Painting The War

January 29, 2012 by Admin

Ken Nihei

Ken Nihei

By Ken Nihei

In my house, there is an oil color portrait of me that leans against the wall in one of the rooms.  My father did this painting of me in full regalia.

I was drafted into the Army’s 442nd Regiment Team when I was eighteen years old and sent to camp Fort Douglas.   Later our destination was Florida, where we spent 17 weeks of basic training.

Before we were redirected to sites where the army needed freshly trained soldiers,

I and the other soldiers were released for two weeks to visit our families who were in prison camps.

On our way overseas, we had to travel together to avoid German U Boats on the Atlantic.  Traveling on the ship convoy to Europe, I became friends with Hiro Nishimoto, who was ten years my senior.  He was like my big brother and looked after me when I got seasick.   I gave him the nickname “Wimpy” because of his likeness to the character in Popeye cartoons.  Taking us 11 days to cross the Atlantic, we eventually landed in Port of Marseille, France.

After landing in Marseille, we were replenished with military clothing, a process which took about four to five days.  We had to eat breakfast in the dark, it rained constantly, and we lived in tents.  Even though it was dark outside, we saw long lines of silent children and women.  The sight was eerie.   They were near our garbage cans, looking for food.   We gave them some of our rations.  The children weren’t properly clothed, and the rain kept pouring.  We felt sorry for them.  The children could only speak French and would say, “Merci beaucoup” to us.

I joined “L” Company and was assigned to Casey Kasadate’s squad, 1st platoon in Les Carene, France.  In Lucca, Italy, a day before we headed for the front, Casey had 13 men in his squad.  Being the youngest at 19 years old, I was subsequently transferred out and assigned to Headquarters Platoon.  I wasn’t happy, but what could I say?  After marching into the mountain village under cover of darkness, I slept on top of a piano with a roomful of men.  I climbed up the mountainside the following evening along a narrow trail and wondered if the Germans could see us in the light of the full moon.

I was later informed, along with Frank Tasawa, that “Sergeant Howe Hanamura was wounded.”  We had to bring him back.  Frank and I left our rifles in our foxholes, and the two of us waved our handkerchiefs to let the enemy know that we were litter-bearers (someone who helps carry a stretcher). This was more like a civilized war because the soldiers were allowed to retrieve their wounded without being shot at.  When we found Howe lying on the open ground next to a gully, we removed our field jackets and wrapped white handkerchiefs around our arms.  We constructed a makeshift litter out of our jackets and tree limbs and brought Howe down the mountain to the main unit camp.

I later recalled seeing Casey lying on the ground with his face ashen gray, and thinking, Poor Casey’s time is up.  Three months prior to Pierra Cava, France, Casey was fond of telling the recruits, “When in battle and your time is up, there is nothing anyone can do about it, so there’s no sense worrying about it.”  Casey and his men thought they saw Germans on the rocky terrain, and when Casey went to see what was going on, he took off his helmet.  The Germans shot him between his eyes and the bullet came out behind his ears.  Casey survived, and I later heard he was alive and well and now living in Honolulu.  What unbelievable yet wonderful news.

But I was saddened to hear that my friend, Nishimoto, was hit by a bullet while helping to bring Casey back.  My understanding was that he cried, “I’m hit, tell me quick where I’m hit,” and then he died.

The following day, Frank Tagawa and I were again assigned as litter- bearers for someone wounded up front.  On our way to retrieve our fallen comrade, we were held up by machine gun fire that kept the platoon ahead of us from advancing.  In the meantime news trickled down to us that the soldier had died.  Late in the afternoon of the second day, Tay Nobori, Chiz Uyeda, and I were directed to take 14 German prisoners down the mountain.  One of them had a wounded leg.  We made the prisoners carry the stretcher holding the body of Sergeant Sagimori.  The prisoners kept pulling up grass, using it to cover Sagimori’s face.  After several hours of descent, darkness settled in and prevented us from seeing the prisoners.  We decided to stay where we were until morning and warned the prisoners, ”You will be shot if you attempt to escape.”

At daylight we continued our descent.  Not far from the bottom of the mountain, we came across cases of cardboard boxes containing “K” rations, which had been dumped along the trail, presumably by the partisans who found the boxes too heavy to transport to the top.  I opened some of the boxes and handed out biscuits to the prisoners and kept the chocolate bars.

At the bottom of the mountain, we came across a stream.  Nobori crossed the water first with some of the prisoners, and then I crossed.  At that moment, we were bombarded by what we thought were enemy mortar shells.    Apparently, the right flank of the mountain was not secured, and we had been spotted by American scouts.  They did not realize that most of us were their own.  One prisoner was injured from the bombardment.  Chiz Uyeda crossed with the rest of the prisoners after the shelling had subsided.  A short while later a lieutenant and a couple of men came down the road to meet us.  I was chewed out by the intelligence officer for handing out the biscuits to the prisoners.  The officer threatened to court martial me.  I didn’t say anything to him.  My thought was that I better not, because he was a 90-day wonder who didn’t exhibit any compassion during that incident; a new second lieutenant abusing his authority.

After a brief rest and a meal on “K” rations, we headed back up the mountain.  When we reached the summit in the late afternoon, there was an eerie quietness at the top with no one in sight.  We spotted a dead German at the bottom of a cliff.  We continued to the other side, and then we saw a village with a lot of commotion and sounds of dog barking.  We could see a cloud of dust beyond the village and assumed it was caused by retreating Germans.

After the main body of “L” Company left for the States, I took over a squad and was a Staff Sergeant for the last seven months of my army career.  Once I was detached for a short time from the 442nd unit, I had the unique experience of being in charge of a train convoy transporting POW’s back to Germany traveling by box cars through the snow covered Alps of Austria.  We were four guards escorting 400 prisoners. The Germans had their own squads to get through different towns.  I carried the papers to get the train through Innsbruk, Austria, which was controlled by the English and the French.

On the train, I recalled how my father was the only one who went to the train station with us before we went to basic training.  As he shook my hand, I said, “Bye Pop.”  I learned later my father did a painting of me while he was in Topaz, after I had left for basic training.  Perhaps by painting me, my father was trying to keep me safe, alive, and close.

Congressional Gold Medal recipients. (credit: Nichibei Weekly)

Three Generations: Wes Nihei, Ken Nihei, Max Nihei in Washington, D.C. for a ceremony to honor the Congressional Gold Medal recipients. (credit: Nichibei Weekly)

Author’s Note:  This story is based on a letter my brother, Ken Nihei, wrote to Genro Kashiwa in 2008 as well as my conversations, interviews, and visits to  the house of Ken.

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In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
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