Ken Kaneko: ‘I had no choice!’

Author: Ben Tamashiro, D Company
Puka Puka Parades, August 1978, vol. 32 no. 4

Interview with Ken Kaneko and his experiences in World War II

It is in the heyday of University of Hawaii basketball, that period when the “Fabulous Five” practically owned the basketball court of the then-named- HIC auditorium. I’m at home watching a telecast of one of their games from the HIC. Timeout is called.

The TV camera swings its lens to the officials’ table and sweeps its eye from one end to the other. At about the middle of the table sits Ken Kaneko happily chomping away on a bag of peanuts, totally unconscious of the camera’s eye. At his feet is a pile of peanut shells about half as high as a basketball is round! What a sight! But the camera’s eye does not linger. It moves on. And ’tis just as well because the passing over is indicative of Ken: unless you stop to look closely, whatever he does seems to be of an ordinary cut. And yet…

As Yozo Yamamoto likes to put it, “That bugga get guts!” To which Ken responds that guts is really a reflection of team effort: not so much an individual performance as it is a matter of the team fighting together for an objective. Or, to put it in another vein, not letting a member get caught “out there” by himself; and if that should happen, the team going to the rescue, to die together, if necessary. The cardinal rule in such instances is never to let your buddies down. If, out of actions such as these come this matter called guts, well and good. But the men are not prone to talk of things like that.

So it is that with a dash of that old reticence still clinging to him, I nevertheless got to “unshell” Ken a bit in a taped oral interview last month as he told of some of the exploits of his platoon, the 2nd of Baker Company. His first story describes a routine contact patrol but its climax is of the kind that GIs are more likely to hold to themselves for retelling around a group gathered for drinks. Unorthodox though the ending may be, it is yet the kind of veritable truth one encounters on the road to war. And there are other stories.

And in the telling, Ken touches upon an aspect, of behavior of the men of the 100th: how they were always fighting their way ahead of units on their flanks; their determination to keep moving ahead whatever the risks or the odds. And because of this, how they often found themselves at the point of the attack. Ken makes no offer as to the reasons why. But we all know the words – loyalty, honor, identity, prove, recognition, minority, discrimination, and the others – the meanings of which, as they relate to the men of the 100th, will have to await the moment when they, of their own volition, decide to open up their souls. And this will come about, albeit, late, with the progress of mankind. And progress in the advancement of the dignity of the human soul is what life is all about.

To set the stage for Ken’s stories, let me first take you back to 1944, to May of that year. After five months of stalemate, the Allies finally break the German Gustav Line which runs from Cassino, as the mountain redoubt, and anchored by Anzio on the coast. Now the road to Rome is wide open. The Germans declare Rome an open city, move out, and flee northward. The Allied pursuit is on, the 100th a part of that pursuit.

June, It’s been two years since the 100th left Hawaii. The Allies scramble over the beaches of Normandy. The 442nd arrives in Italy. Over on the other side of the global war, the B29s begin their fire raids on Tokyo. The war is heating up further.

July. The 100th is redesignated the 100/442, then assigned to an AAA (antiaircraft artillery group task force. This comes about because many of the infantry units in Italy are being pulled out of the battle Areas in readiness for the coming invasion of Southern France. The AAA troops are forced to act as infantrymen to fill the gaps in the front lines, an unaccustomed role for them.

Then the American 7th Army invades the French Riviera in mid-August. In Italy, the 100th continues northward, crossing the Arno River against light fighting to the Serchio River about 5 miles northeast of Pisa. The 100/ 442 itself is about to be pulled out of Italy to join the fighting in France.

Now for Ken’s story; he is KK, I’m BT. Explanatory notes for the benefit of distaff readers and others who may not be familiar with military jargon or terminology are enclosed in parentheses.

KK: After crossing the Arno River without any opposition from the enemy, we kept on going. At that time, Captain Sakae Takahashi was our commanding officer. Well, we took a few, mostly farmhouses scattered here and there on the wide open flat lands leading up to the mountains. We got to one area. Sakae Takahashi, who had a CP (command post) set up in a farmhouse, called me in and asked me to go to my left and contact the units coming up on the left flank, which were mostly ack-ack, or antiaircraft artillery, personnel. At that time, most of the infantry units were being shipped over to Europe for the big battles ahead. We were more or less the forgotten front in Italy.

So I took the men from my platoon – Yozo Yamamoto, Happy Sasaki, Keijiro Umebayashi, and a few more others. And Miyoji Ishii; he was my runner at that time. I can’t think of the names of the others.

BT: They were all members of your 2nd Platoon?

KK: That’s right. Because we’re members of the same platoon, naturally we know each other’s movements and habits and we work as a team. Well, this is just supposed to be a contact patrol. We walked up the road, then we found this first farmhouse. No Germans there.

BT: Did you find Italians?

KK: That’s right. We thought, or I thought, anyways, that the troops on the left took their objective already, so they cleared all the areas of Germans. So we thought we were safe to walk on the road and make contact with them and get together, let them know we were stationed here.

