Sansei Filmmaker Completes Tribute to Nisei Soldiers

By: By J.K. Yamamoto/ Nikkei West

After more than three years of effort, San Jose filmmaker Burt Takeuchi is screening his documentary “Valor With Honor” around Northern California and beyond.

The tribute to the Nisei of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team who served in Europe during World War II has been well received by veterans and other community members in Auburn, San Francisco and San Jose. More screenings are planned for Stockton, Los Angeles and Hawaii.

A native of Los Angeles, Takeuchi was partly raised in San Jose and received his bachelor’s degree in biology from San Jose State University in 1995. He has studied the history of the 442nd and the larger role of Asian Americans in the military for about 15 years. “Valor With Honor” is his first feature-length documentary. He plans to produce more film projects in the near future through his company, Torasan Films.

Takeuchi, who has interviewed more than 35 Nisei veterans over the past few years, said, “My motivation to make the film was to record these great stories into a feature documentary film, although my original plan was a shorter film with a handful of 442nd vets giving detailed interviews. I wanted to produce a low-budget feature dramatic film on the 442nd but did not have all the tools to create one at that time.

“The fact that the vets are passing away made this documentary a priority over all other film and art projects. I did not want to be years down the road telling these stories second-hand without proof or documentation. So ‘Valor with Honor’ was born.”

Some of the interviewees passed away before the film was completed:

Henry Arao (1920-2005) of Santa Cruz, a retired strawberry farmer and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross;

Tom Kizuka (1923-2008) of Watsonville, a pharmacist, former Poston internee and L Company veteran;

Robert Kashiwagi (1919-2008), a K Company veteran who later worked for the State Division of Highways.

Asked if anyone in his family served in the 442nd, he replied, “A relative on my mother’s side, Tatsumi Iwate, was one of the cadre for the 442nd at Camp Shelby, Miss. His section volunteered as stretcher-bearers in the Lost Battalion rescue. He ran through a barrage during a firefight near Biffontaine, France to carry one his wounded soldiers to safety. He was wounded in the head when a tree burst exploded in front of him. He continued to lead his section unit until he was too badly wounded to continue.

“His section transported dozens of wounded soldiers to the aid stations. Sgt. Iwate was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star (posthumous), and Purple Heart. Iwate later worked at Landor in San Francisco as a graphic artist.”

Although other documentaries have been made about the 442nd, Takeuchi said that his film has much to offer even for those who are familiar with the unit’s history: ” ‘Valor With Honor’ focuses on more about the veterans themselves — how they felt looking back at World War II — racism, internment, the war, and the return home to America. The interviews are more detailed, painful, colorful, and humorous. The film structure is almost like a dramatic film, with arcs for several of the vets telling their experiences in the 442nd. You follow these aging vets through boot camp, Italy, the Lost Battalion rescue, Dachau, and their bittersweet return home.

“There is no narration in the film. The vets describe all the battles and daily situations they faced themselves — something that is rarely done in books or films. So this is a special film. Not just about Japanese Americans or Asian Americans but about World War II and what America was like in the 1930s and ’40s.”

Takeuchi tracked down veterans of the Texas 141st Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division, the “Lost Battalion” that was surrounded by German troops in France’s Vosges Mountains and rescued by the 442nd in October 1944. He also interviewed a Holocaust survivor who was rescued by the 522nd Field Artillery, which was part of the 442nd.

To supplement 1940s footage of Nisei soldiers, Takeuchi filmed re-enactments at Sequoia Paint Ball Park in Santa Cruz County with actors (including himself) in full battle gear. Due to fire regulations, they were not able to shoot their weapons.

A screening of the film in Auburn last June raised over $10,000 for a monument to Placer County 442nd veterans. That same month, the film had its San Francisco premiere at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

“The vets in S.F. thought the film was great and gave me the highest praises,” Takeuchi reported. “Many of the families of the vets that were interviewed attended. They were also very happy with the film.

“The Auburn show was also very well received with over 200 people in attendance. I must have shook 25-30 hands at each show. Many people cried at the end of the screenings. ‘Valor With Honor’ turned out to be a powerful film.”

Q&A With the Filmmaker

The Sept. 26 screening at Yu-Ai Kai in San Jose Japantown, sponsored by Nihonmachi Outreach Committee, included a Q&A session with Takeuchi and a photo display by the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.

Do the Nisei vets suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as today’s Iraq and Afghanistan vets do? “There was no name for it … I don’t think people were very sophisticated about those kinds of things,” Takeuchi said. “You had anything that was psychological, you were done. The Army didn’t want you … There was depression, alcoholism was high, some drug abuse, spousal abuse. Things like this happened even back then. It’s just that it wasn’t talked about, it wasn’t dealt with.”

To illustrate the attitude prevalent at the time, he cited an incident in which Gen. George Patton visited a military hospital and met a soldier who had no visible injuries but appeared to have had a nervous breakdown. The general’s response was to slap the soldier and call him a coward.

As for Nisei who suffered from PTSD, “most of them, I guess they just stayed home for a while,” Takeuchi said. “Maybe they convalesced for about half a year … If you just stopped doing things for a while and stopped stressing out, then eventually you’ll come around. I think that happens for many people. One guy said that he had one (breakdown) but it went away. He got over it eventually.

