Forty-two Years After the Battle of Bruyeres: James Kawashima: The Story Behind a GI Photo

Hawaii Herald, 10/17/86

James Kawashima had been fighting in Italy with the 100th Infantry Battalion for a year before doing battle on French soil as well, as the Army opened its Bruyeres offensive. The date was Oct. 15, 1944; 42 years ago almost to this very date.

Ironically, one would never know from a reading of the Army’ official chronicle of the events of World War II, that the ensuing five-day battle was a major confrontation on the Western Front. That chronology simply begins, “36th Div attacks on W with attached 442nd Inf (Nisei), which includes 100th Bn, recently arrived from Italy.”

The Germans had occupied Bruyeres since the beginning of the war and they were not about to give up the town without a struggle. Their fierce defense is noted in these laconic words: “45th and 36th Divs are slowed by strong opposition as they continue to close in on Bruyeres…. 36th Div breaks into Bruyeres and clears most of town…. 36th Div completes capture of Bruyeres.” The 36th is a Texas division.

On that first day of battle, platoon Sgt. James Kawashima, along with the other platoon leaders of Company B, were called together to receive their final instructions from company commander, Capt. Sakae Takahashi. “He gave each of us a shot of whiskey,” recalls Kawashima. “And he told us that we were about to enter into a different kind of battle. By that he meant that digging a hole, the usual foxhole, would be for nothing because we were going into the forest and the artillery and mortar shells would not reach the ground but would hit the tree and become like air bursts, sending splinters down into the hole into everything on the ground. It was no sense digging a hole unless you had some kind of overhead cover.

“So what we did was first, dig our foxholes as small as possible, then we dug sideways into the ground where we could stretch our legs. Luckily the dirt was soft. This is the first time we’ve ever had to dig that kind of a hole, L-shaped, the long angle being the dig sideways.

“On that first day, our battalion was held up by enemy machine guns firing at us from the other side of this long flat open space, a hundred yards or so wide, running across our line of advance. They were well hidden in the woods. We couldn’t see them. But for sure we had to knock them out if we were to advance. And we were also receiving tank fire coming diagonally at us from tanks hidden in the thick trees to our left.

“C Company was to the right of us.’ In its path was a farmhouse and when the company tried to take it, they got into a helluva fight and Lt. Otake was killed there. They couldn’t move. There was another farmhouse to my left. My platoon, the 1st Platoon, was in between these two houses. The 2nd Platoon of B had tried to take the farmhouse to my left but had to pull back because of strong enemy resistance coming from there also. That is where Yozo Yamamoto got hit on the head by a sniper hidden in the second story window of the farmhouse.

“Capt. Takahashi came to me and said that we had to get across the open field somehow. So I talked to the lieutenant in charge of the support tank and he lined up four of them at the edge of the depression from where the open field began. Then my partner, Pfc. Masaichi Miyashiro, and I, we slipped down to the bottom of the chasm. At a signal from me, the tanks opened fire and we dashed to the other side under that blanket of fire.  Having reached the other side, I signaled the tanks and they stopped firing. Then he went into the woods searching for the machine gun nests.  We came across two whose crews were groggy from the tank fire and they raised their hands in surrender.  We signaled the rest of the platoon to come across. They zigzagged their way across the open field, then took care of the rest of the enemy guns.”

It is by using such bold tactics that the enemy’s strong point are overcome. Following the capture of the town, the battle continued on into the nearby town of Biffontaine and Belmont. With these secured, the 100th pulled back into Belmont for a needed rest as the 36th Division continued its drive by moving into the hill of the Vosges Mountain in an effort to reach the other side, which is Strasbourg.  The enemy, however, had the advantage of calling its shots under cover of the wooded hills and, as the division “extends position E of Bruyeres to Biffontaine; 1st Bn of 141st, attempting to secure heights N of La Houssiere, becomes isolated in Foret Domaniale de Champ.” So began the fight, on the 23rd, for the rescue of the Lost Battalion. The division “attempts in vain to relieve isolated bn.” At this point the 100/442 was pulled out from rest and reserve and thrown into the fray.

