—— I understand you were born in northern CA, when did your family make their way to San Diego? Was that before the relocation and the internment camps?
Much before, much before. I know we were living here in San Diego before 1927. That I remember because they had a flood and it washed all the bridges out down in Encanto; that was 1927 when that happened.
—— When World War II broke out, where were you and your family sent?
Poston Arizona. My father was sent to Missoula, Montana. It happened in stages; first we went from here to Santa Anita and then to Poston, AZ. I can remember spending my 21st birthday in the stables at Santa Anita. We went by train from San Diego up to Santa Anita and stayed in the horse stables. I think you know about all that. That’s where we were living. We weren’t there a heck of a long time…maybe a couple of months I recollect before we went to Poston
—— I can’t begin to imagine what that must have been like, especially since you were born and raised in California.
What’re you going to do? Couldn’t speak Japanese—couldn’t understand it even. Well, what could you do? It was either you conform to what they wanted and go, or you’d be put in jail. You didn’t have any choice. There was really nothing you could do—so you had to go with it. We tolerated it as best we could. What happened was that the government, the Federal, picked up all the first generations…most all of them male, and they were interned in different camps.
—— What was life at Poston like when you finally got there?
Hotter! (laughing) I didn’t want to just sit around and so I got a job as a tractor driver. We hauled sand back to camp to mix cement and to build some of the buildings. That was my job. I was also a “bloc” carpenter. Each bloc was supposed to have a carpenter and so when something was broken or needed fixin’…well, the carpenter would help. I got introduced to that through a real carpenter. We just happened to get friendly, you know, and he said, “I’ll show ya what needs to be done.” He showed me how to sharpen saws, hand saws, how to take care of ‘em and little things like that. He also showed me how to carve; we carved a bunch, because you didn’t have nothin to do! Poston Camp III was close to the river. I was in bloc 327 and I ‘d say it was maybe 3 or 4 miles from the river…the Colorado River. I was drivin a tractor and every now and then we’d hijack on of ‘em and go down to the water. They said, “We need trees for posts.” so it was a legitimate reason to go down to the river.
—— What was the real reason you wanted go there?
Fishin! We’d drive down and we’d load the tractor up with logs and then we’d go fishin. I didn’t like to swim, but some of the guys did and across the river they had an Army camp to watch us so we couldn’t escape. As long as you didn’t stride across the river it was okay. After awhile we went and built ourselves a raft, outta cotton wood. Problem was cotton wood trees are very porous; we didn’t know that, but we got a bunch of ‘em and tied them together and figured we’d try it.
—— So what were you guys thinking?
We wanted to get to the good fishin spots. (laughin) Couldn’t reach’em from shore—and that’s where all the fish were! We started and the raft was getting lower and lower in the water and one side was startin to sink. That’s when we seen across the way a lot of dust come up; the Army was coming up in Jeeps on the other side to meet us! Apparently they were a little worried that we may have been staging a break, so they shadowed us from along the shore. So we beached the raft and went back up to camp. No one ever said a word to us.
—— So even in the camps you still found a way to have a little fun. I’ve heard people say that even though camp wasn’t somewhere they wanted to be, they made friends for life there. How about yourself?
You make a lot of friends there—a lot of friends. That was completely different than bein in the Army after I volunteered from camp...
—— So how long were you at Poston before you volunteered for the Army?
I guess I was in camp for a little over a year. Then when they finally decided they’d accept Japanese Americans into the Army and I enlisted. The Hawaiians were already in the 100th Battalion and from that they must have figured out that Japanese Americans were pretty reliable, so they expanded. Eventually, that 100th Battalion became the 1st Regiment in the 442nd.
—— Did you ever have any misgivings about joining up, fighting for a government that had turned its back on you?
There were people on both sides, but it wasn’t too tough…not too. You just don’t pay any attention to ‘em. This is my life and I do it the way I want to do it; you do it the way you want to do it! You either join or you don’t join. That’s your business. See, when you’ve gone through all this and they’ve confiscated all of your belongings, all your vehicles, and then less than a year later they say, “We can’t keep’em in storage anymore. We have to sell them!” what are you gonna do? We had a brand new ‘41 Cadillac, a truck and couple of others, and they told us they got $600 dollars for’em. It was nothing. The thing was, if we didn’t go and join the Army… what would we do after the war was over? We’d be outcasts! Okay, so if you can’t beat’em–join’em, and so a lot of us volunteered.
—— Was there a feeling with you or some of the other guys that “If I go I can prove to everybody that I’m just as American as anybody else—just as good as anyone else.”?
Better! (laughing) Cuz a lot of ‘em wouldn’t join.
—— So after you signed up, what happened next?
We went to Camp Shelby Mississippi and trained. Gosh, I don’t even remember how long it took. We had three platoons, I was in Canon Company, as a radio operator. They were 105mm Howitzers, short barreled and designed to reach between the mortars and artillery. Mortars could only shoot so far, and then the canons could shoot a little bit further, but the artillery was in back of everybody. Canons were used for ground support. See the Canon company goes wherever they are needed and sometimes we’d get attached to another battalion or regiment.
