The Things that Count

Author: Ben Tamashiro, D Company
Puka Puka Parades, September – October 1981, vol. 35 no. 5

An interview with Victor I. Yamashita, point man in the photograph publicizing the Presidio Army Museum’s “GO FOR BROKE” Exhibit, and his memories of being a 100th replacement

“I’ve often wondered whether the guy lived. The doctor took care of him and I saw him being put in the ambulance. Because that’s one thing I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘That damn (bleep!) lieutenant, I’ll get him if I ever get out of this!'”

Victor Yamashita was part of the crush of 10,000 Islanders who signed up for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team when the War Department announced the activation of the unit in February 1943. But the Army could take only a fourth of them. Victor was one of the 2,686 shipped to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, in April to join up with the several thousand other Nisei from all over the continental United States who had already converged upon Shelby to make up the all-Nisei regiment. Thirteen months later, he landed at Anzio with 114 others as a replacement for the 100th Infantry Battalion.

You don’t want to live forever. In recounting how he got to Italy ahead of the main body of the 442nd, how the volunteers were selected as replacements for the 100th, Victor recalled that back in Shelby one day, all the noncoms of D Company were called into the Orderly Room. “The CO said he wanted four of us to volunteer for overseas service. We wanted to know where we were going but he wouldn’t tell us. Some guy said he didn’t want to go to the Japanese front, meaning the Pacific Theater. So there was a big stalemate. And then this funny thing happened. This guy Jimmy Mizunaka said, ‘Hey! You don’t want to live forever! I’m going!’ And he raised his hand. Then followed Thomas Nikaido, and a guy named Furumoto or Fukumoto. I was the last of the four. We were all Staff Sergeants, two from the mortar platoon and two from the machine gun platoon.”

From Dog (442) to Dog (100). The 100th had been writing a new chapter in the annals of the Army ever since its activation in Hawaii in June 1942 as the first all-Nisei combat unit in the history of the United States Army. After a year of training in Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, and at Shelby, it landed on the Salerno beachhead in September 1943. As part of the 5th Army’s 34th Division, it slogged its way northward up and down the hills and valleys of the lower Apennines mountain range. And in the battle for Cassino, its force down to about half its original strength, it was pulled out of the line. But then it was sent to the beachhead at Anzio. There, the unit strength was rebuilt by replacements, like Victor, filtering in from the 1st Battalion of the 442nd.

“The port and facilities at Anzio were all bombed out, of course, but when we landed there, the weather was like Hawaii,” recalled Victor. “Beautiful! As we left the port area, we passed through a large graveyard, the British on the left and the Americans on the right. It was some sight. And the artillery were packed hub-to-hub: first, the 155s, then as we moved out of town, the lO5s, and closer to the front, the cannons. Shows you that it was not too big a front, about seven by fourteen miles. A smokescreen shielded our convoy from the enemy. We reported to the company area and except for the First Sergeant and a few others, the rest were all up at the front.”

While in training at Shelby with the 442nd, Victor had been with the 2nd platoon of D Company. At Anzio, he was assigned to the 1st Platoon of D Company, l00th. “For the first few days we had nothing to do,” he said. “We used to shoot frogs in the Mussolini Canal.”

Search for a wounded tanker. Then came a call for litter bearers. Victor volunteered for the task and soon he was trudging all over the landscape picking up mostly the wounded. The three others in the litter squad were Raymond Sato, Ben Ishibashi (an art teacher at Roosevelt High School who retired last year) and a kotonk whose name Victor can’t recall. “One of the things that really stood out in my mind was the time we were assigned to pick up a tank man. We must have walked for two or three miles looking for him. Finally, we came across some guys, Caucasian fellows, looking down in a ditch. They had taken off their jackets preparing to make a makeshift litter. ‘Is he a tanker?’ we asked. ‘Yeah, he’s one of our guys. Been lying in there for several days.'” Victor told the group that his men would take care of the injured soldier. With that, they left.

