Honolulu – May 16, 2014. The following article was printed in The Hawaii Herald – Hawaii’s Japanese American Journal (Vol. 35. No. 10).
THE NISEI SOLDIERS — THROUGH THEIR GRANDCHILDREN’S EYES
Yonsei’s Pilgrimage to Their Grandfathers’ Battlegrounds Stirs a Sense of Legacy
Editor’s note: The following is an edited transcript of a “talk story” session among four yonsei whose grandfathers served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II. Last October, they joined their parents on a pilgrimage to Europe, where, among other sites, they visited the former Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany, and Bruyeres, France.
Almost 70 years ago, Nisei soldiers from the 442nd RCT had helped to liberate Nazi-held prisoners at Dachau and to free the small town of Bruyeres in the Vosges Mountains of northeastern Frances from Nazi control. The Vosges campaign, which included the now-famous rescue of the Texas “Lost Battalion,” was a costly one for the 442nd — 161 AJA soldiers lost their lives and 925 were wounded, injured or declared missing in action.
Hawai‘i Herald advertising manager Karlton Tomomitsu, whose late father served with the 442nd, had hoped to join the tour, but was unable to, so he met with these four yonsei recently (there were nearly a dozen) to hear their impressions of the trip. With their permission, he recorded their conversation. I edited the transcript, extracting the most poignant impressions of these four young people.
Kristen Nemoto and William Holck, both 29, are cousins, and grandchildren of Wilbert “Sandy” Holck, who was a hapa member of the 442nd. Sandy Holck, a former Honolulu City Council member, played a pivotal role in establishing Honolulu’s sister-city relationship with Bruyeres in 1961. Kristen, who earned her master’s in journalism from DePaul University, is a writer for a travel magazine. Cousin William graduated from Castle High School and the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Phoenix, Ariz., and is a utility assistant for Hawaiian Electric Company.
Dylan Yamashita, 30, and his brother Evan, 28, are the grandsons of Victor Isao Yamashita. They traveled to Europe with their father, Byrnes Yamashita. Dylan graduated from the University of Washington and is a landscape designer. Evan is a UH graduate with degrees in Japanese language and business (Travel Industry Management). He works as guest services manager for The Royal Hawaiian Resort.
Our thanks to Kristen, William, Dylan and Evan for allowing us to share their perspectives with our readers.
WILLIAM: [My] expectations weren’t too great. I didn’t know too much about 442nd. It was a trip to go to Europe for me. Being there changed my view of everything, what they did, the places they went to, the things they had to endure while they were there . . . . I learned a lot about what my grandfather did and the impact that it had on World War II and Japanese Americans, not only in Hawai‘i, but on the Mainland, as well — how they had to go to concentration camps. Things like that we would never know if we didn’t take interest in it.
To go and see all the memorial sites, the graveyards, all the places where they fought . . . We experienced some cold weather, but I heard that it was worse when they were actually there fighting. We had our last parade in Bruyeres — we walked through; it was rainy and cold, at least for us guys from Hawai‘i. They said it was nothing compared to what it was like when they fought at Bruyeres [in October/November 1944].
Epinal, that was the biggest thing for me. That was the eye-opener. Going and seeing the graves, and they had all those names on the wall of the people they didn’t get to bury because they were missing. There were thousands of names. That hit really close. It was a very emotional part. Seeing the names of soldiers that went missing or were never heard from again. Thousands of names and graves. The curator was nice enough to point out which one of them were 442nd graves. There were a bunch of them.
KRISTEN: Like William, I had an idea of the 442nd and I had an idea of what our grandpa had done. We had heard stories growing up, but it was nothing compared to actually being there among the people, actually being in the woods, exactly where they fought; down below, where the town was being taken over. Just seeing that — it was very surreal. You feel so much more connected and humbled to your past. For me, it was extremely eye-opening.
WILLIAM: We were actually stepping on the grounds that they walked.