And there is another farmhouse down the road, say, about 200 yards. And somehow, we kinda guessed that there must be some enemy in the farmhouse. Fortunately, there was a ditch alongside the road. But prior to that, we could see the other troops coming up. Farmland, you know; it’s all open country.

BT: When you say you could see, what was the distance?

KK: Oh, I’d say about a couple hundred yards. It’s all open country so it’s easy to recognize the American troops. Instead of trying to conceal their movements and coming single file, they are coming up abreast, like you see in the movies.

BT: Like a frontal attack?

KK: Yeah! Just walking up. They were all ack-ack personnel, transferred to the infantry.

BT: How large was the group?

KK: I suppose about company size (between 150 to 175 men). They weren’t all in the line but I presumed there were more in the back, coming up. Naturally, they gave the feeling that the enemy must be in the vicinity of the farmhouse in front of us.

So we get to the ditch. In the meantime, I left the B-A-R (Browning automatic rifle) man in the first house we just passed, to cover us in case we get pinned down by German fire. Because there’s no other cover, just the road and the ditch. Using the ditch as a cover, we went to the farmhouse. But you know, every Italian farmhouse has a few shacks in the back.

BT: What kind of shacks?

KK: Small shacks to keep their farm equipment, animals, and things like that. So we got to the area, waited in the ditch for a while, studied the situation. There must be some Germans in there!

BT: How far away were you from the farmhouse?

KK: The farmhouse was only about 50 yards away. The shack was about 25 yards from the ditch. There was also a haystack away from the farmhouse. We were in the ditch, trying to figure out what to do next. This was a contact patrol, to contact the people on the left. But they weren’t up to their objective yet. So we couldn’t contact them at all, because the Germans were in the farmhouse.

BT: Who were you trying to contact specifically?

KK: The personnel of the unit coming up; the commanding officer or the officer in charge of the unit. If possible, we should make sure that we have contact with the unit on the right and the left.

But many times you notice the 100th Battalion will go so fast, and the units on the right and the left move up too slow. You know what I mean? That’s the reason why a lot of times we cut off these guys (the Germans) from the back! There goes the contact patrol on the left, but these guys are not up there yet. So who do we contact? The Germans? And we contact them from the rear, most of the time. The Germans are looking thatta way, we coming this way.

BT: So you hit’em from the back!

KK: Yeah! It happened many times in our actions. That’s the reason why we get away with lot of these killings.

Anyway, we looked up and here comes this German out of the house. Just a shirt and trousers on; no helmet, no weapon. We were in the ditch and I don’t think that he saw the other troops coming up, yet. Just someone who came out for some fresh air, and look over the scenery, you know. We were wondering what to do with him now. So we decided we’ll capture him and have him inform the other members to give up because they’re surrounded by American troops.

As we look up from the ditch again, he’s gone! No German in sight now! What the hell happened to him? He couldn’t have gotten to the house that fast! As we popped our heads higher and higher – tall grass, actually, see – sure enough, we see him squatting, taking a break or something. So I told the guys to cover me because I’m going to charge him and get him captured.

Well, I got up from the ditch and charged him. Naturally, imagine catching the poor guy taking a crap, with his pants down, and everything! He’s gotta keep silent. But you don’t know whether he’s going to faint or yell.

Well, that’s the mistake I think I made. So he starts screaming on top of his voice. Now, the rest of the comrades in the house are going to know we’re here. So I had to shoot him.

BT: You killed him?

KK: I had no choice!

BT: Killed him with his pants down!

KK: Yeah! Yeah! You know, somebody taking a crap, and you kill him with your Tommy gun – it’s not fun at all!

BT: How many shots do you think you fired?

KK: Just a short burst. Point blank. Close.

BT: How close?

KK: I’d say about 5, 10 yards. Anything beyond 25 yards, the Tommy gun is not accurate.

BT: Was that the one with the round cylinders?

KK: No, that’s the one they use in gangster pictures. We had the clip type.

Anyway, since he’s dead now, and the rest of the Germans have been warned that we’re here…I suppose they were surprised themselves, too.

So I went back to the haystack and I told the rest of the guys to come up to the small shack nearest to the ditch. So they all ran from the ditch and I covered them from the haystack. Meantime, the other Germans came out of the farmhouse and went to the other shack . . . there was another shack about 25 yards away from our shack.

So we decided to blast away at that damned shack. Funny part about it, in back of the door were two or three Germans. So we killed a few Germans that way.

BT: How far away are you now, shooting at that door?

KK: Only about 25 yards.

BT: They were just standing in the doorway?

KK: Presumably. We knew that they were in there. So we harassed them. Before they get at us. That’s what we did, and we got them, alright.

But now, with all this firing going on – the Germans didn’t fire at all – but we know that the troops on the left, they heard all this firing. So they begin to fire, too, thinking that the Germans are firing at them. So we in the center, Germans over there, American troops on the other side. So I told the guys that we’d better get out of there ’cause it’s going to be a mess.