They went down into the ditch, found that the soldier was beginning to swell, but still alive, slit open his trouser legs and poured sulfanilamide powder over his wounds. They had difficulty getting him out of the ditch because he was a big guy, and were all pooped by the time they did. As they carried him down the road, resting every hundred yards or so, they began to wonder out loud whether they would ever make it to the aid station. “When lo! and behold,” said Victor, “a truck comes over the hill. The driver stopped, asked directions to the l00th headquarters, then started to drive off. But I gave him a yell: ‘ Help us take this guy back.’”
The bliss of ignorance. They placed the injured man on the truck. About a mile down the road, they were flagged down by some engineer types who told them they could not use the road because it was mined. “How can it be,” cried out the driver. “1 just came down this road!”

Victor had had no experience with mines. He got off the truck and asked to be shown what they looked like. Evidently these had been hastily laid; they seemed harmless enough, just covered over with some grass and sticks. He asked the driver if he’d be willing to drive through them if he pointed them out to him. “Yeah, we can do that,” replied the driver. So in that manner Victor “walked” the truck with its human cargo for the hundred or more yards it took to go through and between about a dozen mines.

Where earlier it had been the driver alone who, forgiveably, had courted disaster, now there were the two of them knowingly playing against the odds. But, said Victor, “I had no idea what an anti-tank mine could do. I thought the most it could do was to blow up a tire!” Of such stuff are chances taken, and won.

Why some men are men. At the aid station, the doctor immediately took care of the injured soldier. Apparently, when his tank was hit, the crew had scrambled out, leaving him behind for dead. But the breath of life was still within him and he managed to crawl out and stumble into a roadside ditch for refuge, which is where Victor and his crew found him. “I’ve never forgotten that even in his injured state, the guy had a will to live … thinking of the lieutenant who had deserted him. So I figure the guy must be alive today.” Victor shook his head as he recalled the incident.

And well he might because what he had encountered is in sharp contrast to how buddies in combat are expected to react on the field of battle. This is illustrated by the story told by Ronald Reagan when he was making his run for the presidency. A group of “Flying Fortresses” had made a raid deep in enemy-held territory. Shot up by Messerschmitts and battered by antiaircraft guns on their way out, they were nearing home, over the English Channel, when the last two engines on one of the B-17s conked out. The captain called out over the intercome for everyone to bailout. Quickly, the crew jumped out of the floundering craft; everyone except a young gunner trapped in his position by the twisted wreckage around him. He could not extricate himself and as he saw his companions leaving the plane, he broke down, became hysterical. But the captain came over to the side of the distraught youngster, took his hand, comforted him, and said, “I’ll stay with you” as the plane went spiraling down into the black sea. The captain was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Go for broke. In the imaginative scenario for the capture of Rome, the Allied plans called for the British under General Montgomery to threaten Rome from the east while the American 5th Army under Genral Mark Clark was to push up the Liri Valley through Cassino. Then with the 5th Army in reasonably close supporting distance, an amphibious assault was to be launched at Anzio, to facilitate the capture of The Eternal City. However, like all the best laid plans of mice, and of men, too, which go astray, Anzio had become, in the words of one imaginative historian, “the epic stand on a lonely beachhead.”

It could have worked, though because the VI Corps’ amphibious landing of January 22 at Anzio had caught the Germans by surprise. The landing was virtually unopposed but the enemy quickly recovered and now, four months later, the beachhead, like its inland counterpart, Cassino, had become a quandary. Nevertheless, the time had to come, as it must, for something to give – and give it did, as the Germans defense line from Cassino to the sea finally collapsed under the combined assault of the 8th and 5th Armies. At that, the German positions holding the VI Corps at bay against the sea at Anzio became untenable. So as the Germans withdrew their forces from around the Anzio perimeter, all the units on the beachhead, including the 100th, sprang to life.

Victor and his litter bearers were relieved of their functions and returned to company duty. Instead of a litter he was back to carrying his M-l rifle. Instead of a Red Cross arm band, his rifle belt was filled with bullets. And instead of picking up the wounded, he was leading a squad in for the kill.

So it was that on the morning of May 28, 1944, on a dusty road near Highway 7 leading into Rome, somewhere between the towns of Cisterna and Valletri, a U.S. Army photographer happened to come by and snapped a picture of Victor’s squad moving up to the front. It is a picture which has been reprinted many times before in the P-P Parade. Today it graces the publicity posters announcing the Presidio Army Museum’s “Go For Broke” exhibit. It is reprinted once again, below.

