I’ve often wondered how to fold the story of the Nisei Soldier into an appropriate discussion of budo. With the recent passing of US Senator Dan Inouye, a 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran, and praise for his service in the military and in politics, I think it’s time to say something from my perspective.
Hopefully by now most of my few wonderful readers know about the 100th Batallion/442nd. Inouye was a member of that legendary unit, and his last combat exploit earned him a belated Medal of Honor.
As a journalist for a local Hawaii Japanese American journal, I had the privilege of interviewing Inouye once, on political matters, and frequently interviewing many of his fellow 442nd “Go for Broke” (a reference to a Hawaii gambler’s cry of betting everything all at once) cohorts, as well as Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) who served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) as translators in the Pacific, and the 1399th, a corps of construction engineers. I’ve also researched their history and lore as part of several articles I wrote for that journal.
What I think is the relevant take-away for budo folk is a theme I keep going back to: heart and spirit in budo training is as important as technique and process. It’s true in budo as it’s true in the more serious and deadly domain of combat. Proper training in budo, be it classical or modern, should be as much about forging a spirit and heart as it is about physical competitiveness. It becomes more so the older you get, I think.
The 100th/442nd amassed more unit citations and individual awards than any other Army unit of its size and duration of battle. Its rescue of the Texas “Lost Battalion” (1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, 36th Infantry Division) is considered by the US Army as “one of the top ten land battles” in the entire history of the United States Army.
What drove such men to such feats? When I used to talk to them, it was hard to imagine those old, graying geezers as heroes in the mold of back-talking wise guys like you see in action movies. They were stooped, white-haired, gentle old men with twinkles in their eyes. They were much more comfortable talking about the fun they had, such as making chicken hekka in the middle of a German countryside, than in their exploits on the battlefield. Or how the mess crew had to scrounge and finagle to get enough rice to feed the unit. Or how they loved dancing with the tall, blonde haole girls at socials near Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
Yet, one old newsreel stands out. As the 442nd began to amass its stunning record in World War II, the national news began to play up the uniqueness of their ethnicity. The Japanese nation was at war with America, yet a group of ethnically Japanese was fighting for the US. Why? And why did they fight so hard?
One soldier replied, well, it was because they were a combination of “Yamato damashii” and American fighting spirit. Interesting notion. But probably rooted in a real ethos. These kids…and they were literally kids fresh out of high school at the time…had been raised in a multi-ethnic environment. They could play the ukulele and dance hula better than they could sing any Japanese patriotic song. Yet, their parents admonished them to live by traditional, old-fashioned standards of honor, humility and hard work. When they went off to the US military, many of them were given sennin-bari, the thousand-knit belly warmers given to samurai for safety, woven by everyone in the community. Their parents, emigrants from Japan, told them to fight with “honor,” and to “not bring shame upon the family,” old Japanese warrior ideals.
…That is, if their parents were there to see them off. I remember one family’s story. Two of the boys were debating whether to volunteer for active service. Their father had been detained and sent to a Mainland Internment camp, his only crime that of being a Buddhist minister, a person involved in Japanese cultural and religious activities. Why should they fight for a country that locked up their dad?
“Because you have to. America is your country now,” their mother told them. “Japan is not your country.”
But as much as they had Japanese ideals inculcated in them from their parents and after-school Japanese language schools, they also attended public schools, where they had civic lessons in American culture. The ideals of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were part of their upbringing. The late US Representative Sparky Matsunaga wrote in his memoirs that he used to argue constantly with his Social Studies teacher. The teacher lectured about the ideals of American freedom and equality. Matsunaga said that was all right and good but it’s not true. Many ethnic Americans, including Japanese Americans, were excluded from fully participating in many economic and cultural opportunities. And look at the segregation of African Americans on the US Mainland. The teacher replied that it was therefore up to his generation to fight for those ideals. America wasn’t done, it was in the making. Nothing comes easy.
That’s not to say they were altogether stoic and stuffy cardboard cutout heroes. A lot of them were given gifts of money when they left the Islands for Mainland training camps. And a lot of them lost their money in the nonstop gambling at craps and cards on the freight ship to San Francisco. The “local” boys from Hawaii typified local Hawaii outspokenness and rowdiness. They got into so many fights with their Mainland Nisei counterparts over misunderstandings with their pidgin English patois that the Caucasian commanding officers came close to disbanding the unit before they saw their first combat. The Nisei from Hawaii were willing to pick fights with anybody who looked at them cross-wise at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, be it other GIs or redneck civilians. When they were told to use the “Whites” toilets instead of the “Coloreds” toilets at the movie theaters, so that they wouldn’t face the same prejudice that African Americans faced in the South during that time, some of them simply urinated on the wall in between the two entrances. “We weren’t black and we weren’t white, after all,” one veteran told me.
Another veteran recalled to me how a bunch of them got into trouble for commandeering a bus. They were on their way back to camp, after a night of dancing with the local girls and drinking, when the bus stopped at a stop and an elderly black woman wanted to get on. The driver told her that there was no room in the back of the bus for “colored” folk so she had to get the next bus. It was late. The lady protested that she had just pulled a night shift as a cleaning lady and her feet were tired. The driver told her she could walk, then. She tried to get on, and he pushed her, sending her sprawling on the pavement. The GIs saw the exchange. They offered her a seat up front with them. The driver still refused to let her on. So, the veteran laughed, “We beat his ass and kicked him off the bus, took the lady on the bus, and drove the bus to her house, dropped her off, dropped everybody else off, and got back to camp.” The next morning they were reprimanded from their commanding officer, who couldn’t help laughing while he was yelling at them. They weren’t angels.
