Why do you fight for America?

The prisoners spent more travel days in a cattle car labeled “10 Horses or 50 men.” They ended up at Stalag 7A, a camp northeast of Munich, Germany. The site was a massive complex where some 20,000 prisoners of war from Allied nations were being held. At the time of liberation, April 1945, estimates of the number of prisoners being held there ranged from 80,000 to more than 130,000 prisoners.

According to Akita, the prison was surrounded by a double barbed-wire fence with machine gun towers. German sentries with police dogs patrolled the camp grounds. “The first night was [spent] in a barn with no floors, infested with fleas and bedbugs,” he recalled, adding, “. . . sanitary conditions were terrible.”

Although they were initially held in the same compound, the Nisei POWs were eventually separated. “I noticed Stan (Akita) ended up with haole Americans and Roy was with French prisoners,” said Oscar Miyashiro, who was imprisoned with other Japanese American POWs as part of a much larger general group. “We had about 200 to 300 prisoners in our barracks, some British, too.”

Soon, the POWS were assigned a schedule. Their work detail required that they wake up at 4:30 a.m. and then ride a train, again in the boxcars, to Munich, about two hours away. There, they cleared the massive rubble in the city or near the railroad. “Work detail on the railroad wasn’t too bad,” said Akita. “It took 50 men about three days to cover up one bomb crater about 30 feet in diameter and 10 feet deep . . . . The rails could be twisted like pretzels.”

The work detail also gave the POWs a change of pace — and opportunities others did not have. “If the guard was good, he’d let us trade our Red Cross cigarettes for bread or potatoes,” Oscar Miyashiro explained. “My partner and I had fried potatoes, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes and potato soup. Potatoes were running out of our ears.”

Just as there were funny incidences that the men remembered, there also were sad and horrific ones that they would never forget. Miyashiro recalled seeing Jewish prisoners wearing striped uniforms. “I also noticed Russian prisoners who were starving, really skinny, because they didn’t have the Red Cross parcels like we did.”

Akita noticed a Japanese youth dressed in a German guard’s uniform and wondered whether the young man was Mongolian. “But this one really looked Japanese,” he said. “He was young. The Mongolians who worked in labor battalions were older,” he noted.

The Japanese Americans themselves aroused curiosity from civilians wherever they went, Akita said. “They’d ask the guard if I was a Chinese soldier. When they were told we were Japanese, the people had that ‘how come?’ expressions on their faces.”

Akita, Nakamine and Miyashiro concurred that having “Good Joe” guards was important to the POWs. A “Good Joe,” for instance, would allow the men to remove their underwear, bury it in the snow for about an hour to kill off the lice and fleas, and then shake off the snow and pick off the frozen lice and fleas.

Nakamine said he went out on work details, although not daily. Like his friends in other compounds, he made soup from the potatoes, secretly traded cigarettes for food with the German guards at night and learned to sleep with fleas. “Every night we’d fight with the fleas.” he said. “We couldn’t take it at first, but after awhile, we got used to it.”

One thing that impacted him greatly was the sight of Jewish prisoners walking outside — stooped over, shaggy and old. It was a sight he would not forget. Later, while enroute to the infirmary in nearby Moosburg, he saw hordes of Jews too weak to walk. “They were nothing but skin and bones,” he said. “I hated to see that. I felt so badly for them. I think they were being sent to Dachau, a few miles away, although I didn’t know that at the time. . . . When I saw movies and read books later, I thought, ‘So that’s what they were talking about.’”

As the POWs continued their daily routines, they quietly waited and hoped for something to happen that would free them. They thought of their families and friends back home and wondered, “When is this war going to be over?” said Miyashiro.

The POWs knew nothing about the 100th/442nd’s dramatic rescue of the “Lost Battalion” in France in late October. It was a battle that came with a heavy human toll. “I wondered about my friends,” said Nakamine. “What was happening to them?”

It would not be long before Nakamine and his buddies learned the answer to that question.

On the evening of April 28, 1945 — six months after their capture — their German guards disappeared suddenly. The next morning, April 29, they heard artillery shells in the distance and what sounded like Allied troops approaching. “We thought, ‘Hey, they’re close by,’ and when they passed through, we got some bread to eat — that’s the thing that comes to mind,” said Nakamine. “I had tears in my eyes because I was so happy they came.”

Akita, who was being held in another section of Stalag 7A, remembered that a handful of guards were left on the morning of April 29. He saw American tanks emerging from the woods that surrounded the complex and knew that liberation day had arrived. After surviving the wood pulp German bread, he was happy when his liberators gave him “white bread that looked, felt and tasted more like cake than anything else.”

In still another compound, Oscar Miyashiro awoke to see American troops and a tank in the distance. He was told that General George S. Patton was arriving.

After a few days, the finally-freed prisoners were taken to an airstrip and flown to Le Havre, France, an Allied staging area for troops returning to the U.S. But the journey to freedom did not go off without incident. “Our plane was shot at by Germans who didn’t know the war was practically over,” Miyashiro recalled.

Freedom for Chicken Miyashiro was delivered by the Russians. Chicken, who had been shot in the hip the day of his capture in October 1944 had survived surgery and spent time in a convalescent hospital. He ended up in a POW camp in Poland. When the Russians captured Warsaw in January 1945, the Germans marched their prisoners out of Poland on foot. However, because Chicken was still on crutches, he was ordered to stay behind until the Russians ultimately took over the camp. At the Black Sea port of Odessa, he was placed on a ship bound for Port Said, Egypt. From there, Chicken traveled to Naples, Italy; Miami, Florida; and, finally, home to Hawaii.

By the summer of 1945, Takeichi “Chicken” Miyashiro, Stanley Akita, Oscar Miyashiro and Roy Nakamine were all back home in Hawaii — far from the forests of France and the prisoner of war camps. Their long ordeal, became a lifetime memory.

by Thelma Chang

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