One for Christianity! When the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 442nd arrived in Civitavecchia, above Rome, in mid-June, they were immediately assigned to the 34th Division. At the same time, the 100th was designated as the 1st Battalion of the 442nd, rounding out the regimental combat team. Thereafter, the men of the 100th and 442nd were to march and fight together as a team till the end of the war.

It was during this period that a limited number of passes were being issued to those of the Catholic faith to visit Rome. “I was not a ‘real’ Catholic but I wanted to see Rome, the Pope. I did not have seniority because I had been in the company only a short while. But I told the First Sergeant that I had a very deep feeling for Christianity! And because there were not too many requests for passes, I was issued one’,” said Victor. Transportation was provided but at evening time, the group was only at the division motorpool, too late to go any further. They were told that a truck would be leaving at 5 in the morning for the city. The group bedded down for the night under some haystacks in an open field next to an army supply area. The supply people provided them with mattress covers. Sleeping next to Victor was a kotonk so he asked him to wake him up at 4. But when Victor aroused himself in the morning, it was 6 and the kotonk was gone.

“Everything was real quiet and peaceful,” recalled Victor. He asked a nearby MP if he had seen anyone leaving the area. At that, the MP roared with laughter. “You’re the fourth one to come out of the haystack,” he said.

Victor did get to see the Pope, Pius XII, in an audience in St. Peter’s Church, after hitchhiking his way into the Vatican City. The pope was carried into the room on his portable throne and gave his blessings to the assembled GIs. Each was given a silver medallion as a memento of the occasion. Victor managed to hang on to his prized possession throughout the years, only to have it stolen when his home in Aina Haina was burglarized several years ago.

Death of a friend. Victor was a senior at Lahainaluna High School when the War Department announced the activation of the 442nd. He and his best friend, Masaru Tengan, immediately volunteered and on the morning of the induction, the two jogged the 2 1/2 miles from the school where they were boarding into Lahaina town for the ceremony.

At Shelby, Victor was assigned to Dog and Masaru to L company. So the two made a vow to get together at least once a month for a trip into town for a steak dinner or so. Said Victor, “This guy was very important to me. When the 442nd came over (to Civitavecchia), I made it a point and sought him out. We spent one late evening together and that was the last time we really got together. ”

July found the 100/442 fighting in the Cecina-Vada-Leghorn-Arno River area. “At Cecina, right before we pulled back to Vada for a rest, we had taken this low land and on this particular day we were getting shelled. We were also very weak because it had been an extremely hot day and we were drinking too much water. We came up along this dry river bed and were told to hold the hill but we were too weak to even carry the machine guns up the hill so we had to dismantle the tripods. After setting up the guns, I went to see Lieutenant (Charles) Coyne and told him the guys needed water. He told me to round up some canteens and go look for water. So I retraced the path we had come up on, following the stream bed. Then I came upon some 442 guys, then some familiar faces. I found out they were from L Company and had gotten shelled that morning. So I asked about my friend, Masaru, and was told that he got hit. Bad? They didn’t know. The whole squad got caught on the road. But they thought he had been picked up and sent back. Well, at least that’s a good sign that he’s alive.

“I continued on my mission, found a water hole, chased away the filled the canteens, put the pills in, and went back to my position. But afterwards, I found out that he had died. Asking around, I was told that the nearest graveyard was not too far away from Vada. There, I followed roadside markers – and I found the grave.

“You know, I almost beat the body to the grave! When I asked the grave diggers if they had come across the name of Masaru Tengan, they recalled some body by that name having just been buried. Sure enough, just a few graves away was the grave of my friend.” Masaru is today buried in Punchbowl National Cemetery.

How some battles are fought. Victor has sharp recall of many of the incidents on the fields of battle. There was the time, for instance, in Leghorn, when he and his friend went out looking for rice but found instead a shop full of brand new bikes. Cavorting around like kids with a Christmas gift, they rode all over the place, then through a peach orchard. Continuing on, they banged open a lingerie shop and in the general horseplay which followed the discovery of a shop full of women’s undergarments, they rode down the street with bras draped over their chests and arms laden with the soft-textured garments. As they passed a British unit’s headquarters, the Britishers who were having a tea break dashed out into the street, grabbed them, and cried out, “Hey! Can we have these things?” Why? Well, it turned out that these guys had been in the North African campaign also and they hadn’t been home for years. They wanted to send these things home to their wives. Said Victor, “They peeled the things off from us and wanted to pay us, but we were doing it just for the clowning. I’ll never forget that scene… we must have looked like a weird bunch of guys, riding up the street on bikes, peaches stuffed in our bras, and what not. They even took our bikes but we didn’t care because this was about as far as we wanted to go, anyway.”