In addition, the ranks of the “Hawaii boys” were stuffed with high school and amateur athletes; football players, baseball players, Golden Gloves boxers, judoka, kendo competitors. When I was at their clubhouse, a veteran pointed out a photo of a veteran. “He was, I think, fifth dan in kendo already by the time we got to Basic Training. But he was the smallest guy in our group. So the drill instructor picked on him to beat up during the first bayonet practice. He beat the crap out of the drill instructor.”
It also helped that the average intelligence tests of the unit showed that the majority of the 442nd volunteers had enough aptitude to enter officer’s school. A veteran showed me a scrapbook of his artillery unit once. After the war, he went on to law school, became a lawyer, a judge and a state representative. He showed me a photo of his buddies in his unit. “This guy became a Federal District judge on the Mainland, this guy became a doctor, and this guy became a professor…” Nearly all the people in his unit took advantage of the GI bill and became white-collar professionals. They were smart.
While the draftees of the 100th Battalion were already fighting in North Africa and Italy, up to Monte Cassino, the volunteer 442nd was formed and then trained. And trained. And trained. The problem was, as I was told, that nobody wanted them. They were enemy “Japs.” Army commanders were afraid that they would turn on them. So they kept training longer than the usual combat unit’s duration of Basic Training before they were finally assigned to a theater of combat. That led to a very, very well trained unit. A veteran with the unit’s field artillery said that they trained so much, they scored among the top for firing accuracy over and over again.
So you had unit cohesion, perfected training, intelligence, motivation and spirit. That’s a perfect blend for a combat unit, and interestingly enough, the best description of what budo training should be about.
Eventually the 442nd joined up with and absorbed the 100th Battalion, fought up the boot of Italy, through to the gates of Rome, and then fought in France (where they faced combat in the Vosges Mountains and rescued the Lost Battalion), before being split up. The infantry units were sent back to Italy to break through the Siegfried Line, while the 522nd FA Field Artillery unit was detached and joined General Patton’s push into Germany. The Americans had been stymied for months at that line of emplacements in the Italian Alps. The 442nd climbed up the slopes in the night and routed the crack units under Field Marshall Albert Kesselring in one morning.
The forward spotters for the artillery unit entering Germany moved so far ahead of the field artillery that they became among the first Allied forces to break into the concentration camps at Dachau. Their recollections of seeing the camps were heartbreaking. It haunted them for decades, and when some of them recounted their stories to me, it still seemed incredulous, to them, that such horrors were visited on human beings.
For all that, unless you were part of their group of fellow veterans, it was often hard to get them to open up and talk about themselves or their battlefield exploits. They would rather talk about the funny incidents than any act of heroism, and it was only until some books were written and they had gotten much older and further removed from the horrors of war that they began to talk openly. One veteran said, “We didn’t want to talk too much because that would sound like bragging, but we realized that our kids and grandkids would never know what we went through.” So in their latter years, they began to open up. It was about time, and it was a good thing they did, else much would have been lost.
The toll of war was heavy on them, though. I used to invite Nisei veterans to speak to my Ethnic Studies class when I taught at the University of Hawaii. Most of them would recount their unit actions, their history, their funny anecdotes. Few of them spent too much time discussing details of actual battles.
However, one veteran, the late Mike Tokunaga, told a story about the time he was scouting a hill. It was a beautiful day. The tall grass was waving in the wind, leaves glinting in the bright sunlight. He crouched as he advanced up the rise, then stood up at the summit and found himself staring at an enemy soldier not ten feet in front of him, doing the same thing. They were both surprised and raised their guns at the same time. “I was lucky,” he said. “I got the shot off first. I shot him. And he looked like he was younger than me, just a teenager. A beautiful young man with blue eyes, blonde hair. And I killed him instantly.”
He paused. Quiet in the room. He asked if there were any questions. A student from Japan raised her hand. She said, “I don’t know, but your stories…they sound like they are glorifying war.”
Mike shook his head. “No. We decided to tell our stories not to glorify war. We are telling them because we don’t want war like that to ever happen again. War is a horrible thing. That young boy…it was him or me. I didn’t find it glorious that I had to kill him. I’m telling you these stories because I don’t ever want any of you young people to ever think it is glorious. It is horrible. It’s not like a video game. I hope you learn and don’t take war lightly ever again.”
Bringing it back to budo: I myself am not a veteran. In my youth, I don’t think I would have fit into the military. I was too much of an iconoclast, an artist, a misfit. But I’ve always looked at budo as a way that kept me on a straight path when so many things in the rest of my life was chaotic, and it wasn’t just because of the physical exercise. It had to do with the ideals and mental and spiritual goals of the training. The goals of a unit like the 442nd may be different; that of combat, but the mental and spiritual ideals are so similar to budo training done right: honor, loyalty, taking responsibility, compassion, and unit cohesion. We can take a lot of lessons from them, and honorable military units like theirs.
They served, and America is better for it.