Sept 5, 1918 – Nov 13, 2001
Notes: This story was transcribed by interviews of Kaoru Suzuki in 1990 by his daughter Sharon Suzuki.
Kaoru Suzuki was born on September 5, 1918 in Hawaii to mother Fuyo Sasayama and father Katsumi Suzuki. Kaoru was the second oldest of four brothers: Katsuo (Tom) who was 3 years older, Yasuo who was 6 years younger, and Hiroshi, who was 15 years younger. Katsuo, Kaoru, and Yasuo were born on Oahu. Hiroshi was born in Japan.
His parents were rice farmers, both from Fukushima Japan. Kaoru’s father came to Hawaii in the second immigration to work on the sugar plantation in Waipahu. His father, Katsumi, worked on the train that transported sugarcane from the field to the factory. His mother came to Hawaii in the year 1912 as a picture bride.
House in Japan
In 1924 when Kaoru was six years old, the entire Suzuki family returned to Japan. It was the same year there was a major earthquake in Tokyo. After returning to Japan they lived in a house that had been transported from another town in carts by the villagers. The house came in sections like pieces of a puzzle. The neighbors helped put up the house. It had a ceramic roof, and the walls were made with a bamboo frame with crevices that were filled in using dirt and grass. When the dirt dried, it shrunk, leaving a crack between the support posts and the walls. Long steel beams hung from the roof to support the cooking pot, which sometimes bore a fish design. There were three rooms in the house: one living room, which had a fireplace, a kitchen, and a bedroom. The living room was covered with a thick tatami mat.
The sliding doors on the house came off so that during the day you could use shoji doors, and at night you could use wooden doors. The paper on the shoji door was replaced at least once a year. The fireplace in the living room was sunken and framed by wood. There was a chimney to let the smoke out. The house had one 60-watt light bulb, which hung stationary from the ceiling in the center of the house. Every day the unfinished wood floor was wiped down, making it shiny.
The kitchen included two barrels about three feet wide by four feet high that were full of miso paste. Miso soup was eaten for all three meals. During the summer, miso soup made in the morning would spoil because the temperature outside exceeded 100 degrees. Whether you were in the shade or in the sun, it was the same temperature.
To prepare for winter, they would buy wood and stack up enough for the entire winter.
In the summer they would go fishing for food because they could not afford to buy food. Kaoru would go night fishing in the river with his uncle. They would gut the fish and dry it by the fireplace since there was no refrigerator. The fish would last a few days after drying. During the winter, they bought dried fish. They ate mostly pickled takuan (radish), rice, and won bok (Napa cabbage). These were made before winter using salt, cold water, and powder from the outside of rice. The picked vegetables were kept in a medium sized wooden barrel.
Their water came from a well. The neighbors came to help them dig the well, which was about 20 feet deep. They built a platform around the well as support. The water was pure enough to drink. Before, a bucket was used to draw water. Later, they installed and used a hand pump. Only nine years ago, the city hooked up water to the house.
The bath was a furo in a small shack that also housed a toilet. The toilet was just a barrel with a hole in it. Collections from the barrel were used as fertilizer in the rice field. This is why vegetables were not eaten fresh – otherwise you would get worms. Kaoru got worms once, and it gave him a sore stomach. He took a pill to get rid of them.
The medicine man would leave all kinds of pills in each house. He visited twice a year and only charged you for what you used.
When Kaoru was 10 years old, his father left Japan again to return to Hawaii. Remaining family and friends ran the farm. His father sent money from Hawaii back to the family in Japan.
The whole family farmed by hand, using a tool like a hoe to turn over the dirt. Kaoru farmed when he was about 12 years old. The farm was about five or more acres. He borrowed his uncle’s horse to help with plowing. Rice farming begins in April and ends in October. During the winter, you rest until the next season comes. All of the rice was saved to feed the family.
At age 12 he also worked as a stevedore fixing county roads filling crevices with a hoe. He made 50 cents a day, working from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. He did this for a couple of years whenever school was not in session.
At about the same age, he worked delivering milk and newspapers by bicycle. He made 5 yen a month, delivering a total of about 15 bottles. The milk was kept in a wooden barrel full of cold well water until it was put on the bicycle. But by the time some people got their milk it was already spoiled. Well water is ice cold in the summer and warm in the winter. During the summer, you would throw cucumbers in the well water so they would get crisp and cold.
