A Liberation Remembered

Nisei Soldiers of World War II are Honored in Bruyeres and Biffontaine

By Karleen Chinen
The Hawaii Herald, Vol. 15, No. 21
November 4, 1994

"Oh! say, can you see, by the dawn's early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight. . ."

Tom Nakahara had sung the words of America's national anthem countless times. But never did they hit him as they did that October 16 morning in a place time had not erased. "I began singing it, and knowing that so many of my buddies got wounded or killed here, tears came into my eyes and I just couldn't complete the song."

The 71-year old Nakahara, who makes his home in Paauilo on the Big Island's Hamakua Coast was among the nearly 1,000 veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, their families and friends from Hawaii and the Mainland who converged in the Vosges Mountains of northeastern France, near the Franco-German border. There, in the small towns of Biffontaine and Bruyeres - located about two miles apart from each other - the nisei soldiers were honored in separate ceremonies.

Thanks to a grant from the Hawaii Imin Shiryo Hozon Kai, I had the opportunity to travel to Europe with Nakahara and 32 others from Hawaii, California and Washington state. Besides the typical tourist fare, we had a chance to visit several of the sites where the men of the 100th/442nd had fought. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

This trip was a journalist's dream-come-true. The stories which people so willingly shared with me in the course of our three-week journey through Italy, Switzerland and France were rich in human experiences. To try and cram all of those stories into the limited space available in this issue would do them a grave injustice. So in this issue is a look at the more "official"' side of the Vosges' commemoration of the liberation 50 years ago - the comments delivered at the wreath-laying ceremonies and the banquets. (Speeches marked the day in Biffontaine, our first day {October 15} in the Vosges. That gave way to a more relaxed atmosphere the following day in Bruyeres.) I'll introduce you to the other people who left me feeling so enriched in future issues of the Herald.

* * * * *

"Everything is so nice and green now. I can't believe it's green here in Bruyeres,” said Tom Nakahara. His voice grew silent as his eyes studied the wooded landscape through the window of our bus. For Nakahara and so many of the men in our group, this pilgrimage back to the Vosges, where half a century ago the 100th/442nd had liberated Bruyeres and Biffontaine from four years of German control, had brought back a flood of memories. Half of the men in regiment were either killed or wounded in the effort.

There in the Vosges, just east of Biffontaine, the battle-weary 100th/442nd had been ordered to rescue a battalion of Texans of the 141st Regiment, 36th Division - this, just days after waging a fierce battle to liberate Bruyeres and Biffontaine from the Nazis.

The Texans - dubbed the "Lost Battalion" - had strayed too far into enemy territory and were surrounded by Germans. Efforts by other units to rescue the battalion from their position on a steep ridge had been futile. That's when the 100th/442nd was called in and ordered to rescue the Texans at any cost. The price was high: the 100th/442nd suffered 800 casualties to rescue 211 Texans.

The small-framed Americans of Japanese ancestry paid dearly for the freedom of both the French and the Americans.

* * * * *

"I've always believed it was muddy, with snow about four to five inches thick." Fifty years ago, the mountains had not been the peaceful and picturesque place they were this autumn day in Bruyeres. Today, the temperature hovered in the upper 60s and the Vosges mountain range bathed in a warm and friendly sunlight. It was as if Mother Nature had been in on the planning to welcome back these aging, battle-scarred soldiers.

Fifty years ago, the men recalled that the weather had been biting cold and miserably wet. Their worn uniforms and a heavy trench coat were all that protected them from the elements. Winter had come early to the Vosges in 1944. Snow covered the ground, Nakahara recalled. "In October, the leaves were down. It wasn't brown like this. It was so bald. It was really shadowy, always darkness in this forest. . ."

* * * * *

"Those who died did not die in vain." That was the message conveyed in a prayer offered by 442nd veteran Ronald Oba in the forests outside of Biffontaine. Oba, past president of Hawaii's 442nd Veterans Club, followed a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister in offering a Buddhist prayer at a memorial erected in 1984 by French monument builder Jean Bianchetti in honor of the nisei soldiers. Oba, who was a cook in F Company, 2nd Battalion, represented Hawaii's 442nd vets in many of the official functions of the commemoration.

"They were young and strong of heart in the prime of their youth. But we must remember that life is transient, with the spirit transgressing from one world to another. Therefore, whether one lives to age 21 or over 70 years of age, both have lived a full life according to one's karma," he told the gathering.

Oba said the commemoration marking 50 years since the liberation of Biffontaine should be a "celebration of good deeds" and an occasion to "rejoice, rather than mourn.”

* * * * *

Biffontaine Mayor Georges Henry was a young man when the 100th/442nd came down from the Vosges mountains to free the people of his town in 1944. In 1960, long before a permanent granite monument honoring the 100th/442nd was constructed in the forests outside of the town, Henry had erected a small cross in the Vosges - a memorial tribute to the nisei soldiers who had freed the people of his town.