In another incident following the move of the 100/442 from Italy to France, Victor and his friends found themselves one day in a little drinking place in a little town north of Marseilles. It was getting on to evening time so they decided to call it quits and head back for their bivouac area. As they were walking along the dirt road, a Jeep came by with a couple of Free French soldiers. They stopped, scrutinized the Americans, then pointed to Victor and motioned him to come along with them. What for? All they could make out was that some bar owner had complained to the gendarme that an American soldier had walked off without paying for his drinks. Victor evidently matched the description of the wayward soldier. Vic’s friends all climbed on the Jeep with him and back to town they went.

“The bar owner, a woman, looked me over, shook her head. ‘No! No! No!’ she said. ‘Blackie! Blackie! Blackie!’ The fellow had been a Negro soldier and of all the guys, I was the darkest, looking more so in the waning light of the day. So everyone had a good laugh; they began calling me popolo. The woman was so apologetic. She brought out some wine and we all sat and started drinking again!”

But comes the real thing. The town of Bruyeres holds no particular memories for Victor because his involvement there was mostly a matter of securing the town and walking through the place. But up in the hills above Biffontaine one pitch-black night, he was on all four feeling his way back to his machine gun post when, seemingly out of nowhere, came a soft voice, almost a whisper: “Yama … is that you?” even as he felt the press of a cold rifle barrel against his forehead. “Yeah,” he whispered back. “And thanks for not pulling the trigger!”

Later, while on patrol in the town, his squad opened the door of a house and to their surprise found some German rifles stacked up in the hallway. It sure looked queer. One group went upstairs to check. The other group went down into the cellar and there they found seven German soldiers huddled together. There was also a French civilian, his wife, their daughter of about three or four, and their grandmother. Evidently, they were hoping that the Americans would pass them by.

Shortly after while setting up defensive positions in a courtyard, they saw an enemy soldier go by behind a fence on the opposite side of the square. Only his head was visible. Then a second, a third, and a fourth went by. By then, several of the boys had run over to see what was going on. Victor followed and when he got there, the boys had the Germans cornered. But one decided to make a break for it and started running toward a farmhouse about 200 yards away.

“I started to run after him,” said Victor. “I should have shot him. The guy reached the farmhouse, turned around, and shot at me. I fell in a ditch and stayed there for awhile. Fred Yamashige started firing at the fleeing German. Then he called out to me, ‘Okay, Yama, you can corne back.’ He covered me as I carne back. And I got a Purple Heart for that because when I fell in the ditch, something cut me on the left hand. That was a funny one!”

One of the things Victor recalled of the rescue attempt of the 36th Division’s “Lost Battalion” was seeing a 2-star general up on the forest ridge line, encouraging the rescuing infantrymen to push on with the attack, urging his tanks to keep moving forward. The other was the relentless nature of the German artillery which seemed to follow the every move of the Americans: when the enemy gave ground and the Americans occupied their positions, the artillery would shell them there, and when they themselves were pushed back, the artillery would follow them to their former positions. On one of these moves, a shell hit a large tree over Victor’s position. “Fortunately, the only thing that hit me was a shower of fragments.”

And then the end. But the “fragments” were forceful enough to wound him all over the backside of his body, enough to take him out of the battle, out of the war. He wounds were for real, not like that earlier “funny one” on his hand. From the evacuation hospital behind the lines, he was shipped to southern England, outside Plymouth. After a stay of several months there, he was shipped back to France and was at Le Havre when the war ended. But he was moved again, this time to the Maginot Line up north. The impotent fortification was apparently being used as a holding area for all kinds of personnel, including wounded German soldiers on their way home to their defeated homeland. Then back to Le Havre. Finally, in December ’45, he found himself on U.S. soil. He returned home to Hawaii in January and was discharged shortly afterwards.