—— Name, rank and serial number?
Pfc Ito (Private First Class) 3991416. That’s military only. Somehow in camp I got roped into being the company barber.
—— Any experience cutting hair?
No! Well, I learned (laughing). Cuttin hair, that’s easy! All you need is some clippers.
—— So you went from cutting wood in camp to cutting hair in boot camp.
Yep! They had a PX barber and it was just too much hassle to go through such a long line and so everyone wanted to go to the company barber. People would come up to me and say, “Hey, how about a haircut?” We’d be doin our exercises and people’d be sayin, “How about a haircut?” Around inspection everybody wanted haircuts. Hell, I looked at all my dirty uniforms and said, “Can’t for a while, cuz I gotta do my laundry. Don’t have time to do so many.” So they said, “Okay, I’ll do your laundry if you give me a haircut.” Hell! I never had to do laundry again! They’d come up to me and say, “I guess I’ve gotta do your laundry.” Sure saved me a lot of work.
—— How’d you guys do in your skills training compared to some of the other groups?
Tops! (laughing) We all had separate programs, but more or less we were all taught the same thing. We trained separately, but then they kept score and so they knew how many sharp shooters you had from the firing range. They had the targets, how many hits you had and didn’t have, so then they’d pass that information on down. That’s how they compared us.
—— So, tops at shooting?
—— Did you have a nickname for your group?
The 442nd? Well all of us were known as “Buddha heads” and the Hawaiian boys called us mainlanders “Katonks”. Did you ever see a tire that’s flat and as it turns it make the sound katonk, katonk, katonk! That was part of the rivalry between the island boys and the “katonks.”
—— Do you keep in touch with many people from the Army or from camp?
After I got in to the Army…I got to be more of a loner. I just did not want to get too close to anybody, because …(voice tails off) You know what a body bag is? You know your thinkin your going to be goin into to action pretty quick…and if you get too close to somebody, and they get hurt, what are ya gonna do? Get hurt—get killed is what I mean. It hurt…kinda… kinda bad. I just couldn’t bear the thought of losing a friend. That’s just the way it is when you go to war. I mean, I had friends…buddy-buddy, you had to—we were right up there fighting together! But you didn’t let’em get under your skin. I had a brother in-law, married my sister, and he was in the 442nd. He was in Easy Company and I worried about him all the time. I was always waitin, looking, thinking, but there was no way I could protect him.
—— Where did the 442nd land?
Naples, Italy. Then we made our way up north through Italy and into France. We more or less walked the whole way.
—— What do you remember about the first time you saw action?
Okay, the first time we seen any action, that is got fired on, we were goin north up Italy. We got into a valley and there were two roads that criss-crossed and a house. That’s the place we stopped to have lunch. First thing they teach you is to never pick a spot like that! That’s because the enemy artillery already has it zeroed in. There was a creek bed right beside it so we thought it was a real good place; we kinda hid the trucks, put the cannon under the trees and then we broke out the chow. Everybody carried their own mess kit and a lot of’em would take their helmets off, cuz if ya turned it upside down it made a good seat and you don’t get your butt all muddy. So we were all millin around, waitin for our chow, and all of a sudden you hear ji, ji, ji, ji BOOOM! and everybody hit the ground. Some of the guys put their mess kits on their heads for protection and then we had to dig! Nobody had their shovels with them…that was all in the truck, so guys were diggin with spoons… That was something—the first time we got fired on.
—— I imagine that’s something you remember pretty clearly?
You don’t forget too quickly. After that you kin be sure we never stopped in a cross-roads with a house on it again! You’ve gotta learn your lessons quickly—supposed to anyway. That first one, there were no casualties, so it’s something we all looked back on and laughed at.
—— Did the 442nd have some kind of rallying cry?
Go for Broke! During the action you get all ready and the enemy is startin to break up a little bit, starting to back a little bit away. That was your chance. Then they’d yell, “Go for broke!” and everybody would go right there on the spot. If you don’t and they get settled again it was harder to break’em loose. See, once you can break through you’ve got it made. A lot of ‘em acted and felt like they didn’t care what happened.
—— Was there a time when it hit you that this was life and death?
As we went further on up, we started getting a lot more activity. We were down by the Arno River one time, and we had one fella, he wanted to go home so bad… When you dig foxholes, it’s supposed to be just big enough to get your body in so no shell fragments can get you. This guy would always dig the deepest—deeper than all of ours, and that’s when I really got paranoid about not getting to close to anybody. That’s when it really hit me that this was about life and death. It so happened that one shell was fired into camp…and it went right in his hole. He was one of the first people to get killed and it hurt everybody …inside.
—— How did everybody handle being thrown into action?
