Her World

On Bruyeres, France

Author: Susan Spano
Los Angeles Times, 9/4/2005
Puka Puka Parades, October 2005, #05/9

Susan Spano visits Bruyeres to learn more about its history in World War II and it’s connection to the 100th/442nd

A French village’s unexpected heroes: In Bruyeres, a bond remains between locals and their Japanese American liberators.

At first glance, nothing special distinguishes the town of Bruyeres in the Vosges mountains of eastern France. It has a town hall, serving a population of about 3,500, a train station, post office, medieval church, hospital and sports stadium. It’s only if you wander onto Rue du 442eme Regiment Americain d’Infanterie that you might notice an anomaly, and wonder. That street, beneath a forested hill on the west side of town, marks Bruyeres as a special place, where a page in French and American history was written.

On Oct. 18, 1944, in the waning days of World War II, the people of Bruyeres were anticipating the arrival of Allied soldiers, who had entered occupied France from Normandy and the Mediterranean. But as shell shocked residents climbed out of town cellars, they never expected that the first faces they’d see would appear to be Japanese. I like to imagine that moment when the Jeans and Jacques of Bruyeres met the Tadaos and Masakis of the 442nd — the shock yielding to joy and amazement, cultures crossing, stereotypes shattering.

Now, even Bruyeres school children know that the word “nisei” refers to the U.S.-born children of Japanese immigrants and that their town was liberated by a one-of-a-kind regimental combat team composed of Japanese Americans, some of them recruited from internment camps in the U.S. mandated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066.

Bruyeres is hardly a major tourist attraction, though family vacationers and outdoor enthusiasts favor the Vosges mountains, at altitudes of 1,000 to 2,000 feet and with thick woods, lakes and trails shared by cross-country skiers and hikers.

When I made my trip in August, I stayed 20 miles southeast in Gerardmer, which has more tourist facilities than Bruyeres.

The D423 highway winds between the two towns, following the Vologne River, passing through tiny forest-enveloped villages built around a farm or chateau that could have come out of a fairy tale by Charles Perrault. In Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and 442nd, by Masayo Umezawa Duus and Peter Duus, unit chaplain Masao Yamada said the landscape reminded him of the region around Nara, north of Tokyo.

Four wooded hillocks hem in Bruyeres on the west, north and east. They have names but were simply known as Hills A, B, C and D to the men of the 442nd, who fought for them during one of the most epic struggles in American military history.

In hindsight, it seems clear that the Third Reich was doomed by the fall of’44. But the Vosges mountains lay at Germany’s doorstep, and Hitler had ordered his troops to die before letting the Allies cross die Rhine River.

By the time the 442nd moved into the area, nisei soldiers already had distinguished themselves, especially those in the 100th Infantry Battalion, made up largely of Japanese American volunteers from Hawaii intent on proving their loyalty to the U.S. after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The 100th Battalion — known as One Puka Puka — fought at Monte Cassino in Italy and lost more than half its men in five months of combat.

Their example persuaded the U.S. Army to recruit more nisei — 2,600 from Hawaii and 800 from mainland internment camps — who became the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The 100th Battalion was added to the 442nd when the newer unit reached Italy in the summer of 1944, battling up the boot and into occupied France. They approached Bruyeres from the west on Oct. 15.

“The first day, our platoon got hit by artillery and 20 guys were wounded,” Stan Izumigawa, who lives on Maui and served in A Company of the 100th Battalion, told me by e-mail. “A mortar barrage hit our squad where we were dug in, and the man in the hole next to me died. The weather was lousy too, wet and cold. The one good thing I recall is that our kitchen crew brought us hot meals on several occasions.” By Oct 19, Hills A and B had fallen, and the nisei had entered Bruyeres.

When I arrived, I went to the town hall. The tourist bureau wasn’t open, but I found an office occupied by Jean Michaud, the adjutant mayor of Bruyeres. He insisted on driving me about two miles north into the hills to see the 442nd monument on a dirt track in the woods, redolent with the smells of pine and decaying leaves. It’s a stone tablet, made of Vosges granite, with French and American flags flying above. Nearby is “The Ties of Friendship,” a sculpture by Shinkichi Tajiri, a 442nd vet.

Ron Yamada, whose late father served in the 442nd, joined a group of veterans last year for a visit to Bruyeres, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the town’s liberation.

“The relationship between the townspeople and the nisei has continued for 60 years,” he told me. “Whenever a group of veterans arrives, they throw a banquet and have a parade. School children are still taught ‘Aloha Oe.’ After the U.S. [went to war in Iraq], I remember reading and hearing comments about how the French had forgotten what the U.S. did for them during World War II. I know that, at least in this little corner of France, that sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

That afternoon, I climbed Mt. Avizon, or Hill D, near where Staff Sgt. Robert Kuroda was killed by a sniper after single-handedly attacking a party of Germans who had fired on Americans carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher.

At the end of the war, only one nisei soldier had been given a Medal of Honor. It took until 2000 for 20 more Japanese American World War II veterans to be similarly recognized; 13 of them, including Kuroda, were posthumous Medal of Honor recipients.

From the top of Mt. Avizon, I could see the rugged countryside to the east, where the exhausted 442nd fought on in the fog and rain after liberating Bruyeres. Thousands of fresh German troops had been sent to the area, battling the nisei with artillery barrages, mines, sniper attacks and roadblocks as they tried to move east on a tangled network of dirt tracks through the forest.

The Americans’ ultimate goal was the relief of the 141st Texas Regiment, stranded in enemy territory near the hamlet of La Houssiere, perilously low on food and ammunition. The rescue operation of what has come to be known as the “Lost Battalion” lasted five days, cost the 442nd 54 men and many more wounded and helped it become one of the most-decorated units in military history.

A handful of graves of the brave nisei who fought in the Vosges mountains rests at the American cemetery near Epinal, about 25 miles west of Bruyeres, the last stop on my pilgrimage.

It was like other American cemeteries scattered throughout France, green and immaculately tended, with perfectly aligned rows of graves all marked by identical white marble crosses.

There, I found the grave of Sgt. Tomosu Hirahara, who was born in Hawaii and died on the first day of fighting for Hill A. While I stood by his cross, smelling freshly cut grass and listening to the thrashing sound of a sprinkler, I thought of what President Harry Truman told the men of the 442nd at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on July 15, 1946, when they were given a Presidential Unit Citation: “You fought not only the enemy but you fought prejudice — and you have won.”