Postwar. Victor returned to Wailuku, as restless as other returning veterans. After a month of doing nothing, not knowing what to do, he applied for a job but only police positions were available. He really wanted to be a fish and game warden but that required a minimum two years of college education. Being mechanically inclined, he had taken a course in auto mechanics at Lahainaluna, which enabled him to start as an auto mech helper at Haleakala Motors at 57₵ an hour. He then discovered that the head mechanic there had been on the job for 18 years and was being paid only $1.10 an hour. That didn’t make sense to him.

He realized that the only way up was through some formal education so with the help and encouragement of Mr. Alton Rogers, principal of Lahainaluna High School, and the safety engineer at C. Brewer and Company, Mr. Ernest Hood, he enrolled in the Industrial Arts College at Bradley University at Peoria, Illinois, returning home to Hawaii with a degree in industrial education.

His first teaching job was at Farrington High School, teaching auto mechanics. (His salary was $225 a month, less than half of his brother’s $475 who was a carpenter.) From there he was shifted to the Big Island, to Hilo High and Kapiolani Elementary. Then it was back to Oahu, but now as vice-principal, at Kaala Elementary in Wahiawa and Puuhale Elementary in Honolulu. Next came a stint in the headquarters itself of the Department of Education, in the Manpower Division. After that, he stepped up to the principalships of Puuhale and Aliiolani Elementary. Presently (since mid’75) he is the principal of Manoa Elementary which has an enrollment of slightly over 500 and teachers and staff numbering 26.

In memory of a lost friend. Victor is a member of the Waioli Lions Club and the Waiokeola Congregational Church. As for veterans organizations, he had not joined the Club 100 or the 442nd Veterans Club, though eligible for both. A few years ago, however, he was dragged to a DAV (Chapter 11) meeting by Yoshiji Aoki, a teacher at the school where he was principal. Most of the members of the DAV chapter are, like Yoshiji, former members of Company L, 442nd Regimental Combat Team: as such, they are members of L Chapter, 442nd Veterans Club. (Yoshiji’s elder brother, Robert, is a member of Baker Chapter, Club 100.) So ultimately, if not sooner, everyone who becomes a member of the DAV chapter winds up being a member of L Chapter, 442nd. That went for Victor, too.

So at their monthly gatherings, while dining on sashimi and steaks and barbecued ribs and the like, washed down by cases of beer and soda, the members managed to “kill two birds” by holding, first, their DAV meeting, then the 442nd meeting; as neat an arrangement if there ever was one! “But,” emphasized Victor, “the real reason I turned to L Chapter was because of my friend, Masaru Tengan.”

To endure life. Victor is the fourth of seven children of Kametaro and Tsuya Yamashita. Of the seven, one has passed away and the others live in Hawaii except for the youngest, Sybil, who lives in Los Angeles (her married name is Herbrick). Kametaro had emigrated to Hawaii in 1896. He worked as a plantation water-boss and an independent gardener. He died in 1952 at the age of 77. His wife, Tsuya, followed him in death two years later; she was 63. Both were from Kumamoto prefecture. As for his own family, Victor married Tomiko Itokazu in 1950 (Timmy, she is called). They have four sons – Byrnes, Boyden, Bryan, and Barry (at 21, the youngest). But in between Boyden and Bryan, Timmy had two miscarriages. Victor feels that his losses were related to newly-introduced drug. “But we really don’t know and I don’t care to find out. It doesn’t matter,” said Victor.

But there were things that mattered: when he came to realize that a superior had deserted a member of his tank crew; when he heard his companion cry out, “You don’t want to live forever!” and he volunteered for service overseas; when he so wanted to see the pope that he was willing to shade his feelings just a bit and told his First Sergeant that he had a “very deep feeling” for Christianity; when he went out to search for the grave of his friend, and later joined a veterans chapter because of him; when he did remember to say, “Thanks for not pulling the trigger” in the blackness of the forest night.

So why doesn’t it matter when it comes to his own…when his own son Bryan, was born with only one arm?

I can only suppose that it’s a matter of the spirit. I’m reminded of the occasion when William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his acceptance speech, Faulkner said that the award was “for a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and less for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.” In listening to Victor tell of his experiences, I’ve come to the feeling that this is more than just a story. It’s a reflection of how he feels about life: the things that count, the things he can endure.