourselves from ourselves.
We covered ourselves with brush and branches to shield ourselves against artillery blasts into the trees. The brush protected us from falling wood that fell like hundreds of wood daggers impaling everyone underneath. There are so many ways to die in war.
Around midnight, Sarge ordered us to move out. It was so dark you could not see your hand in front of your face. We had to put our hand on the backpacks of the man ahead of us and the guy in back of me put his hand on my shoulder. I slipped in the mud. The two men behind me tripped over my body.
Sometime in the early morning, we stopped and dug new foxholes. Afterward, we ate our C rations – hard flat biscuits, hard candy, and coffee that we warmed over sterno cans.
Mail came. My mother sent me a package of cookies. “Don’t be a hero,” she wrote. I thought about Camp Harmony at Puyallup, the fairgrounds where we were initially taken. They removed us from school early and we were bused to the camp, bringing only what we could carry.
The first night we all slept together in a large arena. You could hear loud snoring, making it impossible to sleep. Later, we roomed in stables. The fresh paint could not conceal the smell of urine and manure from the horses.
Sports leagues were organized to keep morale up. We played a lot of baseball and basketball. They then moved us by train to Minidoka in the Utah desert. Indians spear fished alongside the Columbia River.
In Bruyéres, somebody found a prostitute. Several of the guys went to see her. I wanted to get laid before I died.
“You go ahead,” Sakamoto said, fingering the ring on his finger. “I got a girl back home. If I can’t be faithful to her here, how am I going to be faithful to her anywhere?”
“I’m staying here too,” Sadao said. “This is my girl,” he said lovingly codling his rifle.
“You’re a mess,” Sakamoto told him and laughed.
We ate French bread and Muenster cheese made by the locals. A Frenchman angrily complained to Sarge that the shelling was damaging their property. “Tell it to the army,” he said.
We went to a quiet little apartment on a side street and took turns. Henry told me to leave my money on the nightstand beside the bed. Though Henry was the same age as me, he seemed much older. War does that to you.
The make-up on the girl made her look older than her teen-agers year. “Are you French?” I asked.
“No, Roma,” she said “Or what is left of them. The Germans rounded us up and took us away. You G.I?”
We could hear the shouting outside downstairs. She drew back the cheap, red-laced curtains of the second-story window. Collaborators were beaten up. Outside, Frenchmen held down a crying woman in a chair and shaved her head as her neighbors jeered.
The men shaved the heads of three other girls. The four girls were paraded through the streets while the crowd jeered and spat on them.
In September and October, thirty thousand French collaborators were arrested. Sixty were tried, convicted, and given death sentences.
“Collaborators,” the gypsy girl said.
“I see,” I said.
“Why do you fight?”
“What’s your name?
Upon hearing my name, I cried.
“Why do you cry?” she asked.
“You are the first person to ask me my name since I’ve been here.”
She handed my money back to me. “Be careful, Johnny,” she said and kissed me softly on my lips.
When we rejoined our unit, more replacements arrived. “Where’s the action?” asked a fresh face kid from Los Angeles named Billy.
“Why so eager?” one veteran asked.
We stopped at a farmhouse where a French family was helping our wounded soldiers. One of our men had a terrible back wound and his liver was hanging out. The Frenchwoman there, braved artillery shells to bring water to the men.
Sakamoto and Sadao gave their bread and chocolate bars to hungry French children. “We are dead already,” Sakamoto said.
Later that morning, Sarge woke us up. “Pay attention. The Germans may be coming this way.” The fog was heavy. You could hear their voices. Upon Sarge’s command, we blasted them. A bullet whizzed by my ears. A German infantryman crept forward with a potato masher. Machine guns rattled and the wounded and dying screamed. I stood up and blasted him.
“Stay down,” Sakamoto shouted over the din. “Machine gun fire.” The man next to me stood up and a sniper shot him in the head. Under the constant pressure – the constant fear without any rest or sleep for days on end – even the best men begin to act irrationally.
Another man was killed by wood from a tree burst, the chunks of wood still stuck like stakes in his back. The fighting was intense. Then all was quiet, except for the groaning of the wounded and the dying.
One of our dying soldiers called to his mother “Okasan, okasan.” In the Army, you learn how to say mother in many different languages for every son calls to his mother before he dies.
There is nothing romantic about war. It is horrible and that is an understatement.
Medics were everywhere. The badly wounded were taken away by stretcher bearers. One man’s legs were just bloody flaps hanging over the stretcher. Another man had have his face blown away.
In the afternoon, we were reinforced and resupplied. Francois, the French partisan, and Sakamoto led a patrol to scout the German position. Sakamoto gave me a letter to send to his girlfriend in case he did not make it back. “You seem lucky, Kid” he said.
We hiked back into the Vosges Mountains the next day. Word had it that we had to rescue a cutoff Texas battalion. I was sitting beneath a tree with Henry. We did not even hear that shell come in. Those 88s came in fast. The explosion was deafening. I flew through the air in slow motion.
Blood was spurting from Henry’s neck like a fountain. A piece of shrapnel severed his carotid artery. There was no way to stop the blood unless you choked him. We took cover as best we could.