KRISTEN: We were at this one school, the sister-school to Le Jardin [in Kailua]. The kids there know Hawai‘i Pono‘i and they started singing it for us when we visited. They knew we were coming and they knew the song by heart, and I just couldn’t help but completely sob. They were singing and staring at me like, “What’s the big deal?” If only they knew the significance of that. It was very special.
WILLIAM: The people there know more about [our] history than we do. They know what the 442nd did for their town — more than we know about the 442nd. They were a lot more educated. It’s part of their history.
EVAN: I had high expectations about the trip, in regards to learning more about the 442 and what my grandfather had gone through, and seeing the different places.
When Grandpa was still alive, we knew that he had two Purple Hearts, we knew he served in 442, but hadn’t really heard any of the stories. When I was a kid, you imagine war from movies and TV shows. It wasn’t until he passed away and I had gotten older that I learned more about the realistic aspects of what they had gone through.
I wasn’t expecting to go hang out with other people or do that type of thing. I was just there to visit the sites that they were taking us, learning the importance to the 442.
DYLAN: But it was the people that made the trip.
EVAN: The impact was greater sharing with these other people, who shared stories about their grandparents. I feel connected with them now, and I can only imagine how our grandparents were actually fighting there, together.
When we first got to Germany, that day, we went walking in that park, went to a beer garden — it was loads of fun. And then the next day, we got on the bus and went to Dachau. That was the first impact — to see those pictures and images . . . . That was a huge eye-opener, to see that they weren’t just fighting a war; they were fighting to help these suffering people. That was huge.
After that, when we went to France and met the people of Bruyeres, that was the whole point of why they were fighting. Everything turned around when we got to France and met the people that they had helped. The emotions were completely different. They were so happy to have us there. They had all positive stories about our grandparents. They treated us so nicely for things our grandparents did for their parents.
DYLAN: My expectations were just, what these people (AJA soldiers) were willing to go through for their country, even though the country had pretty much turned their back on them.
Going over there and seeing the reaction from the people over there, that was the eye-opener. I can’t even imagine what they (442nd) went through for these people that they didn’t even know. Just to serve their country and show that they were Americans, too. That was kind of a big thing for me.
WILLIAM: After coming back, I bought books about it, so now I’m reading about it. I want to learn more about the things they did that I don’t think anybody in this day and age would do. At that [442nd 71st anniversary] banquet, the guy (speaker Eric Saul) was talking about the guys climbing up that hill (Mount Folgorito in Italy) and if they fell off, he would cover his mouth so he didn’t give away the location. He knew he was going to die already, but he covered his mouth. I don’t think anybody has that kind of drive and bravery nowadays. They might have honor and all that, but I think those guys had more honor and things to prove than anybody. They were trying to prove themselves worthy. The bravery that came out of them was unheard of. Even those guys then didn’t even think that was possible. They were saying six months or so, they were trying to make that mission (breaking through the Gothic Line) go through and the 442 did it in 32 minutes. They were trying to take a mountain.
KRISTEN: When you said that no one nowadays would do that, it feels as if they knew they had to set that bar so high in order for us to have what we have today.
WILLIAM: Some of the survivors, the ones that made it back home, I don’t think they wanted the medals. They just wanted to be accepted and [for] their families [to be] accepted, their children and grandchildren [to be] accepted as Americans. That was more important than having medals or people telling them, “Good job.” That’s from the books that I’ve been reading, the movies. . . . They wanted to come back home as equals and if they didn’t come home as equals, they wanted their families that were living in concentration camps, the ones that were getting discriminated on, to be equal.
KRISTEN: When we went to Dachau, and prior to that, too, when you would hear all the stories of the sacrifices that our grandfathers made, it kind of made me angry in a sense because of the disrespect that they were still getting, and yet they were fighting for a country that didn’t believe in them. But, after we went to Dachau, and then walked around, for me, I would see the magnitude of why they were there, and it was for a bigger purpose. And it made me feel more proud. I had a better understanding of how much more humble our grandpas were to be able to suck in their ego because they knew that they were fighting for something bigger.
WILLIAM: People these days don’t have the things to prove like they had. Those guys in 442nd and all who fought in World War II, they had fought for that — equality and all that. Now we fight for gasoline and such things. Those guys fought for something bigger.
