Yoshinao ‘Turtle’ Omiya

The 100th had been in Italy for just over a month and was making its third crossing of the Volturno River, this time moving in single file up Hill 600 through thick olive groves. The platoon was being led by then-Lt. Spark Matsunaga, who would later represent Hawaii in the U.S. Congress. Concealed in the foliage were machine guns, land mines and enemy troops.

“I was on the lower part of the hill, the fourth man in formation, and our messenger happened to trip an ‘umbrella-type’ of mine,” recalled Omiya.

“The irony was that those directly under the umbrella of the explosion were not even touched, but those of us on the outskirts were not so lucky. Yasuo Kawano, our walkie-talkie operator, was killed; Sparky got hit in the leg, and you know what happened to me.”

Omiya, then 23 years old, was carrying a machine gun tripod. Wondering why the formation had stopped moving, he looked up. In that instant, steel fragments from the exploding “Bouncing Betty” mine rained down, shattering his right eye, resulting in a concussion that also claimed his left eye. Ironically, it was the only part of his body that was injured.

Like any life tragedy, the “if onlys” inevitably return to haunt. If only he hadn’t looked up . . . If only he had moved a few inches to the left . . . or to the right. If only . . .

But on this day, Turtle Omiya did not talk about “if onlys,” for in spite of his blindness, he considered himself lucky to be alive: Hill 600 had claimed many of his buddies’ lives.

In time, the shock of Omiya’s blindness was eased by his introduction to Audrey, a golden German Shepherd who was part of the first guide dog program based in Morristown, New Jersey. When Omiya finally returned to Hawaii, Audrey became his eyes and most faithful and loyal companion.

“She was cute, intelligent and compassionate,” beamed Omiya, as if Audrey was still at his side. “She was so protective. If I bumped into something, she’d slink on her belly and be ashamed. She slept by my feet.”

Sadly, Omiya lost Audrey one day when, out of harness, she playfully ran across the street to greet another dog and was hit by a truck.

Omiya returned to New Jersey to be paired with another guide dog whom he named Lady Audrey. Although his second German Shepherd guided him for 10 years, in Omiya’s heart, she could never fully replace the original Audrey.

“I loved her,” he said softly.

After Lady Audrey died, Omiya decided there would be no more dogs for him. The loss of two faithful and dependable four-legged friends was too much to bear.

Omiya eventually learned Braille and held several jobs: He worked as a cardboard box assembler and as a masseur. There was also a time when he turned to religion, until hope turned into disillusionment.

But Omiya did not dwell on the unlucky hand that life had dealt him. Instead, he took trips to Las Vegas and attended Club 100 activities — reunions, Christmas parties and “Family Night” functions — with the Dog Company buddies with whom he had served during the war. He enjoyed listening to the radio, especially to baseball games, and focused on remembering the “good times, good friends and good food.” He was blessed to have a loving family, especially his mother and sister, who watched over him.

“It’s such a pleasure to watch him eat,” his sister Bessie said in an early 1980s interview. “Mother had worked so hard all her life, especially the last 30 [years] or so, caring for Turtle.”

Yoshinao “Turtle” Omiya died peacefully on June 23, 1984 at the age of 64. His legacy of sacrifice and gaman — quiet endurance — lives on through stories about him in books and articles, in the memories of those whose lives crossed paths with his . . . and in that iconic Life magazine photograph of a young American soldier wounded by war.

by Thelma Chang

Thelma Chang is the author of “I Can Never Forget: Men of the 100th/442nd,” which was published in 1991.