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Lawson Sakai - Part 3

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What are some vivid memories you have of basic training, being at Camp Shelby, and getting to know your fellow soldiers?

Camp Shelby is very interesting. I was assigned to E Company, infantry. Pretty much a foreign type of thing because most of us had been pretty sheltered at home. The boys in Hawaii lived very close together, and participated in sports and school and so forth. In the mainland we weren’t that close but we were living kind of a normal life like any other teenage kids. When you get into the army, all of a sudden you are under orders. And everybody was superior. You’re a Private, Private First Class, Corporal, Sergeant, you know, on up. Everybody’s above you and you have to obey whoever tells you what to do.

So it was kind of difficult for the boys from Hawai’i to accept that because they were used to being – you might say the majority group in Hawaii — the Japanese Nisei boys could get away with almost anything. The Caucasian boys, not so much. In the mainland, it was just the opposite. The biggest difficulty between the mainland boys and Hawaii boys? There was a real clash of culture. The Hawaiian boys had their own language, pidgin English. And fortunately I understood pidgin, I knew a little bit. My older sister had dated a boy from Hawaii who was going to medical school. Some of the mainland boys didn’t pick it up and they had a hard time.

And there was another difference: Hawaiian boys are pretty happy-go-lucky and they had money. And most of the mainland boys didn’t have any money. We had our payroll or whatever it was, 21 dollars. You would get your pay one day, one month, in cash. You would pay your laundry bill, maybe had 10 or 15 dollars left and you’d blow it right away. So you were broke for the rest of the month. Well, the Hawaiian boys would get these letters coming from home, and they would just tear of the end, shake it and blue cards would come out: Money orders from Hawaii. Because everybody is working in Hawaii and making money. And the custom is to send money to your brother or sisters or friends, whoever. And they would have a lot of blue cards, cash.

Well, you’re in training and on weekends, a lot of the boys are allowed to go to the nearest town which is Hattiesburg, Mississippi. And there’s a bus that would come through the camp and you could hop on the bus and it would take you right there. All the Hawaiian boys are, you know, “Let’s go to the town and…”[mumbles] “Oh, we don’t want to go.” “Why not? Come on!” “Oh no. Don’t have any money.” “Oh don’t worry, we got money! Don’t worry!” And they’d drag us with them [laughs]. Well when you get into Hattiesburg, you’re heading for the nice restaurant because you’re going to eat fried chicken. And as soon as you hit the restaurant, the waitress is waving at the boys, they’re clearing the tables, making people leave. They want the Hawaiian boys to come and sit down. And invariably the five, six, seven boys would get seated right away. We’d get our meal, maybe they’d pay 25 bucks or so, but they’d leave a 100 dollar tip. These waitresses are waiting for the 442 boys to come into town! [laughs] Oh boy, the 442 boys were laughing it up! And you know, they don’t care. Next week, next letter, more money. They never had to worry about it. It was a completely different atmosphere. And the mainland boys — their parents, their siblings are in prison, they can’t do anything. It was a pretty tough time.

Eventually after almost a year, there were so many fights between mainland boys and Hawaiian boys, over nothing. They just said, “Oh you hard-head!” POW! They wouldn’t, they never asked any– POW. Just like that. If you didn’t duck fast you got it. But it was so bad that Colonel Pence, our commander called all the officers together and they wanted to know what the heck is going on? He says, “How can we send this bunch of guys to war, when they can’t even get along with each other? They’re fighting.” And somebody came up with the bright idea that maybe the Hawai’i boys would change their way of thinking if they were sent to the two camps in Arkansas, Rohwer, and Jerome.

So they arranged for, and of course they had told the inmates of these camps, “Next month we are gonna bring a busload of 442 boys. Maybe you can entertain them, have a dance, have dinner.” So I think there were two busloads that went to each camp and all Hawaiian boys, no mainland boys. All the boys were with the ukuleles, you know, they’re all going for a good time.