KRISTEN: It was fighting the hate and prejudice overseas as well as the hate and prejudice they were receiving . . .
WILLIAM: The next generation’s got to carry it on to the next.
EVAN: It’s things like this trip that bring it home for us, that gives us the opportunity to learn more. It’s not like, this is what your grandfather did, read these books . . . . Hopefully, one day they can go on a trip similar to this one.
DYLAN: We’re already blessed to be living in Hawai‘i, so this is like another layer to that being blessed, where you understand what the past generations had to do for us to be where we are now. . . . I’ve been helping out with some of the 442nd stuff, like they had the exhibit set up at UH-West O‘ahu . . . And then I went and checked it out when it was at Honolulu Hale. So, it’s been mostly internal. But at the same time, I feel an obligation to my grandpa to help spread their story. And that’s mostly from going on this trip . . . . I feel like, after going on this trip and meeting other grandchildren from the 442nd, there definitely needs to be something — people from our generation need to carry it on. Because even now, the sons and daughters are getting older.
WILLIAM: There weren’t too many veterans at the [442nd] banquet. When you think about the amount of people that were in the 442nd, there’s not many of them left.
EVAN: For me, going there as a young adult, age 27 at the time, to hear about how old grandpa was when he went there — he was 18 years old, right out of high school — that was a huge impact on me. When you think about it, what were we doing when we were 18? When we hear the stories about 442 and we see the pictures, they look like men to us when we were kids. But realizing I’m now 10 years older than he was when he went there and fought the war was almost a mind-blowing experience.
DYLAN: After Grandpa passed away, when Grandma went to Punchbowl, there was always another grave that she would put flowers on, and that was Grandpa’s friend. He died in the war. I had no idea. I thought it was his lifelong friend, 80 years old, just someone that they grew old with that passed away before them. But this was actually someone who died in the war. That was his friend from high school. Grandma didn’t know him, but because Grandpa used to visit the grave after he came back, she would always go put flowers for him. It made me think about the bonds that they made.
WILLIAM: Reading in one of those books, they’re talking about the Mainland Japanese Americans and the ones from Hawai‘i, when they first came together, they didn’t get along; they used to scrap, fight. But what the Hawai‘i people didn’t realize was that they didn’t get it as bad — the prejudice, the concentration camps — Hawai‘i didn’t get that. So, when they got taken to a concentration camp on the Mainland, it opened their eyes that they have it easier than these guys. Their families are locked in concentration camps and the Hawai‘i families are still in their homes. What they said was that they bonded together after that, became a stronger unit.
EVAN: I think it was good to have on this trip some of the families who were from the Mainland, as well. We met the grandchildren and their understanding is a little bit different.
WILLIAM: There are certain things that you’re always going to remember . . .
KRISTEN: I’ll never forget the cemetery scene, just seeing the endless rows of crosses . . . . There are certain things about the trip that I don’t think we’ll ever forget — I don’t think we can.
EVAN: Places like Dachau, for me, it’s the emotions I felt when I was there. I might not remember all the details of everything I saw, but I’ll remember how they made me feel. Like at Dachau, walking around there, just imagining a percent of what they had actually been going through. There was the companionship from the people we met in France and Bruyeres, the committee that helped receive us, and then the relationship, the bond with all the other people.
I think that us going on the trip and experiencing that, as much as we can relate to each other now, to imagine that our grandpas were actually there together in foxholes . . . the bond that they must have had was a million times more.
WILLIAM: Walking in Bruyeres in the rain was bad enough for me, but can you imagine being in the mountains?
EVAN: Trying to imagine what they were going through. We’ll never experience anything like that. Nobody will ever experience anything like that.
WILLIAM: Before this trip, I wouldn’t have gone to a banquet. I didn’t really have any interest in it at all. Our grandfather died when we were young, too, so we didn’t have too much experience with him. He’s never told us stories so we didn’t learn about this from him. It was directly from whatever I researched after the trip or during this trip that I learned about all this.
