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October 31, 2009

Mike Tharp: Three men who went for broke

A little gedanken, a thought experiment:

Suppose Portugal, without warning, attacks the big naval base at Norfolk, Va. Nearly 3,000 Americans are killed by Portuguese bombs and bullets.

President Obama declares war against Portugal. Two months later he issues an executive order: all Americans of Portuguese descent must report immediately to detention camps. Nearly all their property is confiscated.

In Merced County, all the Souzas, Escobars, Cardozas, Silvas and Pedrozos find their way to the fairgrounds. They're kept in drafty barracks for weeks, then shipped by rail to crude camps all over the West. They're held in them for the rest of the war.

Nearly all these folks have been born in America. Nearly all of them are U.S. citizens. Even so, most of them are stuck in the camps.

That, of course, is what happened to 120,000 or so Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. It happened to several hundred in our county. The ones who were let go in 1943 were freed only to enter the U.S. military.

Some formed the 100th Infantry Battalion, which joined 4,500 more in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In less than two years of combat, the 442 -- as its members call it -- earned more than 18,000 decorations, including 21 Medals of Honor.

They suffered almost 300 percent casualties, meaning that many of the wounded went back to fight, and fight again. They were the most decorated unit in the U.S. Army.

"Go For Broke!" was their motto and their M.O. as they battled their way through France, Italy and other parts of Europe.

Next Saturday, a documentary, "Only the Brave," will be shown at Merced College at 1:30 p.m. It's about the 442. Director Lane Nishikawa, who'll be at the college theater, shows how the regiment rescued 300 men in "the Lost Battalion" -- at a cost of 700 dead and wounded American soldiers.

The film will strike deep in the hearts of three Mercedians. Hiroshi Asai, 85, of Cortez, and Eric Andow, 87, of Livingston were members of the 442. Sherman Kishi, 84, served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), an elite group of interpreters and translators in the Pacific theater and later in occupied Japan.

Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, Douglas MacArthur's intelligence honcho, wrote that the bilingual work by these soldiers and Marines in MIS helped shorten the Pacific War by two years.

Listening to these three octogenarians, who all returned to Merced County after the war, ran productive farms and raised successful families, makes you wonder:


And why?

How, after they were treated as traitors and saw their lives uprooted, could they have signed up for the Army of the country that had forced them and their families into concentration camps?

And why, given that experience, did they march into the valleys and mountains of the shadow of death, waving American flags? And fight as well or better than any other American unit?

"We had to prove ourselves, I guess," recalls Asai, who earned a Bronze Star, Purple Heart (shrapnel in his right arm) and, like all members of the 442, a Presidential Unit Citation. "It was partly our own culture -- don't bring shame to your family or your group. They (the U.S. government) were saying, 'We can't trust you' -- why we got thrown in the camps.

"We wanted to prove we were just as good as anybody else. My philosophy was, in spite of what they did to me, I was going to succeed. I wasn't going to let that get me down. Despite what they did to me, damn if they're going to get me!"

Andow's mother, with him in an internment camp in Colorado, begged him not to join. "When the 442 was formed, I thought it was my chance to get out of the camp," he remembers. In July 1944 he got his orders.

Traveling by train to Hattiesburg, Miss., he met ironic racism. A conductor woke him and asked him to move to "a white car." In the southern city, the man who'd been held behind barbed wire in a tarpaper shack was allowed to eat in white-only restaurants.

But when he got a two-week furlough before shipping out for Europe, he was stopped from going to California to visit his family. "California was restricted for Japanese," he explains. Even in uniform, "I couldn't go."

Andow wound up with an artillery unit of the 442 in Europe. During one campaign in Italy, the Germans, as usual, held the high ground. The American artillery men were moving, silent and with no lights, through a mountain pass when the truck Andow was riding on top of tipped over. He was trapped under 200 35-pound shells. His comrades dug him out and strapped him, with a broken leg, on a stretcher in a jeep. He recovered and helped guard prisoners till war's end.

Sherman Kishi landed at the fairgrounds detention center on a memorable date -- his 17th birthday. After he turned 18 in an internment camp in Colorado, he signed up for MIS. He attended several language-training courses across the U.S. -- his Japanese was elementary -- before surfacing in the Philippines. There he helped debrief and interrogate Japanese POWs, the few who allowed themselves to be taken alive.

In September 1945, a month after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kishi arrived in Tokyo. He helped question several war criminals and disgraced industrial leaders. He was stunned by the utter destruction and near starvation hovering over the landscape.

"So many young girls were sent to the countryside with rucksacks to trade with farmers -- most came back with sweet potatoes," he remembers.

He left Japan the next year and, after college at Berkeley, came back to Livingston to pick up the pieces of his family's farm.

All three men have attended military reunions over the decades -- events which have expanded to include more and more units as the number of Japanese-American veterans dwindles. They were all sons of the soil in Merced County, following in the furrows of their fathers. And they all prospered on their own by growing almonds, grapes, peaches and, yes, sweet potatoes, including one kind imported from the Kishi family's prefecture, Wakayama.

These Nisei men, these second-generation Japanese-Americans, stand for all that's right about Mercedians. Duty. Honor. Hard work. Loyalty. If they're bitter about any part of the past, they're not saying.

They'd all do it again, they say.

And in that they stand for one of the prized virtues in Japanese culture -- gaman. That means the persistence, the stubbornness, the will to fight through tough times.

Our community should be proud of their service, both in the Army and once they came back home.

Japan's most famous poet, Basho, wrote lines in the 17th century that apply to our countrymen and countymen -- Andow, Asai and Kishi:

Journey's end --

still alive,

this autumn evening.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or

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