75th Anniversary Trip to French Battlefields
75th Anniversary Tour Participants on Church Steps in Bruyères. Photo by David Nishitani
Compiled by Editor from contributions made by J. Morita, M. Nakagawa, M. Tanikawa and D. Nishitani.
Seventy-five years ago, the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team engaged in battles that etched the unit as one of the U.S. Army’s most decorated of its size. In commemoration of the battles, Dr. Brian Yamamoto of Fairbanks, Alaska organized a July 2019 French Battlefield tour to pay homage to fallen Nisei Soldiers and to celebrate the friendships forged between the French people and Japanese Americans in the most difficult of times. The tour had both an extended and abbreviated option. Those on the longer tour met in Nice and explored the French Maritime Alps before joining those on the short tour and visiting Bruyères, Biffontaine, Belmont, Laval-Sur-Vologne, Bois-de-Champ, and Fremifontaine. A JAVA donation was used to purchase wreaths presented at area monuments and historic sites.
The historic tour caught the eye of six JAVA members – Howard Hodges of Laurel, MD; Jeffery Morita of Mililani, Hawaii; Mark Nakagawa of Springfield, VA; David Nishitani of Corvallis, Oregon; Metta Tanikawa of Warrenton, VA and 442nd RCT Veteran Lawson Sakai of Morgan Hill, CA. JAVA members, like the other 130 participants, went in hopes of gaining a deeper connection to the WWII experience of their grandfathers, fathers, uncles, and friends, and in the case of Lawson Sakai, to retrace his own footsteps. JAVA members also went with the desire to foster the relationship between the Bruyères and Japanese American communities, brilliantly symbolized in one the trip’s highlights – the “Knot Sculpture” by 442nd RCT Veteran, former JAVA member and artist Shikichi Tajiri.
JAVA Members on the Tour: L-R Mark Nakagawa, Metta Tanikawa, Lawson Sakai, Howard Hodges, BR Jeff Morita. Photo by David Nishitani.
Jeff Morita saw the tour as a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream, a “pilgrimage, to walk the very grounds where my late Uncle Yoshio James Morita, F. Company /442nd, fought and was severely wounded by shrapnel a few days after the rescue of the lost ‘Texas’ battalion on November 2, 1944, near Grebefosse, France.” Another highlight for Morita was meeting Lawson Sakai. Morita noted that although “we have exchanged communique in the past” it was the first face-to-face meeting. For Jeff, the occasion had added significance, “my Aunt Fusako Morita in Gardena, California recalled going over to Lawson’s house — their family's were neighbors before the mass evacuation and incarcerations into the concentration camps.” Jeff and his wife Yoko made the meaningful trip together.
Yoko Morita and Jeff Morita at Menton. Photo by Anne Morita Shima.
Jeff Morita at the Private Yohei Sagami (E.Co/442) Memorial — the 1st AJA KIA in the Vosges. Photo by Yoko Morita
For LTC Mark Nakagawa, USA (Ret) whose father served in the MIS, treading the land where Japanese Americans proved their loyalty to the United States, was an opportunity he could not pass up. “I had visited many of the important WWII sites such as Normandy while stationed in Germany but had only read about 442nd exploits. Visiting such hallowed ground with similarly interested individuals added emotional intensity and meaning to the trip.” Nakagawa was particularly struck by the Fremifontaine stop, where a memorial marks the rescue of the Lost Battalion. Nakagawa recounted how moved he was by the townspeople’s involvement. “A local band played as the Mayor served as master-of-ceremonies – the whole town to this day appreciates the Japanese American Soldiers who lost their lives in the fight for freedom.” Nakagawa also shared that villagers told him they “adopted” or tended the gravesites of 442nd buried at Epinal, the American Cemetery in Lorraine. As a veteran, however, the highlight of the trip was bonding with villagers by participating in a battle reenactment complete with WWII jeeps. Nakagawa rode along side of villagers wearing WWII uniforms emblazoned with the 442nd torch as they made their way up the rugged mountain hills. He left France grateful for the sacrifices of men who paved the way for a more inclusive American society but also a new understanding of the gratitude of the French people for the freedom the Japanese Americans brought to their country.
After placing a wreath at the Biffontaine Memorial, Mark Nakagawa salutes the fallen while Metta Tanikawa stands in solemn respect. Photo by David Nishitani.
The hospitality of the French villagers and the landscape of the countryside were not new to MSG David Nishitani, US Army Reserves (Ret). It was his third visit to France. He had also participated in two 100th Bn/442nd RCT tours to Italy - one in 2015 and one earlier this year. The draw, he explained, “was to follow his father’s footsteps. He was a Chief Warrant Officer in Service Company and I wanted to see where exactly he was during the war.” He also wanted to rekindle friendships he made on prior trips to France and Italy with “people that appreciated what the Nisei soldiers did for people of these countries.” For instance, on “a previous trip to France I got to meet a cousin of a family that my dad got to know in the Nice area during the ‘Champagne Campaign.’ I also was led to some places that my dad had photographed in 1944 and now I have a color comparison of the same area. These events happened thanks to the people that showed their appreciation for what the Nisei Soldiers did for their country.”