At first, it scared the daylights out of you, but after awhile you got used to it and you just went about your business. Once, we was riding in a Jeep and we were going up north and all of sudden we hear this CRACK and then a shell exploded on the other side of us—German 88s! (88mm artillery). So heck, we stopped and just piled out of the Jeep and layed down in a ditch. We were goin up one mountain and across the way on another mountain, they were shootin across at us. Can you believe the shell went right underneath the Jeep we were in—that’s when we bailed out. I used to smoke; had some Taylor Mades I was savin to sell, and I had some Bull Durham tobacco in a sac that I’d roll. When we bailed out my hands were shakin so bad I couldn’t hardly get the papers out to roll a cigarette and I had a heck of time gettin any tobacco into one. Finally I fixed up something that looked like a cigarette and we just laid in that ditch waitin. After about a half hour the driver told us to get ready and he says, “Okay let’s go!” and the three of us jumped in that darned thing and took off! That was pretty close…kinda made yer hair stand up ya know (laughing).
—— Can you recount the events that led to your decorations: the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for Valor?
Got them a couple a weeks later in Bruyeres in support of the Lost Battalion of Texas. They got cut off behind German lines. Okay, so somebody had to get’em out. We had quite a bit of experience going through the mountains and that’s why they called in the 442nd ! Well we lost more people than we saved. Some of the companies went in there with 200 and some plus men and out of that 6 of them walked out. We took all the casualties to get up to ‘em. They were surrounded.
I was a radio operator, and we was tryin to find a better spot for observation. We were supposed to call for fire, but then if ya can’t see nothin ya can’t. We were the eyes of the canon. We was up on top of this big ridge tryin to find a place were we could see down below and through the trees. It was awfully hard, and then there was a BAM, BAM, BAM and we started to run. The first thing you know my helmet dropped off my head and started rollin down the road, with me chasin after it; I wanted that darned helmet so bad. Well, I got it back on my head and took off to where they wasn’t firin at us anymore. When we stopped and looked down, the observer and me, all we could see was tree branches and trunks—about 4-foot deep, all the tops of these 100-foot pine trees were shattered from the all the blasting. So we said, “Aw hell, let’s wait right here for a little while.” That was good for me, cause the radio was getting heavy and then they started firing again! So we stood up and were gettin ready to move, and BAM! It felt like somebody hit me with a baseball bat. A shell had hit above in one the trees and the shrapnel come down and hit me. I happened to be behind this one big tree, with just my arm stickin out, but it still got me. That’s how I got the Purple Heart.
The thing was, I was wounded by the shrapnel from the blast, but I stayed cuz the first-aid and artillery couldn’t communicate with the frontline. Ya see our radio signals were line of sight, they wouldn’t go over a hill or go down the other side, but I was up on top so I could get both sides communications. So I told ‘em “I’ll relay for you” I gave ‘em coordinates and so on so they could send stretchers and aim their weapons. Anytime you got a call for stretchers you knew someone was hurt pretty bad, but like mine, hell I figured I could wait. I was hurt too, and, I think it was Sgt. Iwamoto who said, “What’re you going to do?” and I told him I’d stay and man the radio and go down with the medics later. So I just kept radioing back and forth, relaying messages, until they finally came and said “We’re here to pick you up.” And that’s what I received the Bronze Star of Valor for, stayin with my regiment, relayin message after I was wounded. So I left my radio and they took me down and sent me over to England to fix me up.
—— Above and beyond the call of duty. So you’re a pretty tough guy.
—— When you came back stateside, after all this, did you encounter much prejudice or discrimination?
Only a couple of times. Up in LA is where I got discharged…I still had my uniform on and I went to a restaurant and they said they wouldn’t serve me. That was the first time The other time happened when I got back to San Diego, right down here in Encanto where there used to be a barbershop. I think the war had ended, and I needed a haircut, so I went down to a local barbershop; I walked in and had a seat in the chair and sat and waited… and waited. People would come in and get their haircut, but not me. This went on for awhile and finally, everyone had left and it was just the two of us and I says, “How long do I have to wait for a haircut?” and he said “For you! Your not gonna get a haircut from me!” So I calmly asked, “Why is that?” and he replied, “Your people killed my son.” And I answered, “The US Army didn’t kill your son.” “ Well your Japanese, right?” and I said, “Yes. I live right up on the hill there.” He said, “Yeah, I know who your are, but your people killed my son.” I said, “I couldn’t have. I was fighting for the United States Army. I just got back from overseas; I got a Purple Heart serving our country. Your son and I used to be friends.” He replied , “Yes, but then …” and then I told him, “I’m sorry about your son.” Well, he waited, and waited, and finally he said, “You was in the US Army?” and I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “You knew my son?” and I said “Yes, we went to school together.” He said, “You went to school together.” “Yeah right up here.” I told him and he looked confused and says “Ahhh I don’t know what to do. I lost my son.” And I told him, “I can’t take his place, but I’ll try. I’ll come and get my haircut here all the time.” So he looks at me and he says, “Come on.” so he put me in his chair and gave me a haircut and when I asked him, “How much do I owe you?” he says, “You don’t owe me nothing.” I said, “I’d like to pay you something..” and he says “I acted too fast.” and then he apologized to me and from then on that’s the only place I ever went to get a haircut.
—— When you think back to that time in your life, is it something that you look back on with a sense of pride and accomplishment for what you did?
Oh yeah. Yeah, holding grudges… the only one it hurts is yourself, cuz you turn yourself off and don’t want to have anything to do with anybody or anythingーso then you lose a lot.
(04-01-2005 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)