And when they get there they’re very shocked because there’s a U.S. army soldier wearing the same uniform. Then, “We have to pat you down. We have to find out if you are carrying any weapons.” And they were saying what the hell is going on? And of course they found out that these people had to save up food for a month to provide enough for them to have a party and so forth.

And Dan Inouye — we were in the same company — Dan told me later he said, “You know, as we were going there, we were just really having a good time on the bus, can’t wait to get there. But when we left, it was like a funeral,” he said. Everybody was sad. How could you volunteer from these prisons? Dan was saying, “You know, if I had been in that prison, I don’t think I would have volunteered.” And he was one of the leaders of the VVV in Hawai’i. So all these guys that came back from camp spread the word, and I don’t think there was a fight after.

Senator Daniel Inouye (center) and Lawson Sakai (right).

They understood where you were coming from.


So the camaraderie got closer.

You know, it was kind of close anyway. But now it was like, really close.

I didn’t know that they were brought into Rower and Jerome to see the camp. But I can see how that shifted everything.

Yeah. You know, the boys of Hawai’i were just so happy-go-lucky. They knew that they were going to go to war. But every day was like, “Yeah, do whatever you feel like. It might be your last day.” And if you got money, spend it! If the mainland boys had money, they sent it back to their parents.

Right before you were about to be shipped off to Europe, what was your state of mind? Were you afraid or were you feeling like, no matter what happens this is a good cause? Can you describe your state of mind before you took off?

Shipping over or going into battle?

Shipping over. Right before you went to Europe.

You know, you’re teenagers. And you know why you volunteered: You’re going to war. I don’t think any one of us thought we’d come home alive. Nobody thought we’d come home alive. It wasn’t a suicide mission, but I think the Japanese culture was different than most Caucasian. And you heard of a lot of it from the Hawaii boys especially because they were very Buddhist trained. And many of them had been in Japan, going to school and their habits were very Japanese. And I guess there is that term. Yamato-damashii. Is that it?

Oh yeah.

You know, I guess it harkens back to samurai days, where you had that spirit. Nothing’s going to stop you. And even if you die, you know —

It was honorable.

Yeah. They had that feeling. And we all knew we are going to go battle. And we expect to win. But we never knew what immediate death was like until we hit the frontline on the first day. I can’t remember what day. It was July 5 or 6, on the first day of battle, when we joined the 100th in Northern Italy. And E Company is one of the lead companies, we should have been up here [Lawson raises his hand] but the company commander led us down at the bottom. And there was nothing going on and we were just kind of moving along and all of a sudden, the fire. The Germans just lit into us with everything they had. Artillery, mortar, machine guns and people were getting hit left and right. And our captain was shot and killed the very first day. My platoon leader, Lieutenant Zukowski, was killed the first day. We lost a lot of men that very first day.

After about three hours, the battalion commander Colonel Hanley, called the 100th who were in reserve to replace us. And they came in and they went up on the top. And the Germans didn’t know that we had been replaced. They started coming down the trough and the 100th just slaughtered the Germans. But, you know, that was our first day. Oh my god. And when you see bodies flying around and blood all over, you know, bodies that are dead. It’s a real shock. But that’s just the beginning. That’s the way it was from then. Every day.

Every day. So hard.

So many boys got killed. The lucky ones were just wounded badly but survived.

And how old were you on the first day when you were deployed?

I was 20. This is summertime of 1944. We shipped overseas May 1st of 1944, took thirty days to get across the Atlantic and the 100th of course from September 1943 had fought up the coast of Italy. So they were past Rome, and then that’s when we met with them in Civitavecchia, which is north of Rome, and became one regiment. 100th was our first battalion, second and third. But from then on, we’re fighting to northern Italy and in August we were supposed to — we were with the 34th division.

