Exhibit dedicated to Japanese-American soldiers

by Karen Iwamoto
U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — An exhibit at the Sgt. Yano Library shares the little-known account of how a group of Japanese-American soldiers freed thousands of concentration camp survivors in southern Germany.

“This exhibit is dedicated to remembrance. We are now in a national period of remembrance of the Holocaust; never let it happen again,” said Bill Wright, project manager for the Nisei Veterans Legacy Center in Honolulu, which sponsored the exhibit, at the opening ceremony on May 4.

“Also, this month is dedicated to military appreciation, to appreciate the service and the dedication and the sacrifices made by our military veterans and those who are in service today to protect our freedoms,“ Wright said.

Also at the opening ceremony were Col. Stephen Dawson, commander of U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii, and Masaru Nakamura and Masa Higa, formerly of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion.

In March and April of 1945, the German army, fearing the arrival of the advancing U.S. troops, rounded up the prisoners and forced them to march toward the Austrian border. Their intent was to murder the captives to eliminate eyewitnesses.

The 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, made up of Japanese-American Soldiers, came upon the survivors of this death march in late April and early May of 1945. Although field artillery usually follows the infantry, the 522nd, because of its reputation for speed and accuracy of aim, had been sent ahead. It ultimately discovered the surviving prisoners, many of whom were starving and covered in snow.

The 522nd Soldiers provided aid and reported the conditions to their command until the Army was able to provide medical assistance.

The exhibit is called “Unlikely Liberators,” because these Japanese-American Soldiers, like the prisoners they helped save, had also been the victims of discrimination in their own homeland. Many had been rounded with their families and ordered into internment camps, their constitutional rights suspended and themselves considered enemy aliens by their government after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. Yet they fought for their right to defend the United States and volunteered to join the Army.

“The big lesson here is that being an American is something that comes from within,” said Wright. “It’s not what you look like; it’s not your ancestry. It’s a shared system of values.

“The thing that moves me most about seeing people’s reaction to the exhibit over the years is how much of our history is not understood by our citizens,” he added. “So many people don’t really know the history of their own country. That old adage, ‘Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it’ is true.”

The photographs in the exhibit were donated to the Nisei Veterans Legacy Center by historian Eric Saul, a founding curator and director of the Military Museum at the Presidio of San Francisco.

In a 2002 interview with The Jewish News of Northern California, Saul said he didn’t believe it when he first heard that Jewish prisoners were liberated from the Holocaust by Japanese-American Soldiers. It wasn’t until a former 522nd Soldier showed him photos he’d taken at the scene that Saul believed. Those photos ultimately led him to put together the first exhibits about the 552nd more than 20 years ago.

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