And so it was with heartfelt gratitude that Mayor Henry addressed the veterans at a ceremony fronting the monument.

"It's here, in our forest, that you veterans wrote one of the most beautiful pages of the war. . .Here, you got the right to be called American citizens. Here, you made the good triumph over the evil. But the price to pay was very high. These men who were killed, these men who were severely wounded; these men were your brothers. . .

* * * * *

Four months ago U.S. Consul General Shirley Barnes sat glued to her television set in Strasbourg, in northeastern France, watching the emotion-filled ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy on the country's western coast. "There was in the back of my mind a recurring reminder," she told the gathering of veterans and their families in Biffontaine.

"The liberation that occurred in Normandy in June 1944 took several months to reach the place where I was sitting. My thoughts returned to northeastern France and to the valiant struggle the people in this region endured in the summer, the fall and the winter months of 1944. Long after Normandy, the people in this part of France were still not free from Nazi Germany's cruel occupation," she reminded them.

"Today we are here to honor those who fought for freedom and never returned to their towns and villages in France, and today we are here to recognize our responsibility and the debt we owe to all those courageous men and women who never came home."

* * * * *

“A journey of love and gratitude" - spoken by a man who had lost one brother in Italy, and nearly a second to war wounds. Both of Denny Yasuhara's brothers had fought with the 100th/442nd. The national president of the Japanese American Citizens League spoke eloquently of all the nisei soldiers, describing them as "unwanted orphans" of the U.S. Army who had risen to become one of the "elite" units of the United States military, "sought after by nearly every general in the European theater."

"What would have happened had the 100th Infantry Battalion failed at Cassino and Anzio? What would have happened had the 100th/442nd failed at Little Cassino, Belvedere, the Arno River and failed to reach the Gothic Line?" asked Yasuhara. "What would have happened had not the 442nd and the 100th spearheaded the allied drive in northern France in the climactic battle of Biffontaine, Bruyere, and the Lost Battalion?

"Seldom in the course of human history have so few done so much for so many," said Yasuhara. "The greatest gift that one human being can give to another is not his wealth or his position, but his dignity and his honor - for these are the essence of freedom. . ."

* * * * *

One of the most solemn moments of our time in the Vosges Mountains occurred during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Epinal American Military Cemetery in Dinoze. Epinal is the final resting place of 5,255 Americans who were killed in France and Germany during World War II.

Among the men and women buried there are 11 members of thc 100th/442nd, two of them from Hawaii. S/Sgt. Tomosu Hirahara. who had graduated from McKinley High School, was only 21 years old when he was killed. PFC Yoshio Tengan, a mechanic who was raised in Lahaina, Maui and who left behind a wife, was a year older than Hirahara. Both men were killed in action near Bruyeres on October 15, 1944.

Also buried at Epinal are: PFC Teruo Fujioka from Wyoming; PFC Bob T. Kameoka and 1st Lt. Ben W. Rogers Jr. from Arkansas; T/Sgt. Mitsuru E. Miyoko, PFC Hachiro Mukai, T/Sgt. Uetaro Sanmonji and PFC Minoru M. Yoshida from California; PFC Edward Ogawa from ldaho and Pvt. Hideo Yasui from Oregon - all members of the 100th/442nd.

The name of Sgt. George W. Suyama of Montana is etched in the Wall of the Missing in Action at Epinal. His remains were never found.

More 12,500 Americans were once buried at Epinal. The bodies of some 7,000 of them were later returned to America at the request of their families.

An American colonel who has been assisting the U.S. Dept. of Defense with commemoration ceremonies told the predominantly AJA group that had gathered at Epinal that although Biffontaine and Bruyeres are probably the smallest areas where ceremonies have been held, the 100th/442nd contingent was probably the largest group outside of the Normandy anniversary to attend such a commemoration.

"I think you realize that you as a group are very, very special," he said. "Thank you for what you did 50 years ago. . .I salute you,"

With the wreath-laying ceremonies complete, the group fanned out among the 5,255 graves, most of them marked with white crosses, a few with the Jewish Star of David.

Epinal officials had marked the graves of the 100th/442nd soldiers with two small American and French flags. Some of the groups whose tours had just begun had brought Island anthuriums and orchids to reassure their fallen buddies that they had not forgotten them. Our group leader, Dorothy Matsuo, whose husband Ted was a medic, had brought with her more than a dozen bright orange yarn leis braided ilima style, which she placed on the graves of the 442nd boys at Epinal.

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But it was the words spoken earlier in the morning by Mayor Georges Henry in the forests outside of Biffontaine that epitomized the love for the nisei soldiers that prevailed not only in Biffontaine, but in neighboring Bruyeres and throughout the Vosges Mountains: “Today, 50 years later, Biffontaine and the Vosges, remember. We and our children shall never forget. . ."

This article was reprinted courtesy of Karleen Chinen and The Hawaii Herald. Copyright retained by Karleen Chinen.

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