We called in an artillery strike. Soon, we were hitting theirs with ours. It is amazing all the clever devises man makes to kill other men. Sometimes, you wish he could make clever devises for peace too.
By the time, we returned to Henry, he was dead. One moment he was Henry. In the next, he was nothing but lifeless flesh. I wanted to feel sad; but I was glad it was not me.
We could see the Germans and their dugouts on the ridgeline. Later on, I took cover behind a rock. I felt a tap on my shoulder. Gen. Dahlquist himself stood behind me. “What have you done brave today, soldier?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I answered. ”Neither have I done anything foolish either.” Later, we heard his aid-de-camp, Wells Sinclair, the son of Upton Sinclair, was killed by machine gun fire following him around on the front lines.
Our lieutenant was assigned to lead a supply detail up the road. He was absolutely furious. He told the colonel it was a suicide mission. Sure enough, the enemy was waiting for us.
Our two tanks were blasted off the road. The lieutenant and medic pulled wounded men from the tanks. There was blood, hair, and bits of clothing inside the tank.
As they carried Sadao away on a stretcher, he smoked a cigarette. “I will see you stateside, kid,” he grimaced.
The Germans pinned us down at the bottom of the hill. The mortar and machine gun fire was intense. We were going to be killed whether we charged or whether we stayed. Many of our men were sick from the cold and rain.
One of the soldiers charged. “Banzai!” the soldiers began to yell as they disappeared into the smoke and hail of gunfire, a kind of hell here on earth. Others yelled the motto of the regiment “Go for broke!” We all charged, slipping, and sliding up that muddy hill, trying to grab gnarled tree roots for balance. Col Pursell waved us forward. Sarge led our squad spraying the enemy with his Tommy gun as men were falling all around him.
One of our sergeants threw a grenade into a German machine gun nest, silencing it. He was about to throw another grenade when his right arm was torn off by a mortar rocket. He picked up the grenade still clutched in his sever right hand and blew up another German machine gun nest. Sgt. Daniel Inouye won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor. He later became a U.S. Senator from Hawaii.
I saw a mortar shell hit Tommy’s position. I never heard his gun again.
Sakamoto ran ahead of me. You could barely see ahead because of the smoke. He stepped on a landmine, his blood and flesh spattered all over my face and coat. I moved on. My comrades were falling to my left and right. The only thing to do was to keep moving forward. Bring no shame.
A mortar shell landed to my right. I was right on top of the machine gun nest in a dugout covered by logs. I threw my grenade. After it exploded, I shot the stunned machine gun crew with my M-1 rifle.
A German soldier jumped out from his dugout. He was only twenty feet away. I shot him blowing two holes through his back. He fell face forward. When I turned him over he was just a boy. His eyes glazed over. “Mutter,” he groaned.
The shooting stopped. All was quiet except for the groaning of the wounded. I made it up the hill. Sarge was the only other member of the platoon who had made it up the hill. He was taking prisoners. Germans popped out of their machine gun nests, surrendering.
A German officer lay dying at the bottom of his foxhole, his intestines in his hands. We offered him help. “Nein, nein,” he smiled.
When we reached the Texas Lost Battalion, one of our men said to a red-headed soldier manning a machine gun “Need a cigarette?” The encircled Lost Battalion, low on food, water, and ammunition, had fought off the German attackers for days.
After the fighting Chaplain Higuchi gave a memorial service to the 161 men who had been killed. A third of our regiment had been killed or wounded in the fighting.
It is strange that so many young men would lose their lives and limbs before they had a chance to really live life. They gave their all – like many other young men – so we and our children could all reap the benefits of their sacrifices.
Gen. Dahlquist asked the regiment to assemble in the field before him the next day. When we gathered, he was furious. He told the colonel he expected all the men to be here. “This is all the men left,” Col. Pence replied.
After the review, we were told more replacements were on their way.
Mark Kodama is a trial attorney and former newspaper reporter who lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and two sons. He is currently working on Las Vegas Tales, a work of philosophy, sugar-coated with meter and rhyme and told through stories. More than 150 of his short stories, poems and essays have been published in anthologies, including those published by Black Hare Press, Clarendon Publishing House, Eerie River Publishing, Escaped Ink Press and Devil’s Party Press. His stories and poems have appeared in Writers and Readers Magazine, the Academy of Hearts and Mind Magazine, Café Lit, Commuter Lit, Dastaan World Magazine, Dissident Voice, Jakob’s Horror Box, Indie’s Nest, Inner Circle Writers’ Group Magazine, Literary Yard, Magazine of History and Fiction, Mercurial Stories, Portland Metrozine, Potato Soup Journal, PPP Ezine, Spillwords, Tuck Magazine and World of Myths Magazine. His stories and poems appear in Ancients, Apocalypse, Blaze, Cadence, Unravel, Dragon Bone Soup, Enigma, Fox Hollow Stories, Glamour, Hate, Tall Tales and Short Stories, Gleam, Fireburst, Latin Anthology, Maelstrom, Pride, Tempest and What Sort of Fuckery Is This? “Land of the Pharaohs” won Story of the Month at World of Myths and “The Summer Camp” appears in Potato Soup Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1 (Best of).