Kawasaki and Otagaki Remember the Medical Company
Hawaii Herald, June 19, 1992
By: Mark Santoki
It was a perfect shelter, like a tunnel,” recalled Capt. Isaac “Doc” Kawasaki, who commanded the 100th Infantry Battalion’s Medical Company. “We came to a gully and there was a culvert where you could sit down.” Kawasaki, his sergeant and seven other soldiers took a break in the protective culvert. Suddenly, Kawasaki heard the whistling sounds of exploding mortar shells. Soldiers in Bravo and Dog companies told him there were casualties.
“I was sitting in a nice, comfortable shelter. I didn’t want to go,” admits Kawasaki. But duty called, so the doctor walked away from the culvert. “That was the best call, because the next shell, right afterwards went into the culvert and killed every one of them in there. We would have been there. But it was luck that we walked out, because nobody would say that it wasn’t a good shelter. It’s luck. That’s the way the war was.”
Ken Otagaki, a University of Hawaii graduate who volunteered for the Army in 1940, was with Headquarters Company until the 100th went overseas. After most of the litter bearers in “Doc” Kawasaki’s medical unit were killed in combat, Otagaki was selected as a replacement.
Armed with only a canteen of water, medication bag and Red Cross armband, litter bearers like Otagaki risked their lives to bring the wounded back from the front lines.
“No guns,” says Otagaki. “That would be an extra burden. And if you are a messenger of mercy, you don’t need a gun.” Often firing from hundreds of yards away, German troops could not be expected to honor the medical armbands. Also, mortar and artillery shells did not discriminate. The litter bearers became targets like everyone else.
“It’s taxing because when the fighting starts, it doesn’t stop,” observed Otagaki. The litter bearers were on call ’round-the clock, 24 hours a day to retrieve the wounded. “I wasn’t one of those brave souls,” says Otagaki.
“I did my share of the work, but I didn’t care to be on call for 24 hours a day, because I needed my sleep and rest. So when the need arose and they called for litter bearers, I didn’t particularly volunteer.” At night the sergeant would call the names of litter bearers for duty. Early on, when Otagaki’s name was called, he wouldn’t answer. Then the sergeant would say, “’God damn. I know Otagaki is someplace out there. Otagaki!’ By the third time, I grudgingly said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Why don’t you answer?’ asked the sergeant. ‘I was sleeping,’ I said.”
He says there were some extraordinarily dedicated and brave litter bearers. One such person was Otagaki’s partner, Isaac Akinaka. A devout Mormon, Akinaka always volunteered to carry the front of the litter and would constantly drag Otagaki back and forth from the front lines to the medical aid station. “And during the night, he was so devoted to his job, I could see the tracers whizzing by. Oh, it was thick, but he would say, ‘We got to go; those guys are hurt. They need our help,'” recalls Otagaki.
The litter bearers often found the wounded critically injured. In spite of their need for immediate medical attention, most would ask the medics to care for others first. “If they were a sergeant, they would say, ‘They’re out there; they need help more than I do,'” Otagaki recalled. “I tell you, when you see these people, it’s not only frightening-but you will recognize that they were brave people.
“They were all young kids, you know,” said Kawasaki, who earned his medical credentials from the University of Cincinnati in 1935. Because the 100th Battalion was a fast-moving unit, Kawasaki primarily diagnosed injuries and prepared the wounded for eventual evacuation to a field hospital. He only performed surgery on the most critical cases. “They were just old teenagers or in their early 20s at the most. What was characteristic was that very often a young soldier knows he’s going to die or has a very bad injury. Just before he dies, he invariably calls out to his mother, ‘Mama…’ Then I know he’s going to die. And that’s something, to this day, I cannot analyze.”
Otagaki brought back the critically wounded soldiers and’ hoped that they would somehow make it. “I tried, I tried, but it’s very difficult, when they’re just about gone. Some guys have their face blown out. You know they are not going to survive. And yet, they’re breathing, and with a guttural voice, ‘Okaasan ….’ I couldn’t do anything, because they were beyond saving. You go through those experiences time and time again, and you are not hardened by them. Each new experience is a real one. Every time I think about these things, I can’t help it; I think so much of them. It’s beyond the call. They did their share and sacrificed their lives so that we can live.”
As casualties mounted, Kawasaki questioned the purpose of being there. “What the hell are we here for? There are so many young kids, nice people. They are all getting blown to bits,” said Kawasaki. “What kind of thing is this? It’s in the back of our mind, but we don’t complain. That’s why it didn’t matter with me if I was with them when they got hit or not. Because anytime that it was due for you, well, you get it. We were in the same boat as everybody else. We weren’t in an armored shell.”
During the fighting, Kawasaki never thought of himself as a “Japanese American.” Although he understood that it was the main reason the men were together, he says he didn’t feel he had to prove anything because of it. “And it wasn’t the purpose of showing people that you were the exception, because you weren’t … I doubt that any of the war heroes thought about that, because when you’re getting shot at, you don’t know when you’re going to get it. As a doctor, I had no business there.”