Then we were supposed to join the 36th division and move from Italy to France and invade southern France. Well, Normandy had started in June of 1944. So, since the 36th division couldn’t get going early enough, the Germans sent most of their troops from the south of France up to Normandy to bolster those people up there. So when we landed in southern France by LST [Landing Ship, Tank], there’s the boats at the front end and drops down and you jump into them, with very little resistance. It didn’t take long to get on the shore and wipe out whatever Germans were there. So they trucked us from southern France to eastern France. And this is October, we’re up there in eastern France. And October 15 is when we started for Bruyères.

Can you now tell the story of the liberation of Bruyères? That was one of the major campaigns you were a part of.

The liberation of Bruyères – this is a small village, I don’t know, maybe 1,000 people. But it’s the largest city in that particular area. There are quite a few rolling hills and forestry was probably the biggest industry, you might say, of that Alsace-Lorraine area. We’re only about 15 miles from the German border. Strasbourg is on the German border. And these hills are forested and they have a number of logging firms that cut down these trees and ship the logs up.

Well on October 15, we were given the order to take the city of Bruyères and the rail line that runs through the valley that was supplying the German troops on the Western Front. So the Germans wanted to protect that property. And as the 442 was heading toward Bruyères in the flat area, all of a sudden the German fire started coming. But not from the city, but coming from the hills. And in Italy we seldom had trees. And here, a forest of trees! And the shells were coming from there. So we had to start climbing into the forest. Well 15th of October we start out and it was probably around the 20th before we actually got down into the village of Bruyères. We had to go through the mountain, clear the mountain, and there were hills: A, B, C and D. And different battalions were assigned to different hills to chase the Germans out before we could come down. And then we had to chase the Germans out of town from building to building. Even in the church.

Oh wow.

“442 E Company” hangs on the gate to Lawson’s backyard.

If you look at the buildings you’ll see a lot of patched up parts where the artillery hit the buildings and bullet holes here and there. So it took until the 23rd of October, eight days, to clear the Germans, capture the railroad track, and then we finally were off the line. And that’s when we got a hot meal, got to change our clothes. You know, no change of clothes all that time. And we were off the line October 23 and 24 and then they told us we have to start again. And the reason is, there’s been an American battalion that had been surrounded by Germans. Now, we’re a regiment. A regiment is only one third of a division. And the division has two more regiments someplace. Now General Dahlquist is the commanding general of the 36th division. He’s the one that forced his men out there, so far that they were surrounded by the Germans. Supposedly, he sent his second battalion of the 141st and the third battalion of the 141st after the first battalion. They couldn’t penetrate the Germans and they were shot down. So that’s when he called for the 442nd to get to the Lost Battalion. Well, the weather was bad, this is October. It was raining, cold and we had to climb that mountain again; all those trees and of course the Germans were shooting into the trees. It’s just really miserable. And I would guess that the 442nd was probably at no more than 50 percent manpower.

Before or after that?

This is at that point.

At that point.

Because after the battle for Bruyères we were like, decimated. Maybe half of our men were gone. Either killed or injured or, you know, taken back. So, we were short-handed anyway to start out with. And of course our casualties are mounting every day. They say it took five days. October 30 is when the 3rd battalion reached the men that had been trapped. Now October 28, I was wounded by artillery so badly that I thought I was dead. And I just curled up, artillery was in my back, a big hot piece of metal, just so hot and the pain is so great you just blackout. And, I know when the medic got to me I just told him to let me die right there. I am sure he shot me full of morphine. Because all I remember is that when I woke up, I was on a train. They had a hospital train going to the American hospital in Dijon for surgery. I don’t know how long I was there. But I wasn’t there when they rescued them. When the rescue happened, the general was up there and he said, “Keep going! I want the 442 to keep chasing the Germans!” So they didn’t get to meet or help or talk to the 211 men they rescued. And at that, I don’t think we even — the 442 didn’t have 200 men left.

You were mentioning that there was another time that you thought you should’ve been gone. Can you describe what happened?

