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Quiet Warriors Jimmie Kanaya

Jimmie and Kimi Kanaya. Photo: Mikiko Amagai

By Mikiko Amagai, for The North American Post

“No, I didn’t get discharged. I stayed (in the U.S. Army after World War II) and went to Korea,” said Jimmie Kanaya.

As a teenager, he was always fascinated with all the military branches.

“Before the war was over in Japan, they (the army) wanted to train military government officers to occupy Japan. So, we started (studying) Japanese, Japanese religion, customs… I even taught Japanese. ‘Doko ni ikimasuka’ or something like that, you know.”

But when the war was over in August 1945, the military didn’t need them in Japan anymore, so the entire class, 250 of them, went to Korea.

“I was the only Nisei in the whole class. All the others were hakujin (white). And so, they put me in charge of all the Japanese, leaving Manchuria and Korea and going back to Japan.”

As a liaison officer, a Japanese American, he was stationed in Seoul.

Kanaya, from a farmer’s family in Clackamas, then Portland, Oregon, volunteered for the Navy and the Marine Corps in 1940.

“I was 20 years old. I didn’t have a draft number but all my friends were getting drafted; I thought I should get it [in?] before the number comes.”

But they wouldn’t take him. The army finally accepted him the next year but it took a few months to clear his physical exam. Meanwhile, his family went to the Minidoka Camp and luckily, their land was leased out.

“I was captured by Germans just before the Lost Battalion.”

He was assigned as a medic in the 442nd Infantry Battalion when his medical unit of the 3rd Battalion was sent to assist the 100th Battalion, which was cut off and couldn’t evacuate its wounded. This took place in February 1943. They were advancing in the Vosges Mountains, eastern France. They took the town of Bruyeres but couldn’t evacuate casualties to the next town of Biffontaine.

“It took all day to get there. There were four of us medics and six badly wounded. The 100th soldiers were to be evacuated but four of us couldn’t carry them through the mountains, so we stayed overnight and during the night, we picked up two more casualties making eight the next morning.”

The 100th Battalion had about 37 German prisoners at that time.

“Well, let the German prisoners carry wounded,” they decided.

They had to have three infantrymen guard the German POWs and about 11 wounded, including four walking wounded. The four medics started in the morning and were just about halfway through the mountains when they met a German patrol of 50.

“They wouldn’t let us go. They took over.”

But the Germans treated them fairly well because they were very strict about the Geneva Convention and respected it, except the time a German officer took Jimmie’s wristwatch.

“He gave my watch back to me when he thought we would be recaptured by our side. But when they went back to the secure German lines, he took it back again!”

Going through the experience of the war, Kanaya remembers the most about his attempts to escape.

“I escaped three times. The first two times I escaped with a group of hakujin officers. We were in Poland. We really didn’t escape. The Germans just took off because Russians were behind us. The Germans came back and recaptured us again.”

The second time was in Hammelburg, central Germany.

“Our tank came and liberated us but we couldn’t get back 50 miles inside Germany so they recaptured us.”

All the tankers who came to liberate the Nisei soldiers were either killed or captured.

“It was like a massacre. Everybody got killed or wounded. We knew we couldn’t get back so we went back to the (POW) camp. We gave ourselves back to the camp again.”

The last attempt was in April 1945, three weeks before the war ended. They were being moved toward the Bavarian Alps and marched all the way back to Poland from western Germany.

“Our planes came flying over our heads and we split on either side of the road. Then about ten minutes later, we were told to get back on the road but I hid. I wouldn’t move. I made up my mind that I was going to escape.”

Jimmie stayed hidden until they were overrun.

“Our own troops came and liberated us; I stayed hidden for a week.”

But due to diarrhea and a lack of food, he first gave himself up. A day and a half later, his own troops came to liberate them and the war was over in Jimmie’s mind.

“Once I got there, I stayed in (the army)… I went to the Korean War and the Vietnam War…”

Kanaya talks about his career as a military man until he retired in 1974 as a colonel. After WWII, he once went back to Portland trying to get back to work as a handyman. His former boss said he couldn’t pay as much as the $190 a month that Jimmie was making in the army.

“So I stayed. I had no education. A three-year high school diploma was all I had. The army, they put me through college, the basic degree.”

He later received a Master’s degree in education from the University of Alaska in 1968.

“It took me 19 years, but even though I wasn’t the best soldier in the army, they kept me OK.”

It was hard at the beginning because he had to compete with officers with master’s degrees or PhDs. Kanaya is happy now.

“You don’t see too many Nikkei in the army these days.”

Kanaya is a little puzzled. He believes that the army is the best place to get an education.

“You should appreciate the freedom you have. The freedom to fight for the right to live the way everybody else was living. You don’t want to be treated as a second-class citizen.”

His eyes had a spark that tells you that education brings confidence. And next to him, his wife, Kimi, who supported his faith across over 50 years, was nodding quietly with her smiling eyes.

Editor’s notes. “Doko ni ikimasu ka?” Where are you going?

Portland Japanese-American families entered the Portland Assembly Center, at the Pacific Northwest Livestock Exposition Pavilion used for cattle, horses, and hogs, north Portland, in May 1942. They moved to Minidoka and other camps during August-September 1942 (“Oregon Nikkei History, a Brief Summary,” discovernikkei.org).

The “Lost Battalion” was a Texas unit caught behind German lines in October 1944. While many 442nd Nisei were killed or wounded rescuing them, their actions helped them earn them a place in American history.

The experiences of another 442nd medic are recorded in “Letters from the 442nd” (Minoru Masuda, 2008, UW Press, 290 pp.).

Today, many websites remember Jimmie Kanaya. The most prominent of these is nationalww2museum.org