Liberation of Dachau, Part 2

EDITOR’S NOTE. The little-publicized story of the 522nd Field Artillary Battalion (FA Bn), part of the all-nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) in WWII, was the subject of a Herald cover story on May 16 (“The Liberation of Dachau”). In that article, writer Ben Tamashiro explained how on March 9, 1945, after receiving orders to proceed to the Western Front, the 552nd was separated from the rest of the 422nd RCT, eventually becoming the first AJA unit to fight on German soil. The 522nd engaged in numerous battles, pursuing the retreating German forces, until on April 29, arriving at Dachau, they became one of the first Allied units to discover and to unlock to the world, the horror of the extermination camps. By the day of liberation, more than 40,000 people had been murdered in Dachau-80 percent of them Jews. Some 522nd veterans share their recollections in the following conclusion to this remarkable story.

By Ben Tamashiro

DON SHIMAZU. The above photo of Dachau concentration camp was taken on April 29, 1945, the day the camp was liberated by American troops. On that day, a scout from the 522nd had opened one of the prison gates by shooting off the locks. Don Shimazu from the Survey Section said, “My recollection after 40 years is that we went through the main gate and visited the guest reception building very early in the liberation, within the first hour or so. I remember seeing the Rev. Martin Niemoeller in his striped inmate’s clothes sitting on a couch in that building. What we might have said to each other, I don’t remember; or about who else was there with me on that occasion.”

Rev. Niemoeller, the distinguished Lutheran theologian, was one of the early political prisoners of the Nazi system. Imprisoned in 1937, he was sentenced to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. Shimazu immediately recognized Niemoeller from among those sitting on the couch.

Shimazu continued, “That evening, as we went through the field kitchen chow line, I remember the orders not to feed the freed prisoners with the food we got. I was told that ‘special food’ would be prepared for them in due time, because they would be unable to handle the regular food.

“After eating, we disposed of our leftovers by dumping them in a large sump hole dug into the ground-right in front of the freed prisoners who were standing around the sump asking ‘Varum?’ It was a sad and trying time for us of Hq Battery; our hearts were saying, ‘Yes, feed them, help them: but our heads were saying, ‘No, don’t feed them, those are orders!’ What those freed inmates must have suffered and endured is beyond imagination- they were like walking skeletons. ”

MELVIN HAMAMOTO. Melvin Hamamoto’s recollections of Dachau are much different than Shimazu’s, since he did not enter Dachau or any of the subsidiary camps around it. “But we were in the general area for a long time after the war ended, about six months,” he said. “What with everyone trying to get home at the same time, transportation was very tight. And besides, we were in Germany and there were a lot of troops between us and Marseilles, our port of embarkation.”

It was during this long occupation period that the men of Service Battery were able to become acquainted with the people around the place. “For instance, there was this school teacher who spoke perfect English,” Hamamoto recalled. “This was her first encounter with nisei troops and our features, different from the other American troops, frightened her. She used to stay in her house and peek out at us from behind the curtains of her home. But the war was over and we were a happy lot. Every night we would pull out our guitars and sing the night away. Our laughter and joy, too, were quite apart from the way the other troops acted.”

Although there were standing orders against fraternization, Hamamoto recalls that “Soon we were friends with all the local people, including that school teacher. The German people were really nice and they invited us into their homes. We used to bring our leftover food to them. And ice cream! We filled our canteen cups with ice cream. The people loved it, especially the children. We were like ambassadors from Hawaii.”

Two years ago, when Hamamoto revisited the Dachau area with other 522nd veterans and their wives, he was surprised to find a group of people waiting for him. Four decades had not dimmed their remembrance of him and he was welcomed as though he were a returning hero rather than a former member of the occupation troops. Although he felt joy in seeing his German friends, memories of his wartime days in Dachau flooded in upon him, and his mind took him back to the beginning -to his father who had charged him with the prescript that nearly all Japanese fathers left their sons with as they went off to war: “Do not bring shame to the family.” Then added, “Fight well for your country.”