When we first started attacking Bruyères, we were in pretty close quarters in the hill. And they had two types of grenades: One is called anti-personnel, it’s smaller and little fragments, it just bursts all over. Usually pretty deadly. And the other is a concussion grenade. And the Germans had what they called the “potato masher.” It had a handle and a little round top that had an explosive. But the shell was a very thin metal. And so the concussion grenade is what blew up in my face. And I was blinded and of course the blood was all over — just face cuts really bleed. And I couldn’t see, I think I was knocked out, but when I got to the aid station which is right behind the front line, they cleaned me up as best they could. And they could see that I wasn’t seriously injured but, you know. So that day I was out of action, but I went back the next day.

After we got through Bruyères, we’re starting up again on the 25th of October. Now I’m 20 years old. But I’m 21 on the 27th. So 25th, 26th, 27th we’re in the middle of the hill. We’re attacking, the machine guns, and all of a sudden a German popped up and shot me. And he was no more than maybe ten feet away from me. I heard the bang and the flash. I thought I was dead. But I wasn’t. So I had a BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle] and I just turned and I just tut-tut-tut-tut. And, you know, took care of him. And I went up and I grabbed him. His helmet came off and he was just a little boy. Maybe a 14, 15 year old boy. The Germans had conscripted young people and old people because they’re running out of bodies. How he missed me, I don’t know. But he could have hit me, you know, that close. So I should have been dead on my 21st birthday. But I survived [laughs]. But the next day I got it anyway. Oh boy.

That was the bad injury.

But you know, everybody was getting shot. I don’t know how we survived at all. It was just, you know. And the weather! Raining, muddy, just miserable. That’s why we stopped going back there in October [for the reunion in Bruyères].

And when did you finally leave Europe? Were you there until ’45?

After the rescue of the Lost Battalion, we were sent to the south of France. And the 442 was there from the middle of November to early April. So during that time, I was in the hospital for almost three months. So I came back around January. And we were sent back to Italy, secretly, to attack the so-called Gothic Line. These six mountains were, you might say, covering the pass to the Po Valley which would then lead into Germany. So, the Germans had been on top shooting down. And the 442 secretly came back to that area. We would hide out in the daytime and then either truck forward or march at night.

And finally we went into a village called Azzano and Monte Folgorito was the main mountain of these six mountains. And there’s a valley. And Azzano is kind of a small village in the hillside. The 442 went in there. And we observed the 92nd division, U.S. division trying to attack up this 4,000 feet mountain. Everyday getting shot down. And I think Colonel Miller, he was told by General Mark Clark that he had two weeks to figure out how to attack the Germans because the American troops had been there almost six months. And they needed to get up through to get into the Po Valley, so they could get into Germany. Well, the word came down to strip off all your equipment except your ammo belt on which hangs your canteen. The water canteen. You have to have water. Make sure it’s covered so there is no reflection and no noise. Cap is secure. Leave your backpack, we put our raincoat and food and stuff in. Take that off. Just ammunition, your weapon, and your water and climb that mountain. At night. Dark of night.

Well, there were Italian partisanos. Now the Germans had been there three, four years. They’d shot and killed men, women, whoever at random. Huge atrocities. So the only people who were left were young boys or old men. So, somehow they got word that this 14-year-old boy could hike the hills and knew the gold trail up Monte Folgorito. Bare mountain. And all these mountains had crossfire. So they could see each other crossfire if there was any action going on. Well, nobody had gone up at night. So here our orders are to go up. I’m in the 2nd battalion. 3rd battalion was ordered to go up first. And you know, if you go there, and I’ve been there a couple of times, looking at that mountain from Azzano, no way, you can’t climb that. Even in daytime you can’t climb that thing [laughs]. I don’t know how we did it. You push from behind, you pull from above. And you had to be very quiet. Because you don’t want the Germans to know you’re up there.

