By Mark Kodama
The owner of the decapitated head – his mouth frozen in a silent scream and eyes wide open in sheer terror – had seen its own death in the moment before it happened. If the head bothered the other soldiers, they did not show it as we trudged by the head and other bodies, our thoughts to ourselves. It was then, I realized who I was. I was their replacement. We could hear pounding of bombs in the distance. “Incoming!”someone yelled. Everyone scurried for cover, like insects beneath a rock suddenly exposed to the sun A German shell landed in the middle of the now empty road then another and then another, each setting off a deafening roar.
Eager to prove my loyalty to America, I joined the army to kill Germans and fight fascism. My family and I were locked up in the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. About 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry who resided in the Western United States were rounded up, taken from their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps. More Japanese Americans volunteered to join the army at Minidoka than any other relocation center. I can hear my father now:“Be careful for what you wish. It just may come true.”
While I was not afraid of dying, I feared being too scared to do my job. My father told me before I left camp: “Bring no shame.” What would I do under fire? Now, I wished I was anywhere but here.
I joined the 442nd regimental combat team in northeast France. The 442nd was an all Japanese American combat units except they had mostly white officers. Members of the unit had already distinguished themselves in some hard fighting in Italy. The unit suffered a 300 percent casualty rate. Any doubts about the units fighting ability no longer existed. Before shipping here from the states I worried the war would end before I saw action. My fears were unfounded. We were soon engaged in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.
Sarge waved us forward. “Move out!” he growled. The small sharp roadside pebbles cut the palms of my hands. But they don’t give purple hearts for pebble scrapes. A wounded man groaned in pain. “Medic!” someone yelled. A medic with a red cross over a whit circle painted on his steel helmet and on an armband ran past me.
Bruyeres lay ahead. We marched toward the surrounding hills – evil and foreboding, Francois, a local French partisan, leading the way. “We kill Germans,” he said. The country probably is beautiful during times of peace.
Our squad consisted of Sarge, three Buddha heads from Hawaii Tommy, Larry and Eddie Tommy – nearly 6 foot and carried the BAR – towered above his comrades. Sakamoto, the happy-go-lucky Sadao, George, Paul and Henry made up the rest of the squad. More replacements were to join us.
Sakamoto, a school teacher from Portland and the oldest man, nodded. “Vosges Mountain. Last line of defense before the Rhine. Probably be a rough one. Stick with me kid.”
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. Rain poured down, filling my 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 government issue condoms to keep their rifles dry and prevent jamming. Sakamoto pointed to the condom on the tip of his rifle and smiled. “Hey, kid. We aren’t going to be getting much action with the French girls in these mountains anyways. This may save your life.”
He put his wet socks under his armpits to keep his socks dry. 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.
We covered ourselves with brush and branches to protect themselves against German artillery blasts into the trees. The brush protected us from falling wood that came down like hundreds of wood daggers and splitters impaling everyone underneath. There are so many ways to die in war.
Around midnight, Sarge ordered everyone to move out. It was so dark you could not see the man ahead of you. We had to put our hand on the shoulder of the man ahead of us and the guy in back of me put his hand on my shoulder and off we went.
Sometime in the early morning, we stopped and dug new foxholes as if our lives depended upon them because in fact they did. Afterward, we ate our C rations – hard flat biscuits, hard candy and cold coffee.
I had been in this war for two full days now. All I had been doing now is marching, digging and getting shot at by artillery. I had yet to see the enemy.
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. I stood up and blasted him. The fighting was intense and we lost a couple of men.
In the afternoon, we were reinforced and resupplied. Francois the French partisan and Sakamoto led a patrol to scout the German position. A trucks delivered new replacements from Marseilles.
Sakamoto gave me a letter to send to his girlfriend in case he did not make it back. “You look lucky,” he said.
Later, they returned. Someone shouted “Go for broke,” the unit’s motto. “Banzai!” others ansered. Everyone charged up the hill. No one held back. We attacked and took the German positions after hard fighting. Gen. Dahlquist took us off the line after we captured Bruyeres. Francios took us into town, all our faces covered in mud. He proclaimed us his brothers.
Mail came. My mother sent me a package of cookies. “Don’t be a hero,” she wrote. Somebody found a prostitute. Several of the guys were going 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, Muenster cheese and bacon pizza the locals called Alsatian flambé.
“These are our American liberators?” one Frenchman asked François. “They have slits for eyes.”
Francois angrily cuffed him. “These are my brothers. They fight for your liberty while you cower in the safety of your house drinking your wine and eating your cheeses.
Another 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. Outside, Frenchmen held down a woman in a chair and shaved her head as she cried as other towns people jeered. The crowd held a half dozen olther girls. We could smell the bacon and onion pizzas from the street bakeries.
“Collaborators,” the girl said.
“I see,” I said.
“Why do you fight?”
“What’s your name?
“Why do you cry?”
“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.
Sakamoto and Sadao gave their chocolate bars to hungry French children.
“We are dead already,” Sakamoto said.
We hiked back into the Vosges Mountains the next day. Word had it that a Texas battalion had been cutoff and that we would have to rescue it. I was sitting under a tree with Henry. We did not even hear that shell come in. Those 88s came in fast. There was a deafening explosion/ I was flying through the air.
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. A soldier in no man’s land called to his mother “okasan!” In the army, you learn how to say mother in many different language. For every dying soldier calls to his mother before he dies.
We called in an artillery strike. Soon, we were hitting theirs with ours. By the time, we returned got to Henry, he was already dead. One moment he was Henry. In the next, he was nothing but inert flesh. I wanted to feel sad but at the time I was only glad it was not me.
Nothing personal but no one wants to get too close to a guy out here. It only makes it hurt more when they go.
Later on, I was taking cover behind a rock, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Gen. Dahlquist himself stood behind me. Gen. Truscott had nearly sacked Gen. Dahlquist for being too timid. Now, he was extra aggressive. “What have you done brave today, soldier?”
“Nothing,” I answered.”Neither have I done anything foolish either.” Later, we heard his aid, the son of Upton Sinclair, was needlessly killed 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 that he had signed our death warrants. Sure enough, the enemy was waiting for us.
Our two tanks were blasted off the road. The lieutenant and medic were pulling wounded men out of the tanks. There was blood, hair and bits of clothing inside the tank.
As they carried Sadao away on a stretcher, he smoked a cirgarette. “See ya Stateside, kid,” he said forcing a smile through the pain.
It is easy for the higher ups to be brave with other people’s lives.
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 put.
One of the soldiers charged. “Banzai!” the soldiers began to yell as they disappeared into the smoke and hail of gunfire. We all charged, slipping and sliding up that muddy hill, trying to grab gnarled tree roots for balance. Someone threw a grenade into a German machine gun nest, silencing it. 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. The explosion was deafening. I was right on top of the machine gun nest. I threw my grenade. After it exploded I shot the stunned machine gun crew with my M-1 rifle.
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. More Germans were popping out of their machine gun nests, surrendering.
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 that he had expected all the men to be here. “This is all the men,” the colonel replied.
After the review, we were told there would be more replacements soon.