From age 16 to 20, Kaoru worked for a dentist in the city of Motomiya – a 10-minute walk from Fukushima. Ironically, he lived with a dentist named Suzuki. The dentist had no drill, but used hand tools. Kaoru worked as his dental assistant, laboratory assistant, pharmacist, and house cleaner.
The dentist had his own kids, but they were still too young to learn their father’s trade. The dentist made his own Novocain using four ingredients. Kaoru once forgot to add one ingredient and the person’s gums did not turn white. The patient was in for a tooth extraction, so they had to remake the mixture and try again. He worked from 5:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Chores included ironing and cooking rice, among other things. After four years, he received 60 yen, which is less than $5.
Kaoru had to quit this job because he got food poisoning from eating two manju with spoiled an (sweet bean paste). He had a sore stomach for more than one week. He was throwing up so the dentist took him to get a shot and told him to go home to his mother’s house to rest. It took another week before he got better.
After Kaoru recovered from food poisoning, his mother’s father came over and asked if he wanted to go to Hawaii. Kaoru wanted to go, so he wrote to his father in Hawaii asking him to send money. The money was received quickly.
Kaoru came over from Japan to Hawaii on a boat named the Tatsutamaru – a large passenger boat, which can fit hundreds of people. He left from Yokohama in early 1939. The journey took eight and a half days.
Brother Tom returned to Hawaii at the age of 15. In Japan you would usually graduate from school at the age of 16. Tom did not finish school. In Hawaii, Tom worked on the plantation cutting cane. After about age 20, Tom worked in a sporting goods store.
They reached Honolulu Harbor then went to the immigration office where he stayed overnight. The office was, and still is, located on Ala Moana Boulevard. They slept on a metal bunk. The next day, Kaoru’s brother picked them up in a flat bed truck. He took Kaoru to Waipahu via a single lane road that was overgrown with sugar cane. From Kalihi to Waipahu, all of the land was covered in sugar cane. There was one road and railroad track all the way from town to Kahuku.
Kaoru lived with his father in Waipahu camp near the railroad track. The camp had community basins and toilets. The toilet was in a row of stalls with a place to sit down. Water running underneath swept the sewage away.
They lived rent-free in a plantation house divided into rooms. Kaoru’s brother Tom lived two or three blocks up with the younger men. There was a community furo (bath) in the camps. After expenses, he had only 50 cents in his pocket. In those days, the movies cost 50 cents.
The same lady and family who cooked breakfast and dinner for single men also did their laundry. You had to be on time for meals or else there would be no food left to eat.
One week after arriving in Hawaii, Kaoru went to look for a job. He found a job making false teeth downtown. He worked from lunchtime to 5:00 p.m. every day except Sunday. He was paid $30 a month. He paid a salesman named Noji $5 a month to ride with him to and from Waipahu. Kaoru would wait in the car sometimes until 9:00 p.m. so he wouldn’t miss his ride.
Every day he ate a sandwich for lunch at Liberty Grill. The sandwich was usually butter and jelly, deviled egg, or a fried egg sandwich with ice tea – it was the best drink around in those days.
Every morning for three years Kaoru went to St. Andrews school located at the corner of Beretania and Queen Emma Street. There he learned basic English starting with the A, B, Cs. This was a special school for people who had just immigrated to Hawaii. It cost a few dollars a month. There were lots of Chinese girls and Portuguese. Since this was a church school, they had to go to church for morning service. They bowed and sang songs. Kaoru just hummed along with the songs because he didn’t know the words.
He worked as a lab assistant from 1938 until 1941 for the same guy.
Kaoru was drafted into the Army in September 1941. His boss asked if it could be delayed because he couldn’t speak English too well. Kaoru went in for a physical at Schofield Barracks. They asked how his physical condition was. Since it was ok, the Army took him. He stayed there until December for basic training. Kaoru belonged to the Hawaii National Guard Unit 228. There were all nationalities: Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese.
Men slept eight in a tent on wooden cots. One good thing was that the government fed them. He was paid $35 a month, which was equal to his pay in civilian life, but included meals.
In the army, they ate mashed potatoes and bread – no rice. The mess would make pork and beans every payday because they thought everyone had money in their pocket and so could go to the PX to buy hamburgers if they wanted to. The mess also made lamb curry. When lamb curry was served, Kaoru tried to eat it without breathing because the lamb meat was smelly.
