Why I (almost) Cried at Work

My internship at this museum (which has been a dream job since 4th grade) has afforded me all sorts of amazing opportunities, and today was no exception.

Except sometimes amazing doesn’t always mean happy. Sometimes it can be powerful but tragic and still make you pull up short with a suddenly new perspective.

My task for this week has been transcribing letters from JPG files to .DOC files of a young man of the 442nd Infantry Regiment during World War 2. The 442nd (and the 100th) were composed of Japanese Americans, some drafted, some volunteers, and all extremely patriotic. (They’re called nisei, which means second-generation. Issei are first generation and sensei are third, I think.)

The letters are a bit romantic, full of grand ideas, but also realistic. They span about three years, from 1942-1944. In a letter the kid wrote to a  (former) teacher after his whole family had been forcibly removed to an incarceration camp*, he told the teacher that their situation is rough but he knows it would be a lot worse if they were in any country but America, and that it is a trying time for the whole world and innocent people are going to suffer. The best they can do is stay positive and work hard and prove by their actions that the incarceration is unjust. He also described their living situation to his teacher: some camps weren’t even built yet so the future prisoners were given horse stalls, but his mother and sisters had made their two stalls quite homey with curtains to divide them and rugs to cover the asphalt. (Each family was only allowed to bring what they could carry – I’m surprised rugs made the cut.)

In another letter, he’s just gone off to basic training after joining the 442nd. I can’t tell if he’d been drafted or volunteered – both seem equally likely. One of the common themes that run through his letters is the responsibility both he and his buddies feel to have exemplary service in the Army to prove that they, Japanese Americans, have every right to American citizenship and the rights and privileges therein. Again, he writes loftily but his ideals are tempered with a bit of reality:

“… I believe that in this way, we’ll help not only ourselves but the position of the nisei as a whole. What better way is there to prove to all that we too deserve the right, the privilege of American citizenship. Overnight we won’t notice a change – but it’ll be there. At least, we’ve tried! People write that we’re fighting to preserve democracy, the American way of life. As for me, I’m not fighting for the pre-war America, the America filled with prejudice, intolerance, greed. I’m fighting for a better America, striving always to improve this land to a real democracy. True, I don’t believe we’ll ever reach the goal of a perfect government because there’ll always be some rats, ignorant and greedy people – but at least we can improve!”

“…I realize that I’m here – Camp Shelby! Realize that all this isn’t [name of incarceration camp] realize that I’m not a kid anymore – realize the heavy, grave responsibility resting upon all of us in this, the 442nd Inf Combat Team. The future welfare of you and all of us who hope to remain in this land rest almost entirely on how the 100th, now in action as the vanguard of the American 5th Army in Italy, and the 442nd do in battle. We’ve got everything to gain by doing our utmost in battle, nothing to lose. We have a chance to prove to all who doubt our loyalty and sincerity to this nation that we too are Americans and therefore entitled to live as Americans in the truest sense of the word.”

In one of the letters, he devotes a whole paragraph to how proud he is to be his papa’s son, and if he could be half the man his father is, he would consider it a life well lived. In another letter, he was talking about this girl (Janice? Janet? Janie?) he he thought was pretty swell and is glad his family is so welcoming to her. (I love the lingo back then.)

In the forests of evergreens, I’ve noticed many many perfectly shaped Christmas trees – the type that we used to load down so beautiful with silver tinsil, colored lights and ornaments back home. Here and there we come across big bushes of holly – with their glossy, thick leaves and flaming red berries. Yes, I’ve even see bunches of mistletoe high in some of the trees – but, as yet, none of the dewy-white berries are to be had on them – perhaps next month. Even in this war zone, this place where men fight both the enemy and weather, there things of beauty and meaning, things that bring back fond memories of bygone days.

(page 2)

Scattered among the thick evergreens are leafy trees that are going to sleep for the winter. Once garbed in fresh green, they are now masses of shimmering gold, orange, red. When the sun brushes thro’, even for only a moment, the whole world seems to take on a new appearance. The flashing colors of those trees dripping with recent rain, make a picture that an artist or accomplished writer could never capture on canvas or paper. The dark green of the lofty pine and fris(?), the soft, velvet-like undergrowth of moss and the now brown + yellow ferns make a perfect background. I want to see all of this – covered with a blanket of snow. Perhaps next month – for it does come, down in these parts. Each season has it’s own distinctive beauty – it doesn’t matter where one is, on the sea, in the desert, in the forests – there’s beauty unparalleled in Nature!

Haven’t too much time as we may have to go up again on some kind of mission. Golly we do anything – but that’s war for you – and the Army.

As someone trained in the visual arts, I have a very strong mental image of what he was seeing in the middle of nowhere, France. It must have been beautiful. The letter is dated from the winter of 1944. He’s got a really good eye

So yesterday I decided to google him on the off-chance there was some information about him online. There was.

The first image that came up was a white cross grave marker. I thought, “No, wait, what?” It turns out he was killed in action the day after that last letter about the the beauty of Nature. He was 19.

++

I’ve been doing a little more internet searching for this post. He was killed in the Vosges Mountains in France rescuing 211 men of some Texas division who had been completely cut off and surrounded by the Germans. The entire operation was the definition of Pyrrhic, as to rescue the 211 Texans, the 100/442nd units lost something like 800 men in 5 days, according to Wikipedia. Including our young, idealistic letter writer.

Here is the obituary of someone else killed in the same campaign, which has it’s fair share of controversies. This obituary mentions that he was posthumously given several awards – a large percentage (half? all? a quarter?) of all the awards earned by the 442nd weren’t initially given out because of anti-Asian discrimination. One prime example is Sen. Dan Inouye, also a Nisei of the 442nd and longtime Senator who died in 2012. The link has some descriptions of Inouye’s service and how he should have received the Medal of Freedom earlier than 2000. Also, the 442nd/100 is known as the “Purple Heart Battallion” because they sustained something like a 314% casualty rate.

++

So this has been incredibly educational for both you and me. But the thing that got me was finding out that this kid died the day after writing a letter home. He’s very idealistic (after all, he was 17/18/19 – who doesn’t have big ideas then?) and very patriotic. (There are accounts of him acquisitioning a flagpole while in the internment camp so he and his classmates could say the Pledge of Allegiance every day to a government that thought they were the Enemy.) Not once did he write about being scared, and he was always encouraging of his family.

His letters had made him a Real Person but he died before I could get to know him better.

 

*It’s either incarceration, internment, or imprisonment camp. The terms are fairly interchangeable, one denotes camps operated by the Department of Justice, and I have no idea the proper usage of each.

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