By Eddie Wong. Posted October 27, 2023.
My wife, Donna Kotake, had wanted to visit Bruyères, France where her father, Kingo Kotake, fought during WWII with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team for quite some time. The Nisei soldiers fought hard for one month in the steep, rain-soaked hills of the Vosges Mountains to open a path into Germany. The main force was the combined units of the 100th Battalion, which consisted of Japanese Americans from Hawaii, and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 522 Field Artillery Battalion, many of whom volunteered from US internment camps. Over 60% of the men in the 442nd RCT were Japanese Americans from Hawaii and 40% were Japanese Americans from the mainland. They were tasked with silencing the German machine gunners and artillery units that were dug in with fortified positions on the high ground. It was to be a bloody campaign and one that Kingo had described to Donna many years ago. Thus, we made plans for family members and friends to go in June 2020, but the pandemic forced us to cancel the trip.
Three years later with Bay Area friends to accompany us, we rendezvoused at the Charles deGaulle Airport to hear from our guide/trip leader Nora de Brieve and to meet new friends from Honolulu and Amsterdam. We would spend the next four days together on a journey of remembrance as several people in our group had relatives who were Nisei soldiers. Like other American soldiers of color, the Nisei saw their service as a way to “prove their loyalty” to a nation that treated them as second-class citizens. And they carried a unique burden in that the mainland Japanese American soldiers worried about the health and welfare of their parents, grandparents and siblings who were locked up in US concentration camps.
The twin experiences of the Nisei service in WWII and the incarceration would forever mark the social and political consciousness of Nikkei well past the Issei and Nisei generations.
As a Chinese American, I grew up in a home where there was still much antipathy towards Japanese people due to the atrocities committed in China by the Imperial Army. My parents’ generation was slow to make a distinction between Japanese and Japanese American. Thankfully, we had just organized Asian American studies at UCLA in 1969 and it was there that I learned about the 442nd/100th and the Japanese American incarceration. Decades later, this history is included in high school curriculum.
Day One, October 12, 2023 – Vimy Ridge and the Museum of the Surrender in Reims
As we headed out of Paris, the dark clouds opened up and rain poured down steadily on the way to Vimy Ridge, site of a major battle in World War I. Vimy Ridge is near the town of Arras, which is about 2.5 hours from Paris in northern France. The Battle of Vimy Ridge pitted four divisions of the Canadian army against the Germans. You may ask, as we did, why are we visiting a World War I site on a Nisei Legacy Tour? The answer soon became apparent as we learned about the 200 Japanese Canadians who volunteered to serve “Crown and Country” in order to prove their loyalty and to win recognition of rights in a land that discriminated against these Issei pioneers. Here at Vimy Ridge, the Issei infantrymen fought alongside their Canadian brethren, over 97,000 soldiers against 45,000 Germans who were dug in solidly in trenches that stretched for miles. From April 9 – 12, 1917 artillery barrages pounded the Allied and German positions before the final Canadian charge dislodged the Germans. By the end of the war, 54 Japanese Canadians had died, 92 had been wounded, and 13 were awarded medals for bravery. Their valiant efforts were a precursor to the experience of the Japanese American soldiers in World War II.
Japanese in Hawaii volunteered for the Hawaii National Guard during World War I and although they were not sent overseas, the 838 soldiers in Company D held down posts in Hawaii to enable other American troops to fight in France.
Today, one can visit a memorial erected by the Japanese Canadian community in Stanley Park in Vancouver, BC to honor those Issei veterans. It was not until April 1, 1931 that the British Columbia legislature voted to give Japanese Canadian veterans the right to vote, a franchise that was not granted to the rest of the Japanese community.
