A Soldier's Final Cries for Mother by Kenneth K. Inada
I wouldn’t be writing this piece if it weren’t for a rare chance meeting with Teruo Nobori of Berkeley, CA, at the recent mini-reunion of L Chapter held at the Las Vegas Fremont Hotel. This occurred on Monday evening, May 22, 2000, in the hotel lobby. Our small group had just been introduced to each other and we were about to go to the buffet room for dinner. I wanted to know more about Teruo, the oldest member of the mini-reunion group at age 87 according to Paul Matsumoto, and continued our conversation when out of the blue we were talking about the Lost Battalion push. I mentioned to him that I was on a ration detail of 12 men the night of October 28, 1944, when an artillery barrage rained down on us in pitch darkness and nearly wiped us out. I was informed later in the field hospital that only four out of the 12 men survived the deadly blast. Before going any further, let me pause to give some background information about the ration detail and me.
Back in Camp Shelby when the Regiment left for overseas in May 1944, unknown until the last moment, I was selected to be one of the few noncoms left as a cadre to train incoming recruits. At that time, I was a member of 1st Platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion but, unfortunately, the battalion was disbanded. The men and officers were dispersed to comparable units in the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, making them oversized battalions and soon to be joined by the 100th Battalion already in Italy. The first group of recruits numbering no more than a hundred was given six weeks of basic training. Meanwhile, I received an offer to go to OCS but declined and instead volunteered to join the first group of replacements for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. To this day, I do not know why I was picked as a cadre to train the fresh recruits who came mainly from the relocation camps. My memory of the recruits is very thin and limited to only a few. My thoughts at the time were focused on the men in C Company with whom I had spent over a year together in the same barracks. The dissolution of the 1st Battalion and the separation from barracks buddies are felt even today in strange ways. Last fall, for example, I got a call from Raymond Handa who was in my squad in Camp Shelby and who was transferred to E Company upon going overseas. We have never met since those Shelby days but somehow the ties remain. At any rate, when I arrived as a replacement in Italy, I joined the Regiment encamped in a vineyard outside of Naples where the unit had just returned from its initial combat near Rome. Later, the Regiment went into Naples proper and occupied the buildings of the University of Naples and at that time I was assigned to K Company of the 3rd Battalion.
Outside the main gate of the university, we befriended an Italian family whose name was "Russo" and the head of family, we later found out, was a professor in the sciences. It was wartime and the times were hard. On few occasions, we would take the maid and oldest daughter, Rosario, shopping at an open market and buy a variety of expensive goodies, like rare fish, and have a sumptuous dinner. At their suggestion, we even took a trip to visit the famous volcanic ruins of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed the resort city on the mountainside, a city that depicted the decadent life of the Romans at the tail end of their glorious empire. At Naples in late September, we boarded a troopship to Marseilles, France. At the docks, we were trucked to a small village of Aix, north of Marseilles, where we bivouacked most of the days in rainy weather. We spent many hours just trying to keep the inside of the twomen pup tent dry. After a week or so, we entrained to Epinal and then transferred to waiting trucks and on to the outskirts of Bruyeres to spend the night at the edge of the forest. When we woke up early in the morning, it was bitterly cold and frost was all over the ground. We would soon enter the forest on foot on the way to Bruyeres and my baptism of combat will begin. As I wrote elsewhere in a previously written piece, "Humanity in Action," my first taste of combat was spying a pale hand lying on the roadside. It must have been there as a result of an artillery barrage, but then I cringed to think about what had happened to the rest of the body. About two weeks will intervene here as the Regiment liberates Bruyeres, Biffontaine and Belmont in fierce battles in the lush but unfriendly terrain of the Vosges Mountains. We had only two days of rest in Belmont when the Regiment was commanded to rescue the Lost Battalion of the Texas 36th Division. On October 26th, the Regiment returned once again to the heavily wooded mountains.
On October 28th, the second full day of fighting to rescue the Lost Battalion, we made some progress, the whole battalion moving slowly but steadily on the high grounds of the thick forest. By about 5 p.m., the huge evergreen trees shaded the sunlight and darkness began to set in. We ate our K rations quickly and started to dig in for the night. Just then a Battalion call came for volunteers to form a ration detail of 12 men to replenish the low supplies in food, water and ammunition. We were all an edgy, tired bunch of soldiers who had struggled to fight every inch of our way up to this point. We lost quite a few of our men and also destroyed a good number of the Jerries (German soldiers). During the day, I remember clearly knocking out a machine gun nest about 10 yards in front of me. As we were signaled to move forward I put a new clip of bullets in my rifle and ran straight ahead scaling a bushy area and into the machine gun dugout. A young Jerry was dead with his face up. Apparently his companion successfully fled the scene with the machine gun. The peculiar stench of fresh death still haunts me. Since the enemy held up the Battalion advance and I was in good cover in the dugout, I took the liberty of opening up the young Jerry’s vest pocket. To my surprise, out came a photo of a beautiful woman embracing a tiny tot. It was a shocking moment for me and I quietly slid the photo back into the vest pocket where he had kept them close to his heart.
