Bravest of Brave – World War II Nisei Hero

Johnny Nakamura was a Nisei – first generation of native-born Japanese parents – and one of my schoolmates. He was killed in World War II fighting Germans in Italy.

How he and many of his Nisei buddies fought and died — while their families were being viewed with suspicious by Americans or being herded into barbed-wire “detention” camps – is a lesson in patriotism.

Sojourners to this column may remember my recent piece on how to write your own epitaph. I mentioned Johnny when we were journalism students at Flint, Mich., Central High School struggling with our first lesson. We were directed to write our obituaries.

Johnny closed his assignment with an epitaph to be engraved on his tombstone: “I? Why?” His words have haunted me for a lifetime.

My dissertation about epitaphs on this newspaper’s website was spotted by schoolmate Jason Austin of Davison, Michigan. He forwarded it via the Internet to Johnny’s younger brother Frank. He lives in retirement at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Ah, the wonders of electronic journalism!

We are indebted to these and other sources about the Nisei Regimental Combat Team. It consisted of the 100th (Hawaii) Infantry Battalion and the 442nd (mainland) Infantry Volunteers.

It is the most decorated fighting unit in the U.S. Army for size and length of service. For the record: 22 Medals of Honor, 9,500 Purple Hearts and 18,000 Combat Bravery decorations.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the 100th Battalion already in existence pitched in to help rebuild the naval base. Native-born Japanese civilians were not segregated, but they voluntarily kept a low profile.

In California, families of immigrant Japanese – even naturalized citizens and their U.S. born children — were rounded up and placed in internment camps.

* * *

I was graduated from Flint Junior College and Johnny was well along on a degree with the University of Michigan. I joined the Navy. He was drafted into the Army and began training in the Signal Corps. .

Two months later, Johnny was honorably discharged “for erroneous induction” and reclassified “4-C, enemy alien.

At the same time, Johnny’s father, William Nakamura, a design engineer for the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, was discharged as an enemy-alien. He and wife Elsie, also born in Japan, had five other children.

The company gave him work he could do at home until he could be reinstated eight months later. He retired from Chevrolet in 1945 after Japan surrendered.

Johnny was intensely patriotic and tried repeatedly to enlist in the Army. The Military Intelligence Service turned him down because he could not speak Japanese. He visited Washington, D.C., and asked for help from his Senator and his Representative.

In February 1943, the Army allowed Nisei to volunteer for military duty. Within a week, Johnny was back in service. A year later he was in the Allied Italian campaign fighting Germans at Belvedere, Luciano and Leghorn.

Johnny wrote home often to describe the friendships he developed with liberated Italians.

The 442nd was sent to France in September 1944. There it was attached to the Seventh Army and saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the war at Bruyeres.

Very shortly, the Nisei were called on to rescue a “lost battalion.” The 1st Battalion, 36th Texas Infantry Division, at Biffontaine was nearly out of ammunition and surrounded by Germans.

Again, the 442nd was successful, but with 800 dead and wounded. In 1963, Texas Gov. John Connally made the entire 442nd Regiment “Honorary Texans” in memory of their gallant rescue.

The 442nd was sent to Nice, France, for a few weeks of “rest and recuperation

The 442nd was moved back to Italy in April 1945 as a “secret weapon” for the final war in Italy. There, on April 5, Johnny and his platoon were targeted by a German mortar barrage. All were killed.

The war in Europe ended just 32 days later.

Sergeant Chester Tanaka later wrote Johnny’s parents. “John told me one night he expected to be killed the next day. I offered to take him out of the line for a few days, but John wouldn’t have it.”

Next day, John was, indeed, killed in the line of duty.

Stars And Stripes

Stars and Stripes,” the Army newspaper, carried the following story about his death:

“Pvt. John Nakamura of Flint, Michigan, a walkie-talkie man with his platoon, who has never missed a single day of combat and has about 175 actual combat days to his record said:

“‘When I was in France, I used to think of Italy. I thought of that time we were thirsty and drank out of a stream. The next day, farther upstream, we found a couple of dead Jerries, a dead Italian lady who was pregnant, some dead goats and a dead cow. All of them had been in the water a long time.

“‘I also remember the 27 days from Grosetto to Pisa in which there was no rain or a single cloud. Now that I’m in Italy, all I can think about is Nice.’”

Last Letter Home

Johnny’s last letter home, written from France while on R&R, was typical of his love of life, country and family – and his skill at writing:

“Thank you for the birthday card. I can’t even begin to realize how time has passed. I don’t know if it has been a long time or a short time since January. Home seems neither near nor far away.

“It’s all something like a dream in which time is lost before it is even noticed to be passing. I said, ‘Why, yesterday was my birthday; and I didn’t even know it.’

“The war news sounds encouraging, but one must not expect too much. War situations can change overnight – for better or worse.

“As for me, I do not regret being here, nor regret being in the infantry. The infantry is hard, it doesn’t make one any younger – 24 years and [I am] not yet settled.

“One must live some sort of life, and I could never be at ease if I hadn’t gone to take my share of this fighting.

“Everyone’s personal life is valuable to himself. He wants to be allowed to enjoy it. A man who hangs back and does not share Army service — if he is fitted for it and needed — actually is saying: ‘My life is more valuable to me. You can waste yours, but I shall keep mine.’ That is wrong.

“You must not worry if I don’t settle down even after the war is over. I’ve learned much even being in the army. I’d stay in France two years before coming home if I could find a way of doing it – study French and literature and other things that interest me.

“Army life has made me feel free, even if I still haven’t chosen any profession yet. That doesn’t seem important as long as I can find a truly satisfactory life.

“When one is a child, his parents do all they can for him. When he grows up, he must do for himself.”

* * *

For his army service, Johnny was awarded the Combat Infantry Man’s Badge for action in Italy and France, the Purple Heart for wounds received in action, and the Bronze Star Medal for “heroic achievement.

He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Thank you, Johnny, and rest in peace.

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