The Awakening of a Sansei Beneficiary
Robert Ajitomi grew up seeing the handsome, young faces of two men dressed in Army uniforms near the butsudan (Buddhist altar) of his family home in Kalihi Valley on Oahu. During the summer obon (festival to welcome home the spirits of the deceased) season, he faced the butsudan and offered prayers to long-deceased family members. But like his four siblings, Robert, a Sansei (third-generation Japanese American), never really knew whose memory he was honoring with his prayers.
In time, he learned that the two young soldiers — Matsuei and Tokio Ajitomi — were his father Yoshio’s older brothers. Both had died on the battlefields of Europe in World War II while serving with the 100th Infantry Battalion. At family gatherings during his youth, Robert would also hear about the war experiences of an aunt’s husband, a 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran.
Yoshio Ajitomi had always wanted to see the battlegrounds where his only brothers lost their lives. So, in 1994, 50 years after their deaths, Yoshio, his wife Betty and son Robert, joined several hundred World War II Nisei veterans and their families on a tour of their wartime battlefields. The tour culminated in the Alsace region of northeastern France, where the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the small towns of Bruyeres and Biffontaine by the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team was commemorated with gratitude beyond words. It was in that region that one of the Ajitomi brothers had died.
Robert wanted to see with his own eyes the battlegrounds where his uncles had fought. And as a member of the California Air National Guard, he was personally interested in their esprit de corps. “I’m kind of curious why, first of all, the 442nd was a better fighting outfit than the normal outfits. What made them a better outfit? Just to see what kind of stuff they had to go through and how it would be different if I had to go and fight . . .”
He also wondered what might have been going through the soldiers’ minds as they climbed the steep mountains of Italy and fought their way through the dark, freezing forests of the Vosges mountains in France.
Seeing was believing, and Robert came to understand why the 100th/442nd were exemplary fighting units and the essence of their “Remember Pearl Harbor” and “Go For Broke” spirit.
“They had a higher morale because they were being oppressed,” Robert said. “They went out to fight to prove that they were loyal Americans. This was their way.”
All three Ajitomi brothers — Matsuei, Tokio and Yoshio — were born in Lahaina on the island of Maui, where their parents, Matsusuke and Kame Ajitomi, had settled after immigrating to Hawaii from Okinawa, Japan. When their sons were just a few years old, the family returned to Okinawa, where a daughter, Haruko, was born. The parents died a short time later and the four children were raised by their grandmother.
In 1930, Matsuei, by then 15, and Tokio, 13, returned to Lahaina. Yoshio returned to followed in 1934. Their sister Haruko remained in Okinawa, where she would make her life.
Mike Tokunaga, a 100th Battalion veteran from Lahaina who served in C (Charlie) Company, said the Ajitomis lived in Hirai Camp, which was located just above Launiupoko Park. They attended Sacred Hearts School and were working for Pioneer Mill, a sugar company, when they were drafted into the U.S. Army.
Matsuei and Tokio were both drafted into the 299th Infantry Regiment, a National Guard unit comprised of men drafted from the Neighbor Islands. Its companion regiment, the 298th Infantry Regiment, consisted of Oahu draftees. Matsuei was in the first group of draftees, who were inducted in December 1940, one year before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Tokio was drafted into the same unit less than a month before the attack.
Six months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the 298th and 299th were merged into the Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion, which left Honolulu aboard the SS Maui on June 5, 1942. The 1,432 men aboard, including Matsuei and Tokio Ajitomi, had no idea of their destination. The unit arrived in Oakland, Calif., on June 12, and was renamed the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate). The men received basic training at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, followed by combat training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.
In September 1943, the unit was ordered into battle in Italy.
The Ajitomi brothers were both assigned to C Company. Nearly a month after they entered combat in Italy, Matsuei suffered massive head injuries in an enemy attack near Rne Le Grotto village in Alife. Mike Tokunaga, who was with Matsuei, yelled for a medic and helped place him on the litter. He was taken to an aid station and then transferred to a field hospital where he died two days later, on Oct. 23, 1943. Matsuei was 28 years old at the time.
In August 1944, the 100th was formally attached to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which had arrived in Italy earlier in the summer. The unit became the 442nd’s 1st Battalion, but was allowed to retain its identity as the 100th Infantry Battalion because of its outstanding training and battlefield record.