BT: The Americans on your left were actually firing at you people?

KK: We didn’t know who were firing. So we say, well, our mission is not completed because we didn’t make contact with the American troops. But we got the Germans anyway. So we said, let’s get out of here. So we went back to the ditch, back to the first farmhouse, got the B-A-R man out of there. We decided to walk on the road because we think its safe. But holy hell broke loose now. Here comes artillery shells at us. The American troops, thinking we were the enemy, dropping shells on us, you know. Fortunately, none of us got hit although the shell landed right next to us.

BT: How heavy was the firing?

KK: About 4, 5 shells. That’s enough for anybody, I’d say, especially when they land right next to you.

BT: Was this 105? (105mm artillery, a standard medium artillery piece)

KK: I couldn’t say. Big stuff, anyway. Of course, the dirt, dust, everything falling upon us, that’s how close it was. As soon as the initial firing was over, we just took off back to the CP. So we told Sakae Takahashi what took place. He said okay. Well, just sit down and wait. So we wait for a while. Then he said, now try go back and contact the troops again.

But they might think we’re still the Germans. They might start throwing bigger stuff at us. So this time, I walked on the road with a flag, white flag.

BT: A white flag?

KK: Oh! To show them that we are friends!

BT: So now you’re headed for the American troops.

KK: That’s right. We presumed we had wiped out the Germans.

BT: One little detail I forgot to ask you earlier. What time of day was this?

KK: I’d say about noontime. A nice clear day; beautiful day.

BT: So now when you’re walking down the road, the second part of the action, with the white flag, it’s an hour or so later?

KK: About that. The action didn’t take too long, because actually the Germans in the farmhouse just came as a delayed-action type of personnel, just to keep us from moving up too fast. Up until then, we didn’t have any opposition from the Germans.

So we go along the road now, let them know we’re Americans; friends, not enemies. We went to the farmhouse and looked at the Germans we killed. The Americans are there already, the guys looking about the bodies for souvenirs. So we had to contact the officer in charge. He was in the back, on the radio, reporting back to his headquarters on the number of Germans they had killed, equipment captured, and this and thats.

So I tell the guy, hey! we did all this! He says, no! no! And I said, I don’t care what you say but you should be thankful we killed them all for you. Otherwise, you guys would be goners by now.

BT: They would have been surprised!

KK: Yeah! They were just waiting for them to come up. But when we went up there to hit’em on the back, well, they kind…

BT: You broke up their plans.

KK: Well, anyway, so what, let them take their credit. But let’s not stick around here any longer. In all battles where the Germans were already there, they know the area. They’ve got the area zeroed in. So I took my patrol back and reported to Sakae Takahashi what happened.

This incident took place … I don’t think anybody knew about it. I think only Sakae Takahashi, a few people in Baker Company, and only us guys.

BT: In other words, it was the kind of action nobody expected would take place.

KK: It happened – boom! boom! – you know, so fast. So after that, we just kept on going, went on to our next mission. There were actions around but mostly isolated things.

BT: Just like the things you were describing?

KK: Yeah! They were there mostly to harass us, to delay our advance. And you notice that in lots of the battles we participated in, the funny part is that the 100th has always been too fast. The units on the right and left are too cautious, you know. I don’t blame them, too. But they still too cautious that they are too far behind of us. We become an arrow, the point all the time.

We usually hit the enemy from the rear. It happened a lot of times. So we do them a big favor when we do that. They smart. Sometimes, I think they do it on purpose. They come up slowly and let us wipe them out for them and they come up and say, hey! job well done! thank you, fellas! And that just happened in Bruyeres.


Ken then talks about the 100th being pulled back to Naples to begin preparations for the move to Southern France. The 100/442 reaches Marseilles on September 29, then enters the fight for Bruyeres which begins on October 14. Ken’s story will be concluded in the next issue of the Parade.


Ken was drafted in November 1941. War broke out less than a month later. Completing his recruit training in Schofield’s “boom town”, he was assigned to Company E, 298th Infantry Regiment of the Hawaii National Guard, then guarding the Windward Oahu coastline from Kahaluu to Kualoa (by the sugar mill ruins). His stint with the 100th followed.

Unlike the majority of us who immediately returned to civilian life after the war, Ken stayed in, spending the years 1945-48 as an MP in Tokyo and then as a Special Services Officer with the 8th Army. He was discharged from the army in October 1948, but then joined the Reserve program. With the outbreak of the Korean War, Ken was recalled to active duty in May 1951. He was first assigned to training troops at Schofield Barracks, then was shipped to Korea where he became a Company Commander in the 45th Infantry Division. But this was during the last two weeks of the war so his actions consisted mostly of patrol duty. After the end of that war, he continued with the Reserve program, retiring in 1965.

Ken’s forte is athletics – basketball, baseball and softball. He’s been coaching youngsters in these fields all his adult life; has gained some prominence as official for the Little League, Pop Warner, high school, and collegiate associations – which explains his presence at the officials’ table that night at the HIC.