JOE OBAYASHI. The task of the Hq Battery Liaison Group was to maintain contact with the fast retreating enemy. In the forward observer group were jeep driver Joe Obayashi, Capt. Charles Feibleman and another enlisted man. In the early morning of April 29, they drove past one of the gates of Dachau concentration camp. It was open. The captain remarked to Obayashi that the fleeing German guards must have left some of the gates open. “We must have been one of the first to get there,” Obayashi said, “because only a couple of prisoners were wandering about by the open gate, seemingly lost. There were no others outside the fenced area.”

The group drove on in search of enemy lines, but were soon recalled by radio. Returning via the same route, they ran into a sea of prisoners who had by then found the open gates and were pouring out of the camp.

“I had noticed some dead horses on the side of the road as we passed by earlier. On the return trip, the prisoners were tearing the dead animals apart and were eating the meat raw,” Obayashi said.

Since Service Battery’s bivouac area was near the concentration camp, the prisoners used to come around. “But they did not beg for food,” Obayashi pointed out. “They just stood around and, if we asked them to go away, they would. They were so polite .. . their manners were still there.”

Once, Obayashi and a Mainland nisei, Sadao Kodama, encountered an old Jewish man. “He was under five feet, bald-headed, and was dressed in the demeaning striped concentration camp pajamas. We gave him some food and served him coffee, which he relished. After a second cup or so, we told him that too much at one time was not good for him. And the old man could still smile, after all that he had been through.” Obayashi concluded, “No one in our group can have a harsh word against the Jews.”

HIDEO NAKAMINE. Hideo Nakamine was working on a sugar plantation on the Big Island when war came to the nation on Dec. 7, 1941. Although he was from a family of 13 children, only he and three school-aged brothers remained at home with their recently retired parents on the plantation. The older one had all moved away. Although he wanted to serve his country in the armed forces, enlistment had been closed off to AJAs. Under the circumstances, it all he could do to keep on working as usual.

But then things began to change. The AJAs who had been drafted into the Army before Pearl Harbor and those who were in the Hawaii National Guard at that time were banded together and sent off to Mainland camp for combat training. The 100th Infantry Battalion thus came into being. So impressed were Army officials with their training record, that the enlistment ban was lifted in February 1943, when the call went out for volunteers to form the 442nd RCT.

With the permission from his supervisor and his parents’ blessing, Nakamine joined the 442nd. Four months later, while he was training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, his younger brother fell ill and died. It was at this point that the plantation manager suddenly became aware that Nakamine was no longer with the plantation. Fuming, he gave the family 30 days to vacate their home and get off the plantation. With no recourse, the elderly couple and their two remaining boys resignedly made their way- first to Hilo then on to Honolulu – to be with family members. Hobbled as the father was with a physical handicap, the group was further slowed by wartime restrictions governing interisland travel.

Back in Camp Shelby, the 442nd was shipped overseas to Italy, and entered combat in June 1944. Four months later it was sent to France, where, in the Vosges Mountains, it rescued the beleaguered “Lost Battalion” of the Texas 36th Division, suffering casualties four times the number of Texans saved. Following that battle, the 442nd was shopped south to the Mediterranean, from which point the 522nd made their fateful departure to Germany, and, eventually, their fateful discovery of the concentration camps.

Besides shooting with guns, the men of the 522nd also shot pictures, using camera and film captured from the Germans. Nakamine has served as the unofficial historian of the group’s Dachau experience. Some of the photos, taken from personal albums maintained by Nakamine, have been used to illustrate this series.

As mentioned in the first installment of this article, Nakamine has also provided information and photos to the Center for Holocaust Studies in New York, and last year attended the 40th annual gathering of Holocaust survivors in Philadelphia, where the assembly of some 15,000 survivors gratefully recognized him as one of the liberators.

For the sake of posterity, Nakamine recently offered his albums to the State for safekeeping. Upon the recommendation of the Governor’s office, the albums were presented to the Bishop Museum. He says of that moment: “My thoughts wandered back to ’43, to the time when my parents’ were being kicked out of the plantation. You see, it was only recently that I found out about the incident; I was not told about it then. There’s nothing I can do about it, but it’s something I shall never forget.

“I’m saddened by it, more so that during the war, although we were prohibited from fraternizing with the German civilians, we ignored such orders and treated the Germans as people, not as enemy aliens. The nisei soldiers showed no hatred or prejudice against innocent civilians in European countries who were not responsible for the act of war.”