The Vimy Ridge museum chronicled the battle, and the tour guide related the hellish life of a soldier’s life in the trenches. Runners who carried messages from the front lines to the officers in the rear had a life expectancy of two weeks. Left unexplored was the issue of how unresolved issues from World War I laid the foundation for the eruption of a conflagration a few decades later that would engulf nearly all regions of the globe and result in the death of 60 million people, two-thirds of whom were civilians. Some of those issues such as the rise of authoritarian, fascist regimes and the lack of international cooperation to curb Germany, Italy and Japan’s attacks on other countries still reverberate today, only the cast of characters has changed.
Our last stop of the day was the Museum of Surrender in Reims, where the armistice was signed on May 7, 1945 at 2:41 am between German generals and the Allied Forces. (Note: Adolph Hitler committed suicide on April 30 in his Berlin bunker.) Here, all the paraphernalia of war is displayed – life-sized figures in uniform, artifacts including guns, radios, maps, etc., and the room where the generals met to lay down arms.
The museum is situated on the grounds of a school that was converted into the Allied Forces headquarters. Today, a school continues on the grounds and the thought youthful exuberance is a welcome counterpoint to the pall of death that inevitably haunts the Museum of Surrender.
Day Two, October 13, 2023 – Reims, Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial
The skies were cloudy, but yesterday’s rain had moved further east as we ventured out in the cool morning air to explore Reims. Named after the indigenous Remi people and long a major city in the Roman Empire, Reims sits at the northern border of the champagne wine region. Towering in the distance but just a 10-minute walk from the hotel was the Cathedral de Norte Dame of Reims, which dates back to 401. Beginning in 1226 to 1825, Kings of France were coronated at this cathedral lending to the town’s fame as the Coronation City. During World War I, the cathedral was bombed and burned. It took 20 years for the cathedral to be rebuilt. As you can see, the interior is majestic, and the cathedral was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is owned by the French government and leased to the Catholic Church, which still conducts services here.
On the way back to the hotel right before our 11 am departure, we came upon exquisite bakeries and butcher shops which rival Paris’ finest but without the crush of traffic. And then we were stopped in our tracks by a small memorial off on a side street: The Square of the Victims of the Gestapo. This former mansion of the wealthy Demay family was requisitioned by the Gestapo (German secret police) and turned into their headquarters. Cells were erected in the basement while the officers lived in comfort above. From this lap of luxury, the Gestapo hunted French Resistance members and rounded up Jews, the Romany people, communists and anarchists for deportation to death camps.
The museum was closed, and we could only stare at the sculpture, “Resurrection,” that dominates the courtyard. Online research shows that plaques are placed on the walls of the courtyard with the names of local residents, their arrest date, and their eventual fate – “death by deportation.”
We arrived at the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial near St. Avold late in the afternoon. It is the largest American World War II cemetery in Europe with 10,489 graves. The sun warmed us and cast long shadows over the sea of white headstones. Off in the distance, members of the French veterans’ association including members of the French Resistance hosted a grave adoption ceremony where local residents formally became the guardians/caretakers for an American veteran’s grave. Nearly 36% of the American families elected to have their sons and daughters buried on the European soil where they fell. Those who adopt graves like Clement Derudder, Quentin Thiaville, and Cyril Toussaint, three friends of our guide Nora de Brieve, visit the graves periodically to clean them and place flowers. Members of our group placed wreaths of origami cranes on the graves of John and Victor Akimoto, two brothers who died in Italy and Germany. Although they served in different units and died of different circumstances – John from a liver infection while serving in Italy and Victor in a German POW camp – the family wished for them to be buried next to each other. (For more information, read Art Hansen’s review of When the Akimotos Went to War.
At the end of the day, Jeanie Hibino, Donna Kotake, Laura Misumi and Joe Uno, all descendants of Nisei soldiers, were given the honor of folding the American flag after it was lowered down. A hush fell over the cemetery as the last guests, a lively group of French high school students, departed.