“But others, they’re still having problems today, in their 80s. They still have nightmares, flashbacks, seeing things that are not there in the corner of their eye, because fighting was so intense. Any minute a guy would come rushing out with a bayonet to try to kill you. You had to defend yourself. Artillery attacks nonstop —  it wasn’t pretty … Most of us never get that scared. If you’re a police officer, you get scared a little bit, but you don’t have to be scared like nine days straight.”

Takeuchi credited war hero and movie star Audie Murphy with helping to bring the issue out of the closet. “He won the most decorations for any soldier in the history of the U.S. military, and he had post-traumatic stress … knives under his pillow, guns loaded in his house, he just thought that someone was going to come and get him any minute … He spoke out about it, he said this thing exists in society.”

Asked if talking about their experiences was helpful to the vets, Takeuchi recalled, “One guy said he didn’t have as many nightmares. He called me once in a while … ‘Man, I feel really nervous today’ … We’d talk on his cell phone for a while … ‘You all right now?’ ‘Yeah, I can’t remember what I was calling about.’ So guess I did sort of help him.”

Talking to former internees led Takeuchi to speculate about the camp experience leading to a form of PTSD. “Being a kid on a farm, all of a sudden you’re behind barbed wire at gunpoint. That’s difficult to explain to a kid, ‘Don’t go near that fence, they’re going to blow your head off.’ I kind of wonder about that too. I wonder if the Japanese American population here on the West Coast that went to camp. How were they affected over time, how did it affect their personality, how they look at themselves and the rest of the world?”

Regarding segregation in the Army, Takeuchi said that the Nisei accepted it as a fact of life. “This was pre-civil rights, pre-affirmative action. There was none of that. … That’s something that they had to get through, that’s something that that generation had to go through. They had to try to find jobs they could do, excel at it, show that they could do it and move on. That’s what the Army did, gave them a chance to prove that it’s not the color of your skin that makes you an American.”

He noted that African Americans also served in segregated units such as the 92nd Infantry Division and were able to prove themselves. “They had a very difficult time. But the 442nd was attached to them when they broke the Gothic Line … That’s what allowed the rest of the division to pour in … The Germans were running … They saved a lot of lives.”

A surprising fact Takeuchi discovered is that the Nisei vets received generous benefits, better than what is available today. “Back then it was full benefits. You got to go to college, get training. There was rehab for wounded veterans. It was pretty extensive. The Truman Administration actually extended that, and they did a pretty good job.”

One of the beneficiaries was interviewee Susumu Ito, who served with the 522nd. “He was raised on a farm in Stockton. It’s kind of ironic. He fell so behind in school. He spoke Japanese at home. There was no bilingual education for Japanese Americans … At the time, his teachers were telling him, ‘You’ll never make it through high school.’ He got through high school and he went to trade school for a while, then he went to college and he eventually wound up as a professor at Harvard.”

Some interviews were easier than others, Takeuchi noted. “One gentleman was wounded so badly he didn’t want to talk about it. Others were very open. Others I had to kind of really tug at them to try to get them to talk.”

To keep the film at a reasonable length, he had to leave out a lot. “It started out at six hours … rough cut. Nobody’s going to sit and watch this. So that was the next logical step, to narrow the film down, narrow it to about two hours … I wanted to make it shorter, but you cut too much out, it looks really chopped up, it doesn’t look like anything.”

Takeuchi emphasized the importance of including the stories of the Hawaiian Nisei. “You’ve got to remember the 100th Battalion went in first … They did so well in war games that they sent them over first. So their record at Monte Cassino, Anzio, Livorno, and almost taking Rome, breaking into Rome by themselves, the last obstacle so the 10th Army could get through … nobody could say anything about their record there. (So the Army said) ‘Okay, let’s bring the other battalions over and we’ll make it one regiment. So that’s what they did. That’s the 442nd.”

He noted that Hawaiian and mainland soldiers initially didn’t get along, in part because “they didn’t speak a common language.” One of the interviewees, B Company veteran Leighton Sumida, spoke pidgin and joked about the subject. “He says, ‘You think they’re going to use subtitles for me?’ I said, ‘That’s a possibility’ … He’s a funny guy.”

Having grown up seeing negative depictions of Asian men in Hollywood productions, Takeuchi felt compelled to present a “masculine kind of image” and “a male role model.” He remembered that “Go for Broke,” a 1951 movie about the 442nd, was one of the few movies of that era that gave Japanese American kids “some sense of pride.”

He added, “Things have probably changed since then. We have anime now. I think kids look at their Asian American background a little differently now. They can be the heroes … the good guys. It’s not all bad.”

Takeuchi recently had an opportunity to meet one of his heroes, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. The Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate, took part in the Lost Battalion rescue and lost an arm in Italy after the battle of Mount Fogarito, in which the Nisei climbed up a nearly vertical precipice by night and took a heavily fortified German position.

“He’s a neat guy,” Takeuchi said. “He told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t stop moving. Don’t get on the couch and watch TV, because after that you’re done.’ ”

Takeuchi felt his film’s title was appropriate because the veterans he met are “very honorable men … very modest. You don’t see them out bragging about their accomplishments. They don’t wear their medals in public very often, maybe a little emblem of their unit …

“It’s nice to share this with people … I didn’t want to let their families down. I think they had some hope in me to try to finish this thing … It’s for their legacy.”

For information on upcoming screenings, visit www.valorwithhonor.com.