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Remembering the 442nd

October 31, 2011

About the Author: Mr. Evan G. Reade is the U.S. Consul General in Strasbourg

October 23, 2011, and the sun was shining brightly through the branches of the dense forest in the hills above the town of Bruyeres, nestled in the Vosges mountains.  It was a beautiful morning.  Sixty-seven years earlier, the scene had been different.  It was cold, wet, foggy, raining, and muddy, and the men of the 442nd regiment were in the tenth day of a brutal fight to defeat the heavily armed German troops who had occupied the region.  It was a terrible fight, not unlike those engaged in by American troops throughout the region.  But something about this battle was different.  The American soldiers of the 442nd were Japanese-Americans, and as they fought and died for their country in Europe, their families were interned by their government in camps scattered throughout the western United States.

The story of the 442nd is one of the darkest chapters in our history, and, at the same time, one of the most glorious.  Following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, American military authorities ordered the internment of all Japanese-Americans in the western United States.  Why?  Because of their race, they were suspected of perhaps being more loyal to Japan than to the United States.  Whole families of loyal Americans — men, women, children, the aged — were taken from their homes, their farms, and their businesses to be bused to camps ringed by barbed wire and machineguns pointing inward, their futures uncertain.  Their reaction?  Many of their young men clamored to join the Army to help fight, and to possibly die, for their country, the United States of America.

Fortunately, sound minds prevailed, and the Army created first the 100th Infantry Battalion and later the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprised completely of Japanese-American young men, mostly from Hawaii but also from the western states.  Following their training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, they were sent to Europe were they first distinguished themselves in combat in Italy before being sent to France to join in the fight to push back the Germans following the D-Day invasions.

And so, in October 1944, they found themselves in the Vosges mountains, fighting heavily entrenched German fighters, desperate to defend the French-German frontier beyond the mountains.  The casualties were heavy, and when victory was finally achieved, over 150 brave young American soldiers had perished.  The unit would fight on to become the most decorated unit in the history of the U.S. Army, with 21 of its members receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Next week, President Obama will present the veterans with a Congressional Gold Medal.

 The people of Bruyeres have never forgotten their liberators.  Soon after the war, the city – a small mountain town – formed a sister-city relationship with Honolulu — a large, tropical capital city.  Perhaps they share nothing in common geographically, but they are bound together forever by the blood of the American soldiers who died or were wounded there.  And every October, Bruyeres continues to commemorate the losses suffered by the brave soldiers of the 442nd.  And so, on October 23 of this year, as the sun shone through the branches, three surviving veterans of the 442nd, their family members, and a color guard from the still active 442nd (which has recently served two tours in Iraq and Kuwait), were welcomed to the monument in the hills above the town, erected to commemorate their bravery and sacrifice.  Local dignitaries, the fire department, the town’s band, and the elderly and young alike, gathered to lay wreaths and to remember.  Later, there was a parade down the main street, speeches, a party and an exchange of gifts.

And just as the people of Bruyeres honor the men of the 442nd, so, too, should the rest of us.  Despite the way they and their families were treated – as outcasts and traitors – they were among the most valiant and brave soldiers in the war, their dedication to the United States unwavering.  I was deeply moved to be a part of these emotional and uplifting ceremonies, and dedicated my brief remarks to two fallen 442nd heros, PFC Fred Yamamoto and PFC John T. Okada, who both attended my high school and who gave their lives for their countries and its ideals while their families were interned in California and Idaho.

We, like the people of Bruyeres, must never forget them.    

Evan G. Reade

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