KRISTEN: One thing about the veterans is that they’re very humble and, as much as they’ve gone through, I think they don’t want us to feel any of the things that they had to go through, so they were trying to protect us, in a way.
EVAN: I think for anything to be successful, something has to be organized by the [veterans’] sons and daughters . . . . As the next generation, they had much more closer ties to that time and the impact that it had. We grew up not really knowing the details or anything like that, so even more so, it needs to be a concentrated effort to keep the legacy alive.
I think one of the concerns about being one more generation removed is that it’s getting more and more spread out, almost like a dilution.
DYLAN: It’s like being at the far end of a pool of water — the ripples get less and less strong.
EVAN: My mission would be to create the opportunity for people to come in, but not force-feed it on people and say, “Hey, respect my father for all that he did.” Of course, if they learned about him, I’m sure they will grow to respect him and the 442. I’m talking about creating opportunities for people who are interested to learn, and if they’re not, so be it.
WILLIAM: The immediate descendants of the 442 should be the ones to carry on the legacy and pass it on to their kids.
I think they should do this kind of a trip and try and get more grandkids involved. The sons and daughters know a lot because they had more direct contact with the veterans. For us, our grandfathers passed away when we were either real young or not around, so we didn’t really get that experience. A lot of the grandkids probably don’t even know, just like how I didn’t know before I went there. To me, it was just a trip to go to Europe . . . I was just thinking of it as a vacation. And then, when I got there, the first thing we visited was Dachau. Then, wow, it was a big 180. It made my view of the trip completely different . . . . You have to be a certain age to appreciate this.
EVAN: I think that even though we didn’t really talk about it with Grandpa or hear stories about it, after learning about it, I’m able to relate that back to the man that he was, the experiences that I had with him.
DYLAN: The way that he was was a direct reflection of what had happened to him before.
KRISTEN: We can’t imagine what they had gone through, being so young — 17, 18, 19 years old — but we can understand why they were the way they were.
WILLIAM: I only met my grandfather once. I only heard stories. But, from the stories that I heard, I could see why he was like that, from being 17 years old and seeing the things that we saw in pictures.
KRISTEN: They didn’t have the support after the war that vets have now. They probably experienced way more post-traumatic stress.
EVAN: I think that’s a tribute to them, how strong they were, to come back and raise families . . . . We weren’t even born yet, but we’re the result of what he was fighting for. He was thinking about these future generations when he didn’t even know if he was going to make it home from the war.
We would listen to the stories of the sons and daughters and that was a real insight. Growing up, the only veteran I knew was my grandfather, so to meet all these other families, hear their stories . . . that was a real eye-opener, too.
KRISTEN: There were these guys that did re-enactments — they’re so into World War II — living in Bruyeres.
WILLIAM: They re-enacted a scene from the rescue of the “Lost Battalion.”
EVAN: They had old guns, medical equipment . . . they’re history buffs about this . . . . Their passion is amazing. When we hear about 442, I’d never think anyone in Bruyeres, France, is excited about 442. They were more excited than we were!
They do a ceremony during the day and the re-enactors stay up in the mountains, sleeping there, World War II-style.
KRISTEN: I’m like, are you sure? It’s going to be like 40 degrees!
EVAN: To them, it’s the joy of their year to do that. I think they do it every year, whether we go or not. The English-speaking guy was in his early 30s. As much as it’s gone down to the next generation here, it’s being passed down there. Stronger.
DYLAN: The same day, there was that lady who drove two hours . . .
WILLIAM: She had an oxygen tank and everything.
DYLAN: She grew up there during World War II. She wanted to see . . . I don’t know if she thought there were going to be veterans, but she drove to see our group and, basically, to say, “Thank you.”
EVAN: We’re the grandchildren, and she’s thanking us.
WILLIAM: She hid Grandpa. They got separated from the battalion and she hid them. Her family hid them in their basement till the Germans left.
KRISTEN: They had pictures of him, of our grandpa, long time ago.