Day Three, Oct. 14, 2023 – Bruyères and Biffontaine
The day began with light rain as we stopped in Bruyeres to see the memorial to Sgt. Tomosu Hirahara, a native of Honolulu who was 21 years old when killed in action outside of Bruyeres. We drove to the field that served as the assembly point for the Nisei soldiers; some had come 450 miles from southern France on trucks over bumpy and slippery, rain-soaked roads, others by train. In total, there were about 5,000 men gathered by the late morning, ready to march towards the German machine gun nests and road blocks on the 1,000 foot mountain tops that allowed them to hold Bruyeres, a rail head that was critical to the movement of German troops and supplies. The German border was only 40 miles away; thus the Germans were ordered to hold the line. But before the 100th/442nd could advance teams from the 232nd Engineers’ C Company would need to clear minefields. Rain began to fall more heavily now, evoking a sense of what it might have been like on Oct. 14, 1944, except for one key detail: we were not being fired upon with artillery shells and rockets.
As the rain fell steadily, we disembarked at the Yohei Sagami memorial outside the farm of Michel Pierrat, whose family erected a small wooden memorial in 1947 to honor him. Sagami was one of eight brothers from Wentachee, WA who served in the 442nd. He had joined the army while incarcerated at Minidoka concentration camp. Early in the Battle for Bruyeres, Sagami was hit with shrapnel from a German artillery shell. Fellow soldier George T. “Joe” Sakamoto, dazed from the blast, rose to help his friend but shrapnel had pierced Sagami’s jugular vein and he bled to death on the field. Michel Pierrat, who was 12 years old during the war, recounted how young Frenchmen would need to hide in the forest to escape capture by German troops. Capture meant deportation to Germany as slave labor. Although he was still recovering from hip surgery, Michel Pierrat came out to greet us and expressed his gratitude to the Nisei soldiers for liberating Biffontaine on Oct. 23, 1944. Years later, the Sagami family contacted the Pierrat family, and they worked with others to erect a permanent granite marker at the site.
We journeyed to the town of Brouvelieurs for lunch during which our special guest Jean-Claude Villaumé, son of French Resistance leader Andre Villaumé, told us what life was like under Nazi occupation. He spoke of the hardships of hunger and the fear of conscription as the Germans shipped off able-bodied men and later women as well to work as slave labor in German munition factories and farms. By July 1944, four years after the occupation of France, an estimated 600,000 to 650,000 French men and women had been sent to Germany as slave laborers. Millions of Belarussians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and Yugoslavs suffered from hunger and malnutrition as slave laborers in textile mills, arms factories, airplane and railcar manufacturing plants. For many of us, our reference points to WWII in Europe are the London bombing, the invasion of Normandy, the Holocaust and “Saving Private Ryan.” We don’t know about the vast killing machine that operated behind the lines where enslaved people were held at gunpoint, beaten and worked to death. No wonder thousands of people in France, including immigrants, students, and communists joined the Resistance to sabotage German trains, guide downed Allied pilots to safety in Spain, and provide intelligence to the Allied Forces. Most Americans do not know that the Germans massacred 643 French civilians in Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944, just months before the Battle of Bruyères, in retaliation for the Resistance’s kidnapping and public execution of a German SS Major.
Jean-Claude told us of one cruel tactic by the Germans who would deliberately set fires to homes and farms in order to draw out the volunteer fire department, of which Andre Villaumé was a member. Once the firemen arrived, the Germans would swoop up the men. Luckily, Andre escaped. When the 100th and 442ndapproached the Vosges, Andre Guilluamé, Jean Drahon, Marcel Bello, Andre Ferry, Henri Mougeolle, Paul Charpin and Luis Thuron, members of the French Resistance in Bruyeres, went out to guide the 100th/442ndthrough the forests towards the town.