While the July tour allowed Nishitani “to see even more places” it was not a “check the box” type of tour. At every stop, the emotion was palpable. Nishitani related he had a heart-rending conversation with “the son of Barney Hajiro, a Medal of Honor recipient and then watched him hike the mountain where his dad helped save the Texas Lost Battalion near Biffontaine.” Equally poignant was the sight of seeing brothers Ken and James Sato visit their uncle's grave for the first time during the visit to the Epinal American Cemetery. Nishitani told of another emotional day spent a day at L'Escarene where the 442nd soldiers had hosted a Christmas party for the children of the town. He remarked that "some of those children are still around. Repaying the Nisei’s kindness, the town hosted a luncheon for us and many of ‘children’ attended the commemorative program and parade.” The town of Sospel also showered the same kindness on the tour participants. The group visited a Sospel school where there is a plaque commemorating Larry Miura and Kenji Sugawara, two members of the 442nd who lost their lives there. After placing a wreath at the school, the tour group attended a lunch hosted by the town. Similarly, the town of Menton on the French coast, hosted a reception for the tour group after they visited and placed a wreath at a monument honoring the 100th /442nd. Charged with taking official tour photos, Nishitani returned home with memories stored on his camera and in his heart.
At the Epinal American Cemetery. David Nishitani on the far left followed by Jolynn and Stuart Hirai and Christophe Chipot. With 24 of his years in the Reserves as a photographer for Public Affairs, 104th Div (IT) USAR based out of Vancouver Barracks, Washington, it is not surprising Nishitani was named the official "Tour Photographer."
David Nishitani, Glenn Hajiro and David Ono after hiking up to site of Lost Battalion.
The only 442nd Veteran on the trip, Lawson Sakai considered it a privilege to make the journey in honor of his fallen comrades. The above photo captures Lawson overcome with the natural beauty of Vosges, "75 years ago this wasn't a nice place but it is now." Photo by David Nishitani.
Glenn Hajiro, son of Barney Hajiro (MofH recipient) and Lawson Sakai by a sign that they replaced for Barney Hijiro near the Lost Battalion monument. Photo by David Nishitani.
While the terrain of the Vosges region enjoyed the mantel of summer during the July trip, Metta Tanikawa, a history buff who had read extensively about the Japanese American units in WWII and who also served as part of the registration team for the 2012 Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony, knew the reality of the 100th/442nd was quite different. “The rescue of the Lost Battalion took place in the wet and cold of the fall, with Soldiers carrying fifty-pound packs as bombs exploded around them.” While Tanikawa had read accounts of the challenging landscape, hiking up the mountain paths brought home the reality in a new way. “The thickness of the forest and the steepness of the slope” cannot be grasped in a text. “Being there brought a new understanding of the difficulty of the task. Seeing the German foxholes on the ridges made me realize the close-range fighting the 100th/442nd was up against.” Tanikawa was also impressed with the villagers’ knowledge of WWII history. “History is multi-generational there. Stories of the Liberation of Bruyères are passed down from one generation to the next and also studied in school. Neither the occupation of the town from 1940-1944 nor the hard-won freedom by the Japanese American Veterans has been forgotten.” Tanikawa added that “even in broken English, teenagers and adults conveyed their appreciation…from one descendant to the next, there was an excitement about the shared story of freedom.”
JAVA members offered heartfelt thanks to Dr. Brian Yamamoto and his team of assistants for organizing the 75th Anniversary Tour in honor of the heroics of the Soldiers of the 100th/442nd RCT. Members also voiced appreciation for the 52nd Signal Battalion/US Army Garrison from Stuttgart, Germany who served as Color Guard, presenting the colors at ceremonies during the second half of the tour. Lastly, members all felt honored to accompany JAVA member Lawson Sakai on this special anniversary tour. Indeed, it was an unforgettable experience for all.
Tour highlights included:
• Exploring the French Maritime Alps where Nisei troops were stationed during “Champagne Campaign."
• Visiting Sospel and dedicating a wreath at a plaque honoring two Nisei KIA there.
• Spending day with the citizens of L’Escarene where Nisei troops held Christmas party for children in 1944.
• Visiting Menton where our Vets captured a German mini-sub.
• Participating in Bastille Day ceremonies in Bruyères and marching in the town parade.
• Visiting American Cemeteries at Lorraine and Epinal and placing leis and flags at 100th/442nd Veteran graves.
• Visiting the “Knot Sculpture” by sculptor Shikichi Tajiri,442nd RCT and former JAVA member.
• Placing a wreath at Yohei Sagami Monument in Laval. Yohei Sagami was the first soldier KIA in Vosges.
• Placing a wreath at Tomosu Hirahara Square. Hirahara was KIA and is buried at the Epinal Cemetery.
• Placing a wreath in a ceremony at the Lost Battalion Monument and viewing the new Monument to the 405th FS.
• Visiting Biffontaine and Fremifontaine.
• Attending ceremonies and placing wreaths at the 45th Infantry Division & 3rd Infantry Division monument.
• Visiting the Robert Booth Monument. Booth was KIA with 405th FS.
• Participating in a wreath-laying ceremony at Borne 6, the site that commemorates the rescue of the Lost Battalion.
52nd Signal Battalion/US Army Garrison from Stuttgart, Germany Serving as Color Guard with Mark Nakagawa. Nakagawa called the commands when the Color Guard presented colors at the various sites. Photo by David Nishitani.