EVAN: There was that one Japanese lady that had married a Frenchman. I think, by chance, they were vacationing last year (2012) and, by chance, they came and encountered the memorial and the anniversary. And so, this year (2013), when we were there, she drove her daughter and her friend out, however many hours it is from Paris, just for the weekend for that event. She has absolutely no relation to the 442, but after learning about it the previous year, she wanted her 8- or 9-year-old daughter to learn about this. It’s amazing to see the impact that the 442 had over there that we’ve never seen until this trip.
I never once thought about what happened there, or the families there, the people that lived there.
KRISTEN: I thought we’d be going around and nobody would know who we were, like, “Who are these Asian people?” But, everyone knew who we were.
WILLIAM: They put up signs in the windows, a “Go For Broke” banner . . .
EVAN: I was feeling like, I didn’t do anything . . . . But, I understand their appreciation.
WILLIAM: Just the people that were there . . . Like the lady that was sitting at the back of the bus. She was so sad when we left. When we were boarding the bus, they were all crying. I was like, wow . . .
I think other people should get involved in planning these trips, including people from our generation. It wouldn’t be too bad to go see the same sights for the people that didn’t go and see it. Just to go to Bruyeres alone is more than enough. There’s a lot to see right there in that town.
KRISTEN: Like Willie said, I would go back in a heartbeat . . . . Our grandpas fighting for something so much bigger than them . . . I think it took us actually having to go there, physically, to not be ignorant in a sense, if that makes sense. . . . . Going to banquets or watching videos is nothing like being there.
WILLIAM: You wouldn’t get that feeling that we got.
KRISTEN: Being in the forest where they were killed and the national anthem plays, the drizzling rain . . . you can’t help but get emotional knowing that this is where so many men died and your grandpa was one of them who was able to make it. It was surreal.
DYLAN: Now that Dad’s (Byrnes Yamashita) more involved with the Sons & Daughters [of the 442nd], anytime he asks for help with stuff, I can’t say “no” to him, just because out of respect for everything that Grandpa did. To help continue his legacy, I just can’t say “no” to anything.
EVAN: Up until that point, the best experience of my life was my study abroad in Japan. I was born there, my dad was there in the Navy . . . . I always thought that, for the rest of my life, that would be the best experience of my life, but five days into this trip, we’re not even halfway done and I thought this is the best experience of my life.
WILLIAM: Just the first three days were enough to make you think that and change your perception of what happened, and how you feel.
KRISTEN: This trip made you appreciate where you came from and where you’re going.
WILLIAM: There’s definitely a point to keeping it going. Once the veterans are gone, it’s not going to be as direct towards them, but still, a big part of history. And, it is something to remember, regardless of veterans being there or not. Remembering what they went through, and how it’s changed life altogether, for everybody.
KRISTEN: Knowing your past in order to know where you’re going in the future. You need to know where you come from . . . . We could never experience what our grandfathers had gone through. There’s no way. And, I’m sure they don’t want us to. But, there’s an obligation to know that that’s where we come from. I think that’s the most important thing. The point that we need to understand and be respectful of.
EVAN: I think for us, having gone on the trip, it’s not an obligation anymore. Now, it’s our passion and our appreciation. It’s our willful participation.
WILLIAM: I think the more people you get involved, it’s going to change their perception, just like it changed ours. Before we went on the trip, we didn’t know about this kind of thing. There was no depth to it, no passion in it. After the trip, it changed our perception of how we feel about 442nd, about the war in general . . . . I think a lot of people go to the banquets, watch the movies . . . that’s the basis of what they know and that’s it. But, I think if they had the chance to go, their view would change.
EVAN: It was on Facebook when Auntie Geralyn (William’s mother) posted the video first of the anniversary stuff. I had seen that — William had posted it, so I posted it, and one of my friends commented, “Your grandfather was in it? My grandfather was, too.” I don’t know what she knows about them (442nd), but I’d like to give her the opportunity to learn more, share my experience, let her know about the trip . . .
WILLIAM: Those are probably the people that would benefit from going on a trip like this. They kind know about it, but when you go there, you broaden your horizons just by going on the trip alone.