This week, JANM opened Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images, the first exhibition in Sharing Our Stories, a new series drawn from JANM’s extensive permanent collection. The exhibition looks at WWII photographs taken by Susumu “Sus” Ito while on a tour of duty through Europe as a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s 522nd Field Artillery Battalion.
While Ito participated in such dramatic events as the rescue of the Lost Battalion and the liberation of a sub-camp of Dachau, the majority of the photographs capture the humble daily lives of a group of young Japanese American soldiers. In the essay below, JANM Curator of History Lily Anne Yumi Welty Tamai, PhD, takes an in-depth look at one of the images featured in the exhibition. Read on for a riveting account of the rescue of the Lost Battalion and its aftermath, as experienced by soldiers who lived through it.
“We were in a number of dangerous situations. But the five days that I spent with ‘I’ Company and this mission, were really the most memorable. It was five days where I didn’t remember days from nights.” —Sus Ito, from JANM oral history interview, 2014.
In the last week of October 1944, after ten days of fighting to liberate Belmont, Biffontaine, and Bruyères in northeastern France, the segregated all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team received new orders. Without rest or time to recuperate, they were sent on a mission to rescue the 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment, made up of men from Texas. The soldiers of the 141st were trapped behind enemy lines and surrounded by German troops in eastern France with very little food, water, and medical supplies. Two other units had tried to rescue the so-called Lost Battalion without success; the Germans had a tremendous advantage in terms of position, and ambushed the American troops from their sniper nests.
There were no real roads in the mountains, just trails, and most were too narrow for large tanks. The forest was so dense in some areas that they had little to no visibility. Veteran George Oiye of the 442nd’s 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, “C” Battery, remembered the conditions: “The rain, snow, heavy clouds, dark fog, and the huge carpet of pine trees overhead made it hard to tell day from night.” It took six days of intense fighting to rescue the Lost Battalion. Out of the 800 Nisei soldiers who fought, around 600 suffered casualties in the process of rescuing 211 men.
“I saw so many wounded and dying fellow soldiers. There were friends holding their comrades in their arms. I ran into ‘I’ Company, which at that point only had four guys with a PFC (private first class)—Clarence Taba—in charge … the fighting had been that fierce.” —S. Don Shimazu, veteran of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, Headquarters Battery.
General John Dahlquist had sent the Japanese American unit on this mission knowing the odds for success were slim. Years later, as told in the book Japanese American History (edited by Brian Niiya), U.S. Senator and 442nd veteran Daniel K. Inouye recalled: “I am absolutely certain that all of us were well aware that we were being used for the rescue because we were expendable.” Despite these circumstances, they all fought valiantly.
Sus Ito did not take many photographs during the actual rescue of the Lost Battalion. However, he did take one of Sgt. George Thompson (above) after the battle was over. Thompson was not even supposed to fight on the front lines, but he had begged Ito for an assignment so he could see what war was really like. Ito agreed, allowing George to carry an extra set of radio batteries for the unit.
Reflecting on this striking photograph, Ito said: “George Thompson didn’t put his hands in front of him because he was down, or because he hated the thought of war. He was just trying to hide. Maybe he was trying to erase some of the images of what the Lost Battalion mission was like.”
When remembering the mission to rescue the Lost Battalion, Ito said: “We were fighting against an enemy we could not see. To this day when I walk into a dark forest on a bright day—or even when I think about it—I get goose bumps.”
To hear more of these stories and learn more about our exhibition, be sure to catch Dr. Lily Anne Tamai’s Behind the Scenes Lecture on July 25. The program is free with museum admission, but RSVPs are recommended here.