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Go for broke: Exhibit honors legacy of Nisei soldiers

Updated: 
August 20, 2014 - 9:00am

For years growing up, Tracey Matsuyama was made to believe her dad’s missing arm was chewed off by the family dog.

Only by listening in on adult conversations did she finally piece together how her father, Don Seki, a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, fought to liberate the French town of Bruyeres, tried vainly to save the life of another Nisei soldier and nearly lost his own life on the battlefields of World War II.

Until recently, the most decorated military unit of all time, consisting of Japanese-American soldiers, found little reason to call attention to itself. But slowly, as their ranks have been thinned by old age, the soldiers have opened up.

“Humbleness was their motto,” Matsuyama said. “Now, they want to share the legacy.”

This week, Seki and other members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd RCT and the Military Intelligence Service ushered guests through an expansive exhibit of photographs and documents at the Hawaii Community Federal Credit Union’s Kaloko branch. The soldiers tried to help the visitors understand how it was to be far away and fighting for a country that was, in many cases, imprisoning their families in internment camps back home.

The “Go For Broke, Japanese American Soldiers Fighting on Two Fronts” exhibit opened Monday at the credit union facility on Olowalu Street and runs through Sept. 12. Through scores of photographs and historical statements, viewers are shown the somber face of war — men in the snow, artillery fire and long marches to an unknown outcome — but also the smiles and tenacity of a group of soldiers who refused to quit. The exhibit also covers the Japanese-American prewar experience, internment and the Redress Movement.

Visitors probably won’t hear a lot of bloody war stories. But Seki, in an interview, opened up about some of the more raw experiences from fighting in Europe.

On Hill 140, north of Rome in 1944, the Germans were lobbing shells from over a ridge. One explosion took out the legs of a fellow Nisei. Seki tried to fashion a tourniquet from his belt but knew it was hopeless as he and others dragged the man to a low area along a stream.

“We couldn’t help him,” Seki remembered. “I was real thirsty; I went upstream to get a drink. There were dead German soldiers in the water and a dead ox. I didn’t get sick from the water.”

His parents, first generation immigrants, had returned to Japan in 1941, feeling they would be safer there. The parents pleaded with Seki to go with them. He declined, and instead joined the Army.

“I told them I was old enough to take care of myself,” said Seki, 90, of Holualoa. “It was the best decision I’ve made. I could have been drafted into their service, and become a kamikaze pilot.”

Later, his left arm hung by skin, severed from multiple machine gun rounds as he fought to liberate Bruyeres. That was the end of the war for Seki.

Yasunori Deguchi was the son of coffee farmers. The Konawaena-born infantryman, now 89, was wounded twice by shrapnel from mortar shells in Europe. The first time he was hospitalized for 30 days. A narrow, 1-inch bit of metal has remained embedded in his back for the past 70 years.

Undeterred, Deguchi went on to take part in an assault that broke through the Gothic Line, a nearly impenetrable Nazi defense along the Apennine Mountains. Part of a group that scaled a 3,000-foot mountain to launch a surprise attack, Deguchi and the 442nd RCT were able to accomplish in 34 minutes what Allied forces had failed to