On Sunday December 7, 1941 Kaoru was on a one-day leave visiting Mr. Date, his former boss. Kaoru was sleeping and awoke because of the noise coming from Pearl Harbor being bombed. He left right away to go back to Schofield because of the emergency condition. He had to pick up his rifle, get ammunition and be ready. He never learned how to use a rifle in training before the war started, and he had just been issued a gun. Kaoru didn’t sleep for two nights. He just stayed in the field to be ready.
Every plane that flew over was thought to be a Japanese plane, so someone would start to shoot. They often shot at their own planes with machine guns. An officer would yell at them to stop shooting because it was an American plane flying overhead.
They went to the Windward side of Oahu in Kaneohe and Waimanalo to protect the coast from invasion. They dug gulches on the beach to hide in. Each person received two sandwiches (either Spam or cheese). They also put up barbed wire on the beach. About 1,000 men stayed there for six months. They even built a prefab shack in the guava grove.
After six months the soldiers went back to Schofield. There, they separated all of the Japanese from the others and formed their own battalion of 1,200 men – the 100th battalion.
In 1942, they were taken to a non-military ship in Honolulu Harbor. The boat took everyone, including American civilians, to San Francisco. The trip took at least six days. After the boat went under the Golden Gate Bridge and reached San Francisco Harbor, they boarded an army train. The train ride was three days to Wisconsin – McCoy Camp. Kaoru stayed at the camp for one year of training.
Then, they went to Camp Shelby in Shelby Mississippi for more training. Training there was stricter and war games tougher. They slept in tents outside during the winter, walked in the rain and in the mud. They practiced with live ammunition. Machine guns shot live rounds while they crawled under barbed wire wearing a pack and carrying a rifle.
After Mississippi, everyone went to New York Harbor to get on another Army boat that was like a cargo ship. Kaoru took a few donuts from the Red Cross before getting on the boat. The next day Kaoru went up on the deck of the boat to look around and saw about 50 other boats. It took the boats about 15 days to reach Africa. On the way they passed the Rock of Gibraltar. They could see Spain across Africa.
For one month they practiced landing on the beach by running up the beach from a landing barge. The Army had to supply fresh water because all of the water in the streams there were salty. An engineer rigged hot showers using salt water. The water made soap stick to your skin and your hair. They carried a pack that consisted of a duffle bag, backpack, ammunition, a rifle, and grenades.
The Front Line
After one month, they got back on the boat and headed for Italy. The transport boat threw a net over the side and you had to climb down to get to the landing barge. They landed on Salerno beach. They had a big war on the same beach just a few days earlier so the beach had already been secured. No one shot at them when they landed. ABCD Company went to the front to fight. The EZ Company stayed on the beach to unload supplies for one week.
After one week, they walked from noon to midnight to get to the front line to join the rest of the company. It was a cloudy night, and they needed to dig in. It took one hour to dig a hole about two feet deep and about five or six feet long so Kaoru could lie down to sleep. The men lined the hole with straw for comfort. Kaoru lay down for a little while, and could hear shells far away in the distance. But the Germans got their coordinates and knew their location. The first two incoming shells went far past their area. But the next five shells came right in their area.
Kaoru left his rifle and pack in the hole and ran back away from the shells. He ran to a big ditch like a dry river with 10-foot high mud walls on both sides. He stayed in the ditch until morning. In the morning he looked around and noticed nobody had a rifle. In the morning everyone went back to their original holes to get their rifles and their packs. Two or three men had died from direct hits by the incoming shells.
After everyone got organized, they began to slowly advance. Then they began running to advance in the morning. By afternoon some of the men got lost from their own platoon. A platoon is made up of 40 men. Somehow, the platoon got back together again.
That night they slept sitting up. Most of their movement was done at night. Sometimes they slept at night. They kept advancing while the enemy kept retreating. This went on for one whole year. During that entire year they never came face to face with the enemy.
After one year they moved to Anzio, where they stayed for one month. During the day they stayed in the house of farmers who had left because the enemy was on high ground. At night they would go to scout to check if the boundary was secure. The password would change every night. If you didn’t know the password, you would get shot.
German planes would fly overhead and shoot tracer bullets everywhere to try to knock out the big guns. They had an anti-aircraft gun to shoot down the German airplanes. It would turn the sky black. Once a German plane came during the day and was shot down. Kaoru watched the plane crash.
The Germans had a gun on the train. The shell was about five feet long and three feet around. It looked like a battleship gun. They used it to attack big positions. The gun could shoot 30 miles. Big shells like that only explode if they land directly on their nose. Eventually, that train was captured by American planes that bombed them.
