Barton Nagata’s Touch with the Holocaust

Part III of the 522nd’s Dachau Story

Hawaii Herald, 2/20/1987
Ben Tamashiro

Besides the fact that it was the only nisei unit to have fought in Germany in World War II, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion’s dash through the southern Bavarian countryside brought it right up against one of man’s most vile and odious acts against humanity.

To begin with, even the unit’s first touch with European soil was an experience in itself. While the parent 442nd Regimental Combat Team pulled into the Allied 5th Army port of Naples, the 522nd debarked on the other side of the Italian peninsula, at Brindisi on the Adriatic, the province of the British 8th Army.

“I don’t know why it was so,” noted Barton Nagata, who was then a young man fresh out of Grinnell College with a major in history. Born in Kahului, he received his early education in the public schools on Maui, then opted for Grinnell instead of a large university and was in his final year when Pearl Harbor came about.

“When war was declared, I knew that I couldn’t get back to Hawaii so I decided that the best thing for me was to volunteer. I felt a deep sense of patriotism and wondered whether I’d ever get to see home again. I told my county draft board that if they don’t draft me, I’m going to volunteer. So they said to wait, they’d draft me. Which they did in about two weeks,” recalled Nagata.

In the meantime, the college had already decided that those who may be drafted could take a comprehensive exam and be given a degree if they passed. So Nagata was drafted in Des Moines and spent the first year in and around army camps in Arkansas. And when he heard that the 442nd was being formed, he immediately volunteered for the unit which is how a Maui boy, by way of Iowa, came to be in Brindisi that June with Headquarters Battery of the 522nd.

“We had to cross the Apennine to join the main body at Naples. It took us two days, in those ‘forty-and-eight’ cattle cars. I tell you-they were full of cow and horse manure!” Nagata’s recollection brought on a great big smile which broke into laughter. “They sprayed the inside with sulphur powder and disinfectants and whatever else. We threw our shelter-halves over the piles and for two days we slept on manure.”

Meanwhile, the Allies had pushed the enemy past Rome and one of the units in the Allied drive was the 100th Infantry Battalion which had arrived in Italy nine months before the 442nd.

At Civitavecchia above Rome, the 100th was integrated into the larger nisei unit and from that point on the two fought as one-up the Italian peninsula, then into France. There, in the wooded hills of the Vosges mountains in one of the war’s most stirring battles, they slugged it out and won over an enemy determined to capture a “Lost Battalion” of the Texas 36th Division.

Following that, the combat team was sent down to the Riviera on the Mediterranean to stand guard over the Franco-Italian border in the Maritime Alps.

Later, as the team was about to be shipped back to Italy, the 522nd was once more rushed up north, this time to Saarbrucken where the Saar river acts as a divide between France and Germany. And so, just as it was in the beginning, so it was at the end-the two units finding themselves in different sectors of the European theater.

Crossing the Saar in mid-March the battalion found itself on an 1,100- mile journey that took it through scores of little villages and towns and past many cities such as Mannheim, Augsburg and Munich, and to its final rendezvous at Shaftlach near the foothills of the Bavarian Alps at the end of the war.

Frontlines were ever-changing as Hitler’s dream of empire began to crumble right in his homeland. The 522nd made 52 displacements during its two-month span including assignments to four divisions. It was shifted as many as four times a day to wherever its devastating firepower could best be utilized. In effect, it became a roving battalion.

But the 522nd’s most telling experience was not its ramble all over the Bavarian country side but its touch with the concentration camp of Dachau and its inmates.

“I was the commanding officer’s radio operator, riding in the back seat of his jeep and operating the radio for him. His code name was Sun Ray. We were driving south in Bavaria with the rest of the U.S. forces when we came upon people garbed in strange clothing. I had never seen that garb before,” recalled Nagata.

In the south, where the 522nd was operating the U.S. 7th Army was driving to capture Munich and Salzburg while further down along the Swiss border, the 1st French Army was fighting its way eastward from the Black Forest area, both shooting for Innsbruck.