The chronology tells of an isolated battalion “too weak to break out, but some progress toward it is made by Nisei troops. “The rescue operation took on titanic proportions because the enemy, steadily pushed back against the borders of its homeland, desperately needed a victory to boost morale. Thus, it gave furious battle to the slowly advancing 100/442. On the 29th, it “pushes closer” and on the 30th, the final note of victory: “442nd Inf at last makes contact with and relieves 1st Bn of 141st Inf.” But it is a Pyrrhic victory which the chronology makes no mention of- the Nisei unit lost four times the number of Texans saved.

The Allied armies drove toward the Rhine, and the Western Front extended all the way from Antwerp in the north, down to northeast France where the Vosges Mountain served, as it were, like a fulcrum to the Allied sweep into Germany.

A twisted ankle received in the fight for Bruyeres had sent Kawashima to a hospital in Belmont, so he did not participate in the rescue of the Lost Battalion.

Because the woods around Bruyeres were full of enemy snipers, some even hidden in the treetops, Kawashima had ripped off his staff sergeant’s stripes from his uniform, inasmuch as men with rank are natural targets. That’s how it came about that on the day before the battle, he was approached by a War Department photographer who assumed that he was a private. He explained the lack of identification on his shirt sleeves. The photographer wanted to photograph a private, but, under the circumstance, thought that Kawashima would do. The photographer took down Kawashima’s name, rank and serial number, and shot his pictures.

The result of that early afternoon picture-taking session is the familiar photo published on this page. It depicts James Kawashima, sans stripes, in full combat gear standing guard in a forest setting beside a 100th Infantry Battalion guidepost to B Company area. There is a look of calm determination upon his face. A thousand words are dispensed with in this one picture. And therein lies the problem.

This picture has been used to grace many a book, from the front piece in Orville C. Shirey’s “Americans – The Story of the 442nd Combat Team,” published in 1946, to the full-page photo in the more recent (1985) “Bridge of Love” by John Tsukano. There are no captions. Similarly uncaptioned is the life-sized print that is on display as part of the “Go For Broke/Yankee Samurai” exhibit, an exhibit that was at the Arizona Memorial exhibition hall at Pearl Harbor several years ago. The picture has also appeared in countless magazine articles and news stories about AJA soldiers.

“Yeah,” says Kawashima, with a deep laugh, “through all of this, as far as I know, I’ve never been identified as the guy in the picture.” One purpose of this article is to rectify that omission.

As for his place in Hawaii, James “Jimmy” Kawashima was born in Moiliili, by the ball park. “Right where center field is located. It used to be all houses out there then.” The Kawashima family’s history is linked to that of Charles Montague Cooke, Jr., who lived in Manoa. Born in Honolulu, he was the grandson of a Cooke who had come to Hawaii in 1836 with the eighth company of New England missionaries. The Cooke’s had a large dairy in Manoa where three generation of Kawashimas served the Cooke family. In the Bishop Museum’s special publication on Dr. Cooke is this bit of reminiscence about the Kawashimas: “And Sakichi Kawashima, the Cooke family’s faithful man-of-all-work, was Dr. Cooke’s constant companion and good friend. They were inseparable in more ways than one. Kawahima’s father, on departing for Japan in 1929, said: ‘Dr. Cooke, I give my son to you.’”

Jimmy served the Cookes for over 30 years. “When I returned home from the war, Dr. Cooke used to introduce me to his friends, especially his rich friends from the Mainland, as ‘My friend, Jimmy Kawashima, who went to war.'”

And that’s all that’s needed to be said, too, of that picture of the combat-clad GI standing guard in a forest: “Oh, that’s Jimmy Kawashima at Bruyeres.”  He couldn’t ask for anything more.