I think there were two or three boys that fell, but didn’t make any noise. Shig Kizuka from Watsonville was in L Company, he was the third soldier at the lead. So he told me when they climbed up, they were huffing and puffing quietly, when they got up there was this ledge where the machine guns were mounted. And when they saw that, they stopped right underneath. And waited for the other boys to catch up and waited for daybreak.

Now I think we’re going at about 8 o’clock at night, it probably took six, seven our hours to get up there. And, you know, there’s hundreds of men going up there. Just quietly. And Shig said they counted down when the sun broke, got light [whispers] one, two, go! You know, hand signals. So they charged up, over the top where the machine guns were. There were two German soldiers sound asleep. He said they just riddled them, went on top, and as the boys go, they just started shooting all over. The German camp was on the flat area and they caught them by surprise. The Germans were shooting back, trying to get their trucks started and just got as much as they could and took off. Going toward Massa in Carrara. But you know, we’re all on foot and we can’t chase them very far. They’re mechanized. So they take off, we go over this way. The 100th’s on the other side. They could see and hear the firing and they went up over there. Finally, we’re on the flat and we are able to go toward Massa and Carrara. See that white marble?

That’s a replica of a monument that’s about 25 feet tall, it’s on a hillside just betweenMonte Folgorito and Massa. And the cut-out is symbolic of — it’s mounted on the hillside in this little village – and when you stand here and look through the cut-out, that is the hillside that the Italian partisanos slaughtered the Germans that were trying to escape. Now the Germans had confiscated every weapon they could find. So the partisanos asked Colonel Miller, our commanding officer, if they can have some arms to help chase the Germans. So I don’t know how many, but he armed a bunch of these Italian partisanos. They were happy to chase the Germans! And when there were Germans going up, escaping up this hillside, they just slaughtered them. And that’s where that monument stands. And I don’t know the name of that village, but if you go there, it’s white marble. It’s about 25 foot tall. The very same thing.

Monte Folgorito monument replica

That’s incredible. Yeah.

I met with some of those partisanos on one of those trips over there and that’s when they gave that to me and of course they took us to that hill and we had a big party. And you know, they were so happy to be able to kill all those Germans. And if you ever go to Massa, they have a war museum. One that’s full of atrocities. German atrocities. Shooting point blank, pulling somebody out of the house and shooting them. All that kind of stuff is documented. Really, really bad. So that’s how the 442 was able to chase the Germans up to the coast where Massa and Carrara cities are. And by that time, they opened up the road going to the coast. So we could chase the Germans all the way up to Genoa, which is up the coast. And the Germans went into the Po Valley. And when they got to Brescia, there is a Ghedi airport and they surrendered. That was like May 7 or 8. I can’t remember. That was the end of the war.

That was it.

I remember, Captain Aikens captain of E Company, I don’t know how many people we had left but he had a bottle of whiskey and he just started drinking and he drank it all and passed out [laughs].

Well deserved.

I remember that. But you know, the Germans were tired of the war. They just surrendered. There were maybe 3,000 German troops. Maybe there were 300 of us. They could have slaughtered us. But they just surrendered. They voluntarily took care of their own camp, they brought all their weapons, they piled them up in order. Small arms, larger arms, all kinds of stuff. They had more, well they even had a printing machine. A truck that printed Italian lira. You know, artificial, phony money. But you know, it was the end of the war.

Part 4 >>


*This article was originally published on Tessaku on April 23, 2019.


© 2019 Emiko Tsuchida

442nd 442nd RCT Bruyères california camps Colorado gothic line incarcerations Lawson Sakai lost battalion nisei soldiers WWII

About this series

Tessaku was the name of a short-lived magazine published at the Tule Lake concentration camp during World War II. It also means “barbed wire.” This series brings to light stories of the Japanese American internment, illuminating those that haven’t been told with intimate and honest conversation. Tessaku brings the consequences of racial hysteria to the foreground, as we enter into a cultural and political era where lessons of the past must be remembered.