German tiger tanks were double the size of American tanks.
After one month in Anzio, they walked to Rome where there was heavy fighting. Kaoru saw the Vatican. He stood on the steps but did not go inside.
The troops reorganized before Rome to count casualties and freshen up by changing clothes. The 442nd regiment came to join the 100th battalion in Rome. They were supposed to take over the front from the 100th battalion. However, the 442nd had less experience. They were double in size compared to the 100th. They got stuck on their first day out and sent an S.O.S to get help from the 100th battalion. As a result, the 100th battalion only got to rest for a half day.
The 442nd was stuck at the bottom of a mountain. The Germans had the top of the mountain and the road under their control. The 100th battalion walked around the mountain to try to get on the side of them. As they walked on the road, Kaoru noticed a jeep coming down the road with two German officers in it. Kaoru gave a command for the entire battalion to shoot because their officer didn’t notice. Everyone missed, but the Germans got scared, abandoned their jeep, and ran away. The 100th battalion pressured the Germans to move out and saved the 442nd.
About 15 minutes before this incident occurred, Kaoru told his friend Tommy to move quicker because they were in an open area. Tommy said he was tired. Suddenly a bullet hit the butt of Tommy’s gun and cracked it in half. Tommy moved faster after that.
They continued to advance each day. Kaoru walked in his sleep. He said he was amazed they didn’t fall off any cliffs because they were in mountainous areas with small towns.
In a small village they captured a couple of Germans. One was a German Lieutenant who spoke English well. Their American officer and the German officer argued about why they were fighting this war. The German officer said they were fighting for freedom. Then they took him away.
Kaoru saw a few Germans climbing the mountain to run away.
They continue to walk all night to attack another position to sneak in at night. They walked right into the German’s defense position. They were across the riverbank. Two Germans were captured as they went to the bank to get water. A big battle ensued right after the sun came up. The Americans won that battle and took over the place. It was the first time Kaoru had shot and killed someone who had been standing across the river bank about 75 feet away.
That night they advanced again. When the sun came up, they were in the middle of an open field when they noticed they were only 100 feet from the Germans. The Germans were just waking up and both the Germans and the Americans were surprised. Their troop had to run back about 100 feet to find cover. Then heavy shooting started. The troop was stuck there for half a day. The Germans had big guns and mortar shells. The 100th battalion only had machine guns and rifles.
Later that afternoon the Germans left. Their objective was just to slow down the advancing Americans. Often, one German rifleman could hold back 1,000 men.
While crawling to attack an enemy bunker, you would get support from behind. Shells from behind aimed at bunkers would fly over your head. Once in Italy, a shell from their own tank killed a man only 15 to 20 feet in front of Kaoru. A plane flying up above told the tank the enemy was lined up ahead, but it was their own men.
One time in Italy, battalion Lieutenant Fukushima froze when their own tank shells fell short close to them. Kaoru told the Lieutenant to get in the house and use the phone to call and tell the tanks to stop firing. Lt. Fukushima was a judge back in Honolulu. Kaoru often found himself in situations in which he had to give orders.
In Anzio on the riverbank, Lt. Fukushima lost his wedding ring while digging a hole. Kaoru said to look for it because maybe it would sparkle. Shells started coming so Kaoru told him to forget about it and just get back in the hole. Then they have to leave, so Lt. Fukushima never found his ring.
Four to five days after Rome they got to rest. From 1,000 men, five men were selected from each company to go to the rest camp. A total of 30 men got into a truck and were driven back to a little town to rest, bathe, get new clothes, and sleep. After five days the truck was suppose to pick them up, but after five days the truck did not show up because it was busy at the front line. So those 30 men got an extra one and a half days rest, making a total of six and a half days.
When they were picked up after six and a half days, they went back to camp but no one was there except for headquarter staff. They had to walk to join the rest of the company at the front line.
At the top of the mountain, Germans were firing big shells only 10 feet above their heads. They stayed there until late in the evening when they met Hindu soldiers who were America’s allies. They didn’t carry rifles – only bolo knives and wine in their canteens.
The battalion reorganized again and moved on to France by truck convoy –all 1,000 men. Everyone changed their clothes and bathed after fighting. Each guy had three minutes to shower. They stayed there for one and a half days. Each company selected an area. France was a nice area. There was green grass on the mountain. The headquarter’s kitchen crew caught up with them so they got to eat a hot meal. Then each man pitched a tent. Each man only was supposed to carry half a tent in his pack, but Kaoru had two halves. The men were supposed to sleep with their head sticking out of the tent so that you could see outside. That night was nice. No rain – nice and quiet.
