Japanese-American World War II veteran: 'We had something to prove'

Japanese-American World War II veteran: 'We had something to prove'
In this Nov. 9, 2011 photo, Harry Kawahara, of Caldwell, Idaho, displays his Congressional Gold Medal in Caldwell, Idaho. In the fall of October 1944, a young but determined Pvt. Harry Kawahara fought his way through heavy woods, freezing temperatures and fog in the wilderness of France. Kawahara, his wife and other family members traveled last week to Washington, D.C., where the 442nd was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Nov. 2, 2011, the highest civilian honor in the United States. (AP Photo/Idaho Statesman, Darin Oswald)
This photo provided by Harry Kawahara via The Idaho Statesman shows Kawahara while in the U.S. Army. In the fall of October 1944, a young but determined Pvt. Harry Kawahara fought his way through heavy woods, freezing temperatures and fog in the wilderness of France. Kawahara, his wife and other family members traveled last week to Washington, D.C., where the 442nd was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Nov. 2, 2011, the highest civilian honor in the United States. (AP Photo/Harry Kawahara via The Idaho Statesman ) 

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — In the fall of October 1944, a young but determined Pvt. Harry Kawahara fought his way through heavy woods, freezing temperatures and fog in the wilderness of France.

For a 19-year-old boy raised in the tiny, rural railroad towns of Idaho and Oregon, the bloody realities of World War II were something he would bear silently.

Likewise, Kawahara would bear the painful and nearly deadly bullet wound to his elbow, inflicted by a German sniper.

Kawahara was at a field hospital recovering from blood loss a few days later, when he heard the group he'd been fighting with, the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, had broken the German lines to rescue the "Lost Battalion," which had been cut off by opposing forces. The casualties were enormous.

When he returned home to Idaho, the decorated U.S. soldier was stoic as he faced prejudice from locals who feared and hated the Japanese — including those who were U.S. citizens.

Kawahara's own sister had been confined in a Japanese internment camp near Minidoka while he fought for the United States. Teri, the woman Kawahara would later marry, was sent to the camp at age 13.

After the war, Kawahara married, worked as a farmer and eventually headed up a produce operation in Nampa. He and Teri raised seven children.

He would occasionally discuss with friends and family his experiences as a member of the "Go For Broke" 442nd RCT, composed of Nisei — American-born sons of Japanese immigrants. They fought the Germans in Europe and prejudice back home.

What made him want to serve a country that treated his family that way?

"I think that was the whole thing," Kawahara said. "We had something to prove."

Kawahara, his wife and other family members traveled last week to Washington, D.C., where the 442nd was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

According to www.goforbroke.org, the 442nd was the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. military. The first 4,000 soldiers in the unit had to be replaced more than three times. About 14,000 men served in the 442nd, receiving 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and eight Presidential Unit Citations.

___

The Kawahara clan weren't the only Idahoans present at the ceremony.

George Shigeta, 89, is a veteran of the 442nd's heavy weapons company. He grew up in Payette and now lives in Nampa.

Terry Kuroda, a retired teacher from Nampa, and his sister accepted the medal behalf of their father, Kozo Kuroda, a master sergeant with the 442nd's 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, who died in 2002 at age 87.

Kozo Kuroda was a farmer who grew up in Fife, Wash. His mother and wife were in different internment camps while he fought in the war, Terry Kuroda said.

Kuroda came home from the war with a Bronze Star and forged ahead with life in Nampa despite open racism, his son said.

Terry would have liked to have seen his father at the ceremony.

"He was fighting for our country over in Europe, and he came home, and he was treated that poorly, even as a soldier," Kuroda said.

"Those things are hard for me to understand because I wasn't around in that time."

___

Like Kuroda, Kawahara grew up in small towns like Crane, Ore., Sage Valley, Ore., Notus, Idaho, and Parma, Idaho, as his father moved with the Union Pacific Railroad.

Kawahara's mother died when he was 12. So his father sent all six children to Japan for his family to look after.

Four years later, in 1940, Harry Kawahara came back to the States to avoid being conscripted into the Japanese army. He lived and worked with a Japanese-American family on their farm in Parma. They became his family, he said.

After earning the equivalent of a high school diploma, Kawahara went to Portland to get an engineering degree. But he got a job and earned some money.

"I started having fun, and that was the end of that," he said with a chuckle.

Kawahara enlisted in the Army on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan. But he was only 17, so the military told him to wait. He headed back to Parma.

"They would have sent me to a camp if I'd stayed in Portland," Kawahara said.

The Army called him up in May 1943. He and a Marsing kid of Japanese heritage headed to Camp Shelby, Miss., to join up and train with the 442nd.

At first, the Japanese-Americans from Hawaii who founded the 442nd had conflicts with their counterparts from the mainland, Kawahara said. That changed after the Hawaiians saw the conditions at an internment camp in Arkansas, amazed that the Nisei had joined up despite such treatment.

"After they got back from camp," he said, "everything changed."

Kawahara left the 442nd to try being a paratrooper.

Paratroopers had to weigh at least 140 pounds; Kawahara was 135 (the same weight he's been his whole life). So Kawahara volunteered for the Army's Office of Strategic Services and headed to Chicago for training. But he couldn't hear the tones well enough to decipher Morse code, so he asked to return to the 442nd.

They made him take basic training a second time.

___

In August 1944, Kawahara landed in Naples, Italy, and headed to Marseille, France.

The fighting was heavy. Kawahara saw things and lost friends he won't discuss.

"We just did what we were told," Kawahara said. "It's not a pleasant thing to talk about."

He will say this: "The trouble is that the close friends didn't come back."

On Oct. 29, a sniper shot Kawahara in the elbow.

"I passed out because I lost so much blood," he said.

Medics gave him plasma and morphine. He woke up at a military hospital in France.

That's where he heard the news that the 100th Infantry Battalion of the 442nd had broken through the German lines to rescue the "Lost Battalion." The 100th Battalion lost more men in the effort than the 200 soldiers from Texas that had needed to be rescued.

___

Back home, Idahoans didn't know about the heroics of the 442nd. They didn't know about Kawahara's Purple Heart and other decorations. They didn't know about the sacrifice of the Japanese-American soldiers.

"I think the war made everybody angry," Kawahara said. "The worst part is when you are a citizen, and you are disenfranchised."

Kawahara met his wife, Teri, at a dance at the Caldwell labor camp where some Nisei lived after the war.

Teri didn't notice his charm. "He was a good dancer," she said.

Teri had spent three years at the Minidoka internment camp with her family.

Harry and Teri married in 1950, settled in Canyon County and raised their family. Harry Kawahara retired in 1986. They celebrated their 60th anniversary last year.

"I guess we were brought up not to say much," said Teri Kawahara, 84. "We never talked much about the relocation or his stint in the Army. We were the silent ones, I guess."

Granddaughter Missy Hendrichs, now 32, said she asked Kawahara about his war experiences when she was in grade school.

"Grandpa never really talked a lot," Hendrichs said. "When I asked, 'Why would you go fight for a country that hates you?' he said, 'It was my patriotic duty.' "

The couple has opened up and talked more about their experiences since the nation is recognizing the 442nd's valor, said Wanda Martinet, one of the couple's daughters.

"They have endured a lot," Martinet said.

"People need to remember the history of their generation and what they went through, so it doesn't happen again."

___

Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com

 

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.