And in Italy, columns of the Allied Army were racing up the Po Valley, a stronghold of the enemy which the 100/442 was instrumental in breaking open for the Allies. The grand strategy called for the three armies to meet at the Brenner Pass.

In the sweep to the Elbe, the 4th Armored Division captured the important communications center of Ohrdruf, a hundred miles above Nurnberg. The center was further being prepared as a possible retreat for Hitler and his entourage but the 4th stumbled upon something more startling.

The following extract from a volume in the U.S. Army’s official history of the war dockets that finding: “On the fringe of the town, the soldiers came upon the first of the notorious concentration camps to be uncovered by the advancing Allies armies. Small by the standards of others to be discovered later, the camp nevertheless contained enough horrors to make the American soldier and even his Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, pale. Patton, when he saw it, vomited.”

Close by to the northeast lay Buchenwald and due south from this most notorious of camps, on a line through Nurnberg, lay Dachau, the first of the Nazi concentration camps.

Around Dachau lay more than 34 subsidiary camps. The accompanying map depicts not only the route of the 522nd but also the locations of six of the camps on the perimeter of the Dachau complex, clockwise-Nurnberg, Landshut, Salzburg, Bad Tolz, Friedrichshafen and Lauingen. As the 7th Army overran these camps and released the prisoners, the countryside from Wasseralfingen to Schaftlach and all around swarmed with inmates as they wandered about trying to find their way back to their former homes. It was this horde of people still garbed in their prison clothes that so struck Nagata.

“We drove further south and along the roadside we saw bodies of dead and dying inmates. When we stopped at a village, whose name I do not remember, an inmate weakly grabbed at our jeep near my seat. He seemed to be burning with fever and I could plainly see that he was very sick. I asked him where he came from, but he did not understand, so I spoke to him in French and he answered that he was from Belgium. I gave him a chocolate bar and told him to walk down the road a short distance and he would come across a first aid station, because I could not help him at that time.

“Later that day, three of us were standing and eating our evening meal near the mess truck’s trailer when three or four of the former inmates came and stood near us watching us eat. We took one or two mouthfuls of food and then we passed our mess kits to them, for we knew they were hungry and we couldn’t eat with them staring at us. Strangely, they seemed more interested in getting cigarettes from us before receiving the food.”

Following the end of the war in Germany, Nagata went to England and enrolled in the Shrivenham American University (located halfway between Bristol and London in an area known as the King Alfred country) where he studied history and education till V-J Day.

Back in the states, he went to Columbia for his masters in education and, returning to the Islands, moved to Kauai in 1959 as an education specialist in the district office of the Department of Public Education. He subsequently became the district superintendent, a position from which he retired from eight years ago. He lives in Lihue with his wife, Toshie, and their youngest son, Roy. Their eldest, Keith, is in Dallas while daughter, Cynthia, lives in Honolulu.

And what did he get out of his wartime experiences? Of his stay in the Midwest, he remembered only minor instances of discrimination when war broke out; none while in school. Then, said Nagata, although he can’t remember anything more about the Dachau inmates, “my experience has had a tremendous impact on my life. Whenever I see TV programs, movies, newspaper or magazine stories about Holocaust, I remember the hungry, pinched and sick faces and emanciated bodies of the people I saw in southern Germany. To think that some apologists are trying to say that it had never really happened! It is unbelieveable!”

Nagata has been moderator of the Lihue Christian Church for the past three years and continues to serve his church in numerous ways. Also, he is a volunteer advisor for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and serves on the Kauai Community College All-College Advisory Council which meets regularly with the provost to discuss common matters of interest. And he’s been president of the Kiwanis Club of Kauai for four terms.

“I was always interested in people which is why I chose that small private coeducational college in the middle of Iowa, feeling that I’d have a better chance to get to know people.” His concern is not only philosophical but action-filled with things’ believeable.