At any rate, in the touch-and-go situation we were in, it was most natural to entertain great hesitation and concern about volunteering for the ration detail. It was infinitely safer to be with the larger unit of a Battalion than to be in a small ration detail in darkness even if it were moving back and away from the frontlines. But then, where are the frontlines when the enemy is all around you? The platoon sergeant came around again in the dark asking for volunteers. This time I realized the human situation and volunteered for the job. They say in the service never to volunteer for anything. Yes indeed, but we were all volunteers to begin with and the impulse to volunteer was still there. I can’t recall the sergeant’s name but he told me to bring up the rear of the detail. Each member was told to travel light, to carry only a rifle and ammo belt in anticipation of a full load back. When it became really dark at 8 p.m., the sergeant led the way back silently over the crest of the mountain, following a vague trail blazed during the day and each walking closely behind the other, perhaps at two or three paces interval. As we were quietly snaking through the dark terrain about 200 yards from the point of departure, suddenly, an artillery barrage struck the entire length of the ration detail. The Jerries had well targeted the narrow passageway during the day in anticipation of some activity at night. I remember vividly, as the last man on the detail, the thunderous noise and huge flames about 12 feet high engulfing and illuminating the entire detail. Momentarily, I was knocked off my feet and blanked out for a moment. When I regained my senses a few seconds later, I was completely flat on my back and began to feel a cold sensation on my entire left arm and hand. My rifle was nowhere around me. I quickly found out that the cold sensation was caused by blood trickling down my arm. I immediately used my right arm that was in good condition to feel over my entire body and realized in astonishment that the rest of the body was fairly intact. Indeed, despite the blood splattered left arm, the fingers were still there but not my wristwatch that I bought in New York City during my first furlough after basic training. My joy was unbound at this point. I silently rejoiced over the fact that this is a million dollar wound, it is my last day of combat, and I am going home!
Now I noticed someone moving about. It was Norman Kimura of my K Company, formerly of C Company. I asked him how badly he was hurt and he told me that he had shrapnel hit on his back and was okay otherwise. Since we carried no medication I asked him to go back to the Battalion to get some sulfur drugs. He returned with the packets and I immediately dressed my wounded arm but asked him to give the bandage a final tie since I couldn’t do it with one hand. Then I told him to go up front and see whether others need help. Immediately after the artillery barrage had rained down on us and razed havoc, a strange but unforgettable phenomenon was taking place. Although haunting, agonizing, and somewhat incomprehensible, it has an endearing charm to relate what was happening. When the forest returned to dark silence after the barrage, a young soldier’s voice—loud, clear, uninhibited—began to cry for his mother in Japanese: "Okaaa-san! Okaaa-san! Okaaa-san!…" The call would be strong and weak, alternately. It sounded to me at first that he was just asking his mother to come to his aid, to alleviate his pains. But as I listened carefully the variation in tones seemed to suggest that he was trying to convey something to her. It was something like he regrets going away too soon, that he didn’t want to leave without accomplishing something good or substantial in life. Or, it may have been simply a child’s way of saying the last good-bye to the most beloved person, a mother. Could this be what Sigmund Freud meant by "returning to the womb"? At any rate, it was a voice of total trust and dependence. It displayed very strong family ties. Of course, it is nothing to be ashamed of about being a child again, especially in combat where life is so flimsy and volatile, and death only around the corner. After more than five minutes of agonizing call, the soldier’s voice became weaker and weaker and finally trailed into nothingness.
As I said at the outset, a rare chance meeting with Teruo Nobori, Hq. L Company, caused me to write this anecdotal piece. To my recollection, he is the only living veteran who can attest to the soldier’s cries for his mother after the devastating barrage on the ration detail and he has acknowledged it as much. Indeed, what happened to the ration detail has been spoken of in the past very peripherally, if at all. And so this written account may be the only one that exists.
Postscript after the young dying soldier’s cries had faded away, Norman and I trudged through the darkness together down the road and eventually found the Battalion medical unit. The medics were surprised that we had walked all the way from the frontlines. I was put on a stretcher while my left arm was cleaned and bandaged. Norman and I were then sent on a truck to a field (tent) hospital several miles back around midnight. Although the hospital was quiet for the night, my arrival caused the doctors to operate my arm as an emergency case because it had bloated to enormous proportions and the flesh literally ripped through the bandages. In short, gangrene was setting in, but my life was saved by the operation. From the field hospital, I was sent to a regular hospital in Marseilles where we awaited the hospital ship. The ship came a few weeks later and it was a monotonous trip through the Mediterranean Sea, the Rock of Gibraltar and Atlantic Ocean to Newport News, VA, where we originally embarked for combat only a few months back. But without caring for the treacherous Nazi submarines, the white hospital ship cruised straight, making good time, instead of zigzagging. After a few days of orientation at Newport News, four of us from different units were assigned to go by ordinary train to Valley Forge General Hospital outside of Philadelphia. This would be my home for nearly a year to have plastic surgery several times and recuperation. I would finally be discharged from the army and the hospital on Nov. 9, 1945. With my discharge papers in hand, $300 dollars of severance pay and still in uniform, I traveled by train to San Francisco. From there, I bought a passage ticket for $90 on a lumber ship that was headed for Honolulu. The freighter carried only about ten civilians. The most welcome sight of Aloha Tower came at dawn after nine days on the rough seas and an entirely new chapter of life will begin for me.
(This account is published courtesy of Echoes of Silence, The Untold Stories of the Nisei Soldiers Who Served in WWII, Produced by Americans of Japanese Ancestry WWII Memorial Alliance, P.O. Box 1945, Montebello, CA 90640, Copyright 1999)