Katsumi Kometani

The consummate morale officer, Kometani took whatever steps were necessary to keep the men out of trouble and in good spirits. On a cold winter’s evening in Wisconsin, it was Kometani who ran out to silence the young soldiers singing Japanese songs. And, when the arrival of a new Korean American officer from California, Lieutenant Young Oak Kim, drew the overwhelming resentment of the Hawaii soldiers, it was Kometani the peacemaker who helped Kim find his place among the men. When the young white women of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, refused to date the AJA soldiers due to prejudice, it was Kometani who helped arrange social functions with young Japanese American women from a nearby internment camp.

He was gifted with the ability to listen and detect nuances in a situation and know instinctively what people needed.

One of Kometani’s “legacy” projects became Club 100, today known as the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans. The story dates back to the six months that the men spent at Camp McCoy. From their monthly pay of $30, each soldier deposited $2 into a fund that would be used to build a clubhouse, where they could gather when the war was over and they were back home in Hawaii. The $2 per month collection continued throughout the 100th’s time overseas.

Club 100 — the clubhouse — became an integral part of Kometani’s morale program. By war’s end, $50,000 had been collected towards the 100th’s clubhouse.

When the 100th Infantry Battalion was shipped out to North Africa in the fall of 1943, Kometani followed the men into combat and could often be found roaming the battlefields of Italy with Chaplain Israel Yost. Together they ventured through minefields, helped with the wounded and offered encouragement to the soldiers wherever they could.

In his memoirs, Chaplain Yost told the story of how on one trip to the front-line during a battle, he and Kometani found themselves waiting for a young medic. When the medic did not arrive, Yost questioned whether the man might face court-martial for disobeying an order. Kometani shook his head: The man had given all he had to give. He would see to it that the soldier was reassigned to the rear and the incident forgotten. No one would be court-martialed if he had anything to do with it.

As the 100th’s casualties continued to mount, Kometani bore the losses with stoicism. By October 1944, however, the war had reached a crisis point. In the dense forests of the Vosges mountains in northeastern France, the battalion, by then attached to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, suffered severe losses, first in liberating the towns of Bruyeres, Biffontaine and Belmont, and just days later, in the rescue of 211 soldiers from the 141st Regiment from Texas who had strayed into enemy territory, where they pinned down by the Germans. When Kometani came upon the young dead and dying boys, some of whom had sat in his dentist chair in Honolulu, the emotional strain on him was almost too much to bear, Yost observed in his memoir.

Kometani was awarded a Silver Star for his actions near Fort Bastione, Italy, on April 18, 1945.  When a combat patrol was isolated and in urgent need of litter bearer crews, Kometani volunteered to lead the crews over two miles of mountainous terrain to reach the patrol.  Under harassing fire and in danger of encountering the enemy, his party reached the patrol after three hours and was able to get everyone back to their lines.

Return to Hawaii

When the war ended in 1945, Kometani returned to his dental practice. For the next five years, besides working full-time in his practice, he traveled from island to island, visiting the families of 100th Battalion men who had been killed in battle in their homes, eating and drinking with them and reliving the pain of their loss.

By 1945, the combination of long days and nights, heavy smoking, the obligatory social drinking and eating, coupled with what must have been an enormous emotional strain, led to a series of heart attacks.

But a heart condition would not stop Kometani. Even with a family that grown with the birth of another daughter, Linda, Kometani worked with Republican Joseph Farrington, Hawaii’s delegate to Congress, to secure federal government jobs, with pensions, for AJA veterans. He also served as Aloha Council president for the Boy Scouts of America, was elected a delegate to the 1950 Hawaii Constitutional Convention, was appointed chairman of the territorial Board of Education in 1954, headed an advisory group in the City Parks Department and served as president of the local dental association. He also devoted his time to his favorite pastime, sports, helping to organize an exhibition game between his Asahi and the New York Yankees that featured Joe DiMaggio. In his free time, he enjoyed playing golf at Waialae Country Club and, at a time when there was still discrimination against Asians, moved easily among Hawaii’s Caucasian elite.

It was characteristic of Kometani’s wide network of friends that the person he entrusted with the management of his beloved Asahi baseball team during World War II was Democrat John A. Burns, who would serve as Hawaii’s delegate to Congress from 1957 to 1959, and, who, in 1962, was elected the state’s first Democratic governor. Despite Kometani’s active membership in the Republican Party, he and Burns remained lifelong friends.

Kometani never mentioned the many people he had helped. But the Japanese Olympic Committee never forgot what he had done for them. In 1972, he was invited to the Olympic Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, as an honored guest of the JOC.

Katsumi “Doc” Kometani died March 16, 1979, and was buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl among his comrades, some of his former players and his many friends.

by Michael Markrich

Michael Markrich is a Honolulu-based researcher, writer and editor. He and Monica Yost, eldest daughter of the 100th Infantry Battalion’s wartime chaplain, Israel Yost, co-edited her father’s memoirs, which were published in 2006 by the University of Hawaii Press as “Combat Chaplain: The Personal Story of the World War II Chaplain of the Japanese American 100th Battalion.”