Jean-Claude Villaumé also told us that many of the people who aided the Resistance were women and children, who could more easily move around town. They noted where the German soldiers were housed and the location of roadblocks. This information was then relayed by courier to the 100th/442nd enabling the 522ndField Artillery Battalion to aid the advancing infantry by laying down cover fire. As these stories were shared over a bountiful meal, I realized that despite the passage of time, nearly 80 years, the harsh occupation and the hard-fought liberation will never be and must never be forgotten by the people of Bruyeres and Biffontaine and the other towns liberated in the Vosges Mountains. It incumbent upon us, those who have visited the Vosges battlefields, to share these tales of heroism and sacrifice by French and Americans to everyone we know.
After lunch, the sun broke through the clouds as we hit the road to Biffontaine to receive an official welcome from Mayor Denis Henry whose remarks were relayed in English by Celine Dupey. We quickly hopped on the bus again and went on twisty roads through the forest by the hamlet of La Hussière to the commemoration site of the Nisei soldiers rescue of the Texans of the 141st “Lost Battalion.” As the video below attests, the heartfelt greetings and acknowledgement of a shared experience will be cherished for a long time. Tramping through the forest we came towards the foxholes from which the Nisei soldiers launched their frontal assault on German troops who had surrounded the 275 Texans. After a six-day battle where the Nisei were outnumbered 4:1, the Texans, who were now down to 211 soldiers, were freed. By the end of the month-long campaign in the Vosges Mountains, 160 Nisei soldiers were dead and 1,200 were wounded.
While we were in the forest, we asked Mayor Henry if his parents and the people who lived through occupation ever talked much about the experience. He shared that his parents were reluctant to speak about those terrible times, and that it was more the case that the grandparents would disclose details about having to hide in caves to avoid the German troops. Perhaps like the Nisei who did not wish to relive the trauma of incarceration, the French survivors of occupation wanted to spare the children from the horrors of that experience. Today, the story of the liberation of the towns is part of the high school curriculum.
We ended the day back at the Biffontaine City Hall for a reception which was highlighted by Joe Uno’s reading of his father’s letter to his sister Mae. Written with great feeling and powerful observations, Ernest Uno captured the suffering of war and the eternal hope for peace. Joe Uno and Donna Kotake also received a medal of honor from the City of Biffontaine in recognition of their fathers as liberators of the town.
Day Four, October 15, 2023 – the 79th Anniversary of the Liberation of Bruyères
Every year without fail the people of Bruyeres commemorate the liberation of their town with a church service, a parade and town square ceremony, and a visit to the American soldiers’ memorial erected at hill 555 in the forests. As you will see in the following video, townspeople, young and old, attend the event which involves city officials, the police and fire departments, a marching band, and youth. At each event, the Nisei soldiers and American military (several units also operated nearby in the Vosges campaign), were lauded for their bravery.
The ceremony was brief and we had chance to learn more about the liberation of the towns of Bruyères and Biffontaine. As the fighting grew more intense, local citizens fled to their cellars to wait out the bombardment. After the Nisei soldiers took the town, there were still Germans holed up on houses ready to counter-attack. Local residents pointed out the houses and number of troops within those houses making it much easier for the Nisei to capture them. In the end, the victory was celebrated by local residents sharing whatever wine, cheese, milk and food they had stowed away. These were the types of stories we heard over and over again.
A fascinating part of this journey was meeting the young men who function as collectors and archivists of the Nisei soldiers’ stories. Cyril Toussaint, Quentin Thiaville, and Clement Derudder scour local flea markets for WWII memorabilia. They also participate in reenactments and at commemoration events.
Sebastian Roure, a local history buff, recounted how he found the Farrington High School ring of Robert Kuroda by using a metal detector in the forests of Bruyères in November 2021. After months, he was able to locate the Kuroda family, who then came to Epinal to meet Sebastian and be reunited with this momento of their fallen family member. Ronald Kuroda, who served in the 100th Battalion, received the Medal of Honor from President Clinton in 2000 on behalf of his brother. Click NPR Oahu Family Finds Class Ring Lost 80 years ago in WWII.