After one and a half days, the troops began marching to the front line. They looked at the map and understood the terrain and steepness of the mountain. France had a lot of big forests. There were a lot of big fallen trees from German or American shells. Everyone had to dig holes in the forest to protect themselves from falling trees. They covered the top of their holes with branches.
A young Japanese boy was with Kaoru. He was from the mainland and had been a medical student. He wanted to go souvenir hunting because he saw a body lying not too far off. Kaoru suggested waiting to see what would happen first.
German shells started coming. Kaoru and that guy timed the shells. They were falling about 10 to 15 minutes apart. So after a shell dropped, they ran to check bodies. About six to seven Germans were lying there dead, but they had not been dead for very long. They searched the bodies and found French money. The other guy found a watch. Kaoru found French money that was very crispy – about $500 worth. They went twice to check the bodies between shells. Someone said the money was no good because it was overprinted.
They went back into their hole. An American in the next hole got hit by shrapnel and died. He had been only 15 feet away.
Then it started to rain. Everyone just sat in their holes. It was too cold to sleep. They heard Germans yelling to each other all night.
The following morning, 1,000 men in their battalion attacked the Germans at the base of the mountain. They bought in tanks and dropped bombs. It took one and a half days to take the place. One of their guys got hit, so Kaoru carried him to the medical aid area. Kaoru said it felt like he was carrying 200 lbs. Kaoru didn’t know if that person died. After they captured the place, they took only 15 prisoners.
One captain told Kaoru to watch all 15 prisoners. He had to use sign language to tell them to put their hands above their head. Then he searched their pockets. He found 15 pocketknives. It seemed like the Germans were grumbling because we took their possessions. Kaoru explained to them that they needed to take it because it was a weapon. They seemed to understand. Kaoru took the prisoners to headquarters and ten went back to the front line.
Shells came in again. Five guys died. A small piece of shrapnel hit Kaoru in the butt, but it didn’t penetrate. It felt like the snap of a whip. Kaoru took out a mirror he carried around, but saw no blood. He thought if it were bleeding he would get a purple heart.
A few days later, Kaoru’s feet began to hurt so he told the lieutenant, “This is as far as I’m going because my feet are acting up again.” The lieutenant said ok, go to the aid station. Kaoru’s feet were soaked from the previous day. When he took off his shoes, his feet swelled. He had trench feet, which resulted when your feet get soaked and then frozen. This was the second time. The first time was in the early days in Italy.
From France, Kaoru rode an ambulance then took a DC-10 airplane back to a hospital in Italy. He had to just lie down and wait for his feet to get better. Then he went into the hospital shop to France to pick up some sick guys. The boat took 13 days to get from France to North Carolina. They stayed overnight in an army camp. The following morning, they went to Illinois by train. Before the left camp, they asked if you were able to walk. Kaoru said no, although he was walking around on the hospital ship.
Kaoru was carried to the ambulance and then to the train. They pushed him through the train window on a stretcher. The train took two days to get to Illinois.
He went to a general hospital. They carried Kaoru from the train to the hospital on the stretcher. His feet still hurt. He had to walk on his heels. His toes hurt the most.
The nurses in the hospital would wake him up early to take his temperature. Kaoru stayed in the hospital for about three months. There was no medicine or ointment to cure his feet.
After three months, they started to teach patients hobbies such as making leather goods. Then Kaoru received back pay of $300. He normally only received $85 a month. Lots of local boys would ask for leave to go visit the city of Chicago. Kaoru went dancing a few times. Community leaders would take care of the military boys by gathering all of the Japanese girls to dance with them.
Kaoru went to a Japanese restaurant. He ordered two full meals. The waitress asked if he could eat all of that. Kaoru said yes because he had not eaten rice for months. Kaoru brought back a box of musubi and takuan to the boys in the hospital. He did this about three times.
After three months, he was ready to leave the hospital and go home. Kaoru rode the train in first class to go to Seattle, Illinois. He stayed there for a few weeks to wait for the army transport boat, which was not nice like a passenger boat. There were no windows, just bunks. It took five days to get back to Hawaii.
In total, Kaoru had served in the military for four years and three months. Two years in training, two years at the front line, and three months in the hospital.