An X-ray of One Man’s Spirit: Tamotsu Shimizu

By Ben Tamashiro
Hawaii Herald, July-September 1985
Puka Puka Parades, v.39 no.3

Traffic on Ft. Weaver Road leading into Ewa Beach and its environs moves at a fast clip. Seemingly, there is no reason for anyone to slow down and turn right onto narrow, bumpy Renton Road other than the residents of Ewa plantation camp who live around that road. Oh, there’s a city bus that comes down that mile-long road and surely among the passengers getting off could be an occasional non-resident or two. But otherwise …

A short ways before the turnoff onto Renton Road is the plantation graveyard, an acre or two of ground lying just off the highway. Its largest monument, chiseled out of stone, erected in 1947, is dedicated “to the Japanese immigrants.” But the uneven and fissured ground, the sunken graves with broken or collapsed headstones and faded inscriptions, give evidence of little current usage, and decades of neglect.

This is but one view of Ewa today. Restricted as it is, it nevertheless is a reflection of what was once a thriving plantation town, its heartbeat then the large sugar mill. It was in this more spirited circumstance that Tamotsu Shimizu was born 67 years ago; the third in a family of six boys and four girls. His mother, short and bubbly, was a gentle woman. Occupied as she was with her large brood, she had no time for anything other than being a housewife. For that, she was the one who was always available to her children.

Of his father, Tomoichi, slim and of medium height, Tamotsu says that “he worked 364 days a year. His only day of rest was Shogatsu. New Year’s Day. His pay was not much over a dollar a day. As kids, we never had toys or things like that.”

Thus, with work at the center of his life, Tomoichi Shimizu had few spare moments for other paternal responsibilities. He did not play with his kids. And if there was a matter of discipline to be resolved, he brooked on questions. He went directly to the heart of the matter as attested to by his son who, in the afterthought of the lickings he had received from his father, says that “the best discipline I received in life was the stick my father used on us.” Wincing at the recollection, Tamotsu adds, “It hurt like hell, too. “To hear him tell it, one can almost hear-“Whack!”-and feel-“Ouch! ltai!”-the impact of switch upon skin. However, Tomoichi was no tyrant and Tamotsu no troublemaker. It was the way of the father-and Tamotsu understood it as such.

Could it have been otherwise, then, that when Tamotsu lay critically wounded on the distant battlefield half a world away from home, in Italy, “My first thoughts were of my mother.” He conjectures:

“I suppose it’s the natural closeness of all of us to our mothers.” But he’s not so sure of that. “I wish I could be more specific,” he says, “why, when I came out of my grogginess, I cried out, ‘Okaa-san!’ ”

Shimizu was a scout, private first class, in the 3d Squad, 3d Platoon, A Company, l00th Infantry Battalion. The battalion, comprised mostly of AJAs, draftees plus those in the Hawaii National Guard at the time of Pearl Harbor, was the first combat infantry unit to be organized in the history of the U.S. Army. It entered combat in Italy at Salerno Beach, south of Naples, in September, 1943 and fought its way through some of the most prolonged and bloody battles of the Italian campaign: Cassino, Anzio, and the intense lighting up the Italian coastline along the Tyrrhenian Sea. They were then shipped to France to fight in the battle for Bruyeres and distinguished itself in the rescue of the “Lost Battalion.” Returning to Italy, they were in the vanguard of the battle to crack open the western end of the vaunted Gothic Line in one of the war’s most magnificent assaults. The war ended there in the Po Valley.

Wounded three times, it was probably through luck that Shimizu escaped coming home in a coffin. Having landed at Salerno, the 100th’s initial series of encounters with the enemy were in and around the many little towns and villages nestled along the Volturno River valley in the foothills of the lower Apennines, the mountain range that runs down the ” boot” of Italy. It was in the battle for the town of Alife during the latter part of October that Shimizu was wounded the first time.

“Yeah. It was right after we had crossed a bridge. All of a sudden we saw this plane coming at us as he peeled off and dived. There was a tank column going over the bridge. I think the plane was going after the column and also trying to destroy the bridge. We were caught in the bombing.

“I looked for cover and dived into a shallow ditch. My legs remained uncovered. Four bombs exploded nearby, my body jumping off the ground with each explosion. Three of our boys were killed. All the others in the platoon were wounded to one extent or the other. I got a shrapnel in my leg. After a week or so in the field hospital, we told the doctor that we had to get back to the outfit because it needed us. He wouldn’t let us go. ‘You bunch of crazy guys,’ he said. ‘Lots of guys get wounded and they want to go home, but you guys want to rejoin the outfit!’ We pleaded with him. He finally released us.”

Shimizu and the others rejoined the outfit in time for the torturous winter campaign, leading to the battle for Cassino. During the pursuit of the enemy from one freezing mountaintop to the next, Shimizu’s feet became frozen, a painful condition known as “trench feet. ” In its worst condition, feet could become gangrenous and require amputation. Hospitalized for awhile, he again returned to the unit as the l00th was being pulled out of Cassino for its move to Anzio. There, in early April, he was hit a second time.

The l00th was down to about one-third of its effective fighting force when it was pulled out of Cassino. It was at this time that the first replacements began arriving from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team then in training in Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Said Shimizu, “At Anzio, three of us were out on a contact patrol. A replacement kotonk lieutenant was in charge, but this being his first experience, he felt that I should lead the patrol. We made our contact with the enemy, reported numbers and positions to an outpost of the 34th Division, and were on our return when, at a road junction that had been zeroed-in by enemy guns, we got caught in a random artillery barrage.”

The other enlisted man was wounded and Shimizu helped evacuate him to the nearest aid station. “There, I felt my pants getting wet. It may seem like a joke but when I put my hand into my B.V.D. and pulled it out, it was covered with blood. The aid man ordered me take off my pants. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ he said. ‘Don’t you know you’ve been hit?’ I was bleeding from a shrapnel wound in my hip. I told him that I was concerned about the boy, that the patrol was my responsibility.” The aid man was incredulous. “You crazy bastards from Hawaii,” he said, “you’re hit and you don’t know about it … taking care of somebody else.”

After a period of hospitalization in the 300th General Hospital in Naples, he returned to the L00th. The doctor at the 300th had determined that the shrapnel was too deeply imbedded near the hip socket to risk an operation that could bring about further damage. “So I still have the shrapnel in my left hip. I don’t feel any pain today. It doesn’t bother me.”

The American 5th Army had finally broken out from its stalled position on the Anzio beachhead and from Cassino to the sea the Germans were pulling back northward to other defensive positions. To save the Eternal City from destruction, the Germans had declared Rome an “open” city. It was during the drive for Rome that Shimizu was wounded a third time, a day before Rome fell into Allied hands on June 5, near the town of Lanuvio,

a few miles east of Rome.

By now, Shimizu had accumulated enough “points” to be eligible for furlough home to Hawaii so he had been pulled out of the front lines. He was in the company kitchen area awaiting transportation rearward when he heard a call come through for volunteers to pick up the body of a lieutenant lying in the field between the two opposing lines. He immediately volunteered for the mission but his sergeant, Bill Oya, turned him down. Shimizu persisted; he wanted to do one last favor for the boys before returning home. Reluctantly, the sergeant okayed his request.

With three other volunteers, he rode in a Jeep for about half an hour through a wheat field until they came to the body. As they started to pick it up to place it aboard the Jeep, the group was shaken by a blast. The Germans had booby-trapped the body by placing a mine under it, timed to explode when the weight of the body was lifted off it. Shimizu was thrown off his feet and knocked unconscious.

“When I came-to, I tried to get up but couldn’t. I tried to push myself up with my hands. Later, I realized that it was only my right hand pushing but at the time it seemed I was pushing with both hands. I kept falling off to my left and wondered why. I turned my head and only then discovered that my left arm was gone …. I did not feel any pain.” As he came out of the initial shock, and with the realization that his arm was gone, it was then that he cried out, “Okaa-san!”

Luckily, an American tank column happened to be passing nearby and one of the boys ran over for help. “And before I knew it, there were four Haoles holding a shelter-half over me and this doctor was snipping with his scissors and tying tourniquets and sewing. I didn’t feel too much of anything. The drugs the doctor had shot in me were taking over fast.”

When he came-to several days later in the field hospital, the doctor told him that he had taken out about a thousand pieces of shrapnel from his back but many more remained. He showed Shimizu the first x-ray he had taken before the operation; his back was literally pocked with the thousand bits of metal.

Evacuated by air to Naples, he landed again in the 300th General Hospital where, in his previous hospitalization, he had come under the care of a Captain Matson and nurse Lieutenant Schonberg. The nurse loved to play checkers and Shimizu used to keep her company during his convalescence. This second time around, she chanced upon him while he lay in the receiving station line. She ran to Dr. Matson and exclaimed, “Schmidt is back!” Of Germanic extraction, the nurse had difficulty pronouncing Japanese names so in her Teutonic adaptation, the name Shimizu became Schmidt. Eventually shipped out of Italy, Shimizu came to Walter Reed Hospital where he convalesced for about a year taking physical therapy and being fitted with an artificial arm. He returned home in May 1945 and was discharged from the Army the

following month.

Shortly after his return, he took a routine chest x-ray under the Board of Health’s continuing program for the early detection of TB. He got an excited call from the Lanakila Health Center telling him he’d better see his doctor right away because his x-ray revealed lungs that were badly diseased. However, the indications of trouble were but images of the shrapnel still imbedded in his back from the incident in Italy a year earlier. They are there today.

Because he was near home when the AJ As were first being organized into a separate unit at Schofield Barracks, Shimizu had a chance to run home to Ewa to say goodbye to his father before the unit sailed out of Hawaii for places unknown. His father’s primary concern was that he not bring shame to the family name in whatever he did. He then told his son he was not too concerned he might come home in a coffin- but he should fight well for the country of his birth.

Now, back home once more, as Shimizu made his way each evening to the camp furo, his father would follow him, to scrub his back for him. He had measured up to his father’s standards.

Shimizu could not go back to his old plantation

job of truck driver so he tried his hand at several

others before he found a permanent job with the

territorial fish and game department from which he

retired 10 years ago. He married Yoneko Tsukayama

from Waipahu in 1948 and they live in Pearl


Does he now scrub his back on his own? “No, I do,” says Yoneko. “I listen to the sound of water while he’s taking a bath-the bathroom door is left open-and I can tell when he’s at that point. Then I go in and scrub his back.”

The picture of Yoneko, listening to the sound of water, brings to the mind’s eye a kaleidoscope of images. One is that of the Ewa Plantation graveyard

on a sky-blue morning, the rays of the sun dappling and dancing upon the headstones and the

memorial as they come entering through the leafy branches of the kiawe trees. The ethereal scene is that of an Impressionist painting, the momentary effect of light and color projecting a feeling for the lonely joys and reckless passions of they who had come to these Islands on a chance and a dare, then chose to stay.

Ours is to uphold, as Tamotsu Shimizu has done, their indomitable spirit.