Stories are the glue that holds people together in families, communities, nations. We always repeat the ones that are most defining because...
Stories are the glue that holds people together in families, communities, nations.
We always repeat the ones that are most defining because we want to keep alive the ideas they contain, reinforce the bonds they describe and pass on the lessons they hold.
Saturday, Veterans Day, people will be telling war stories.
War stories are most vibrant when they are told by people who were there, but time passes and each war fades in turn as its veterans grow old and die. World War II ended more than 60 years ago. Its generals are gone and its young warriors are gray and fewer each day.
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But some of those veterans know how to keep a legacy alive.
A little building on King Street in Seattle, so plain you’d never take a second look, houses the Nisei Veterans Committee. A few years ago the committee began planning for the time when its members would not be around to tell their story, or to do the work that has kept them engaged in the community all these years.
Returning veterans created the NVC in 1946, but over the years it has evolved into a social-service organization for the broader Japanese-American community. Four years ago they created the NVC Foundation, an offspring that will continue the work begun by Nisei veterans.
The story line on Veterans Day emphasizes sacrifice for country, but it is a story of many different chapters. The Nisei chapter is about loyalty in the face of mistreatment and gallantry in the face of danger. While their families were being held in concentration camps, 33,000 Japanese Americans fought America’s enemies.
Like the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers, they faced battles with more than one front, and yet they served with distinction. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team in particular won acclaim for its heroism in Europe.
A photo in the entrance to the NVC Hall shows Japanese-American soldiers from the 442nd herding Axis soldiers they’d captured.
My wife and I were in the hall for the annual NVC chow mein dinner. (Yes, chow mein is Chinese, but this is America, which is a chow mein kind of place, a pile of noodles with all sorts of other stuff mixed in.)
One of the vets was selling meal tickets at the entrance, so I asked him where the photograph was taken. He wasn’t sure whether it was Italy or France (I looked it up later and it was taken in Italy), but he told me a story I hadn’t heard.
The veteran, George Morihiro, was with I company of the 442nd. He told me about the assault that broke through the Gothic Line, the German defenses in the Apennine Mountains in Northern Italy.
I read some accounts of the battle later. Repeated assaults on the German stronghold by other units had failed, but the Japanese Americans scaled a nearly vertical mountain and breached the Nazi line.
Morihiro told me that at one point he didn’t think he could make it any further. A large black soldier carrying a pack and radio “grabbed me by the belt and carried me up the hill.”
He asked if I’d heard of the 92nd Division. I couldn’t remember if I had. I flipped through a history of WWII. There was the Red Ball Express, the black soldiers who landed on D-Day and made up half the supply and transport troops in Europe. There was the 761st Tank Battalion praised for its role in the Battle of the Bulge, but no 92nd. I had to look through several accounts to find them.
It turns out the 92nd was one of the two black combat divisions formed in response to pressure from black Americans who demanded to be allowed to fight. A million black Americans were in uniform, but most were assigned menial tasks.
The 92nd was sent to Italy and the 93rd to the Pacific.
I knew that history, but the names of the two divisions didn’t register. Morihiro told me that the black division had taken a terrible beating and that it was sent replacements who had no combat training. Some of them ran at first. He said he couldn’t blame them.
Because of my conversation with Morihiro I learned more about that. A report commissioned by the Army in the 1990s found that the soldiers of the 92nd had been mistreated and given a bad rap by white senior officers, many of whom had to be forced to lead it. The Army began trying to set the record straight.
For the last months of the war, the 442nd was made part of the black 92nd Division, which some folks started calling the Rainbow Division.
There are so many stories that need to be remembered.
The chow mein dinner was a fundraiser for a new NVC Hall to carry on the original vision, “to honor the past while educating the future.” We need more of that.
You can learn more about the NVC at www.seattlenvc.org.
Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.