Salute to Stan Akita

Author: Joy Teraoka
Puka Puka Parades, January 2004, #04/1

Joy Teraoka details Stanley’s life as a German POW in World War II. His daughter also shares stories.

It is an undisputed fact that Stanley Akita has served more terms as president of the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans than any other of its leaders. As president, Stanley served in 1981, 1988, 1995 and 1996, then another three years from 2001 through 2003. That is a total of seven years. Is there any wonder that he feels so much a part of this organization and has been so committed to it.

After graduating from Hilo High School Akita, a sansei from Honomu on the Big Island, left to train as an electrician at a vocational school in Honolulu. Then on December 7, bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor, not only changing the course of history, but also affecting the course of study for Akita. He returned to the Big Island. At age 19, he, along with many other Hawaii boys, volunteered to serve in the newly formed 442nd Combat Team. While training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, in November 1943, Stanley was among those deployed to Italy to become the first replacements for the depleted 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate). As a member of C Company, he fought through the battles from Anzio in Italy and then on to France.

Following the liberation of Bruyeres, the 100th headed into the dense forests of Biffontaine where they captured around 27 German soldiers. Two men from Company C, Mike Tokunaga and Minora Norikane, were sent out to contact the ration patrol to get food to their men because they hadn’t eaten all day. However, the two encountered so many Germans, they could not get through, and barely made it back to their unit. Akita had a strange feeling that something ominous was about to happen to him. Up to this battle he had been lucky to have escaped injury or death. He wondered if his luck would hold out. His CO assigned him to be one of six guards taking some of the German prisoners back to the rear. Included in this detail were others from the 100th/442nd–eleven medics, six wounded litter cases, and four walking wounded. That morning when their sergeant and his English-speaking German prisoner reached the top of a knoll, they discovered that a short distance beyond them were about 150 Jerries, relaxing. Reacting quickly to this perplexing situation, the sergeant instructed the English-speaking German prisoner to ask the Jerries if they wanted to give up and go to America. To some of the Jerries who were tired of the fighting, it seemed like a good exchange, but their officer in charge resisted and ordered them to surround the Americans, instead. In the ensuing confusion, three of the American soldiers were able to escape. However, Akita, who was giving water to wounded officer Lt.”Chicken” Miyashiro, observed too late that the Germans were disarming the Americans and surrounding them at gunpoint. They were now captives of the Germans. Totally demoralized, Akita thought it was the end. Unpredictably, October 23, 1944, was the beginning of an arduous and unforgettable journey for the young soldier.

In the book Japanese Eyes, American Heart, Akita gives a fascinating account of his experiences as a prisoner of war. Despite the hardship, deprivation, and abject conditions they encountered Akita could also recount some of his experiences with a sharp sense of humor. Perhaps some of this humor, observed in the irony, absurdity and paradox of their experiences, helped him and others endure the hardship of their imprisonment.

Akita was a prisoner northeast of Munich in Stalag VIIA, with 499 other haole (Caucasian) POWs. He was among 20,000 Allied soldiers housed in flea and bedbug infested barnlike buildings where they slept on stow spread over the ground for their beds. For almost six months, from October 1944 to the latter part of April 1945, he spent the days clearing rubble and debris from Munich’s railroad station and town. Everyday the POWs walked about two miles to reach the railroad station. As for work assignments, these details offered them opportunities to exchange cigarettes for edible civilian bread from some eager German ladies—a luxury they yearned for to replace the “sawdust” loaves that were their usual mealtime fare. They smuggled the loaves in the pocket linings of their overcoats. Since random searches by their guards took place when they returned to their prison camp, they had to be careful not to be detected. Once when Stanley’s group was picked for the “shakedown,” he hurriedly dumped his loaves. When the German guard saw Stanley, all he said was, “Look at that small soldier,” and without the usual frisking he simply tapped Stanley’s head and passed him on. Stanley related he could have kicked himself because he lost the chance to smuggle in his four loaves that day.

The prisoners could only take baths on Sundays. Their “bath” was a small stream running alongside the barn. A road also ran parallel to the stream. What a hilarious sight it must have been to see 499 haole and one short AJA, all naked in the stream, bathing while automobiles merrily passed by. Another rather unsightly but funny “accommodation” was their “toilet,” which was made from a log about six inches in diameter and 15 feet long that rested on an X frame. The men had to just hang their okole over the log and do their business. Akita, being so short, had to make sure to find a spot right next to the X frame so he could hang on to the support and not fall backward – a rather unpleasant experience, to say the least.
One night about 10 p.m., Stanley heard machine gun fire from the nearby woods. It sounded distinctly like American weaponry rather than German machine guns. It seems he was the only one who heard it. However, the next evening, a battle royal erupted which everyone heard. Knowing the Americans were near aroused the excitement of the POWs. A little after dawn, American tanks rolled into the village, and all the Germans had white flags hanging from their homes, indicating surrender. The POWs were once again the conquerors. When a tankman gave Akita a loaf of American bread, it looked like a lovely cake compared to the 23% wood-pulp German GI bread.

With the American tanks entering the village, Akita knew for sure he would be going home once again to see his parents, siblings, relatives and friends. With this assurance, he knew the war was finally over for him.

Akita learned that even in war, the enemy can have a humane and compassionate side. Prior to their capture, Akita said German prisoners often helped to carry the litters of the wounded 100th soldiers. And when the 100th soldiers became prisoners, the Germans offered to carry the litters whenever our medics appeared tired. Also, the Germans did not take anything other than rifles and weapons from their prisoners. Akita appreciated the mutual respect that was extended despite the brutality of war.

Even today, there is an Ex-POW Chapter in Hawaii. Stan and a group of about eight 100th/442 members (ex-POWs) get together every other week to “shoot the bull,” or discuss POW matters. This shared experience reinforces a strong bond among them.

This year, when Stanley celebrated his 80th birthday, his daughter April paid tribute to her father. Besides giving us a bit of his history, she enlightened us about her father’s many other activities and interests. In her tribute she expressed how blessed her father was to be 80 years old and still have so many relatives and friends to help him celebrate that auspicious occasion. Each one played an important role in his life – “like facets in a diamond, each importantly and collectively, made his life a beautiful and brilliant one.”

The following is based on or excerpted from April’s account of her father.

Eighty years ago, in the country town of Honomu on the Big Island, her grandmother, Yoshie Akita, woke up at 4:00 in the morning, started the fire on which she cooked the rice and breakfast for her husband and his brothers, then did her usual chores such as scrubbing a heavy load of laundry on a washboard. A short time later, Stanley Akita was born! Can you imagine that today?

Stanley grew up in a great, rambling house with his parents and his younger siblings – three sisters and two brothers. Unlike most people his age, Stanley was not a nisei but rather, a sansei – a third generation Japanese. He had the good fortune of having his life enriched with numerous aunties, uncles and cousins on both sides of his family.

The Akita house was actually known as the Akita Store, located on the main road running through the town. The store also included a gas station out front, a billiard parlor, and an ice cream parlor. It was a busy home with friends, relatives, and customers, coming and going, and visiting throughout the day.

While growing up, Stan enjoyed the freedom to run WILD, as his mom was busy running the Akita Store and his dad was busy teaching and being involved with many community organizations. Adventurous Stan played on the train tracks, and when the train passed by, he and his friends would simply press their backs against the side of the hill as the train passed inches from their noses.

In explaining to his grandson that bamboo is very supple and strong, Stan exclaimed he knew by experience because he used to dangle over cliffs while hanging onto the branches of a bamboo tree.

Life wasn’t all fun and frolic – he had chores, too. One of his chores was to take the tobacco box upstairs to his matriarch grandmother whenever she called for it. He would dutifully carry the box upstairs, pull out the Bull Durham tobacco bag, and roll her a cigarette. Then he would proceed to roll one for himself. He and his grandmother would while away the time smoking together. This he “enjoyed” at the tender age of 13.

Another chore Stanley had was to feed the chickens. He and his friends would grab their buckets and walk to a certain wooden pier. However, there wasn’t any WATER under THIS pier. People would roll their wagons to the end, then drop their load of horse manure over the edge. The boys would then run and jump from the pier into this pile. He said it felt so soft and so warm. There, they would romp and play for a long time. Before leaving, they would be sure to fill their buckets with maggots found deep within the pile to feed the chickens. When Stan’s children asked, “Wasn’t it smelly? And how the heck did you clean yourself after all that?” He said, “SIMPLE – like this (dusting off his hands).”

Akita’s first REAL job was being a grounds keeper at the park in Hilo Bay. After the war, he moved to Maui and then to Honolulu where he worked as a civil engineer for the Department of Transportation.

In following the motto “For Continuing Service,” Akita has been an active leader in many organizations. He served on the Board of Directors for the Hawaii Government Employees Association, Hawaii State Federal Credit Union, Tropicana Village Association and his favorite organization, the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans association.

To daughter April’s admiration, Stanley has always had a great “sense of wonderment,” and “he pursued each area of interest with a passion.” Whether it was taking up photography, becoming a wine connoisseur, making fishing lures and tackles, creating craft jewelry, cooking gourmet food or becoming a gemologist, Stan studied each subject thoroughly then went on to excel in that area. He has won awards in photography, sold his jewelry at craft fairs, won fishing tournaments, created fine jewelry, and cooked dinners to rival Julia Childs or Martha Stewart.

April also mentioned how her father was super neat, orderly and very organized. She declared he was a handy person to have around because he could fix anything. Stanley’s motto is, “No need brains if you have common sense.”

Another talent we have observed is that Stanley can whip out his ukulele in a flash to strum and sing dozens and dozens of songs to everyone’s enjoyment

April recalled one of her fondest childhood memories when she was helping her Dad polish his shoes while they listened to some popular Italian songs. He would sing along as he got out his brush, polish, cloth and tin of water. April would put her foot in his big shoe to anchor it down so that he could easily brush and buff the different parts of the shoe. A strange memory? She thought so too, until she realized that “the strong feeling of security that was elicited by doing this mundane, routine activity with Dad” was so meaningful to her. She knew then that he would always be there for her and her sister in the days and years to come, giving them a sense of comfort, stability and peace. To his daughters, April and Cynthia, and to his wife, Yukie, these have been his greatest gifts to them, making their lives beautiful and brilliant

Stan may be “small” in stature, but he is mighty in talent and leadership. Now that is a “tall” order!

With his myriad talents and interests, it is the right time for him to retire from his role as president of the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans and to begin relaxing and enjoying his many hobbies.

Our best wishes and warm aloha for leading the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans over the past three years with devotion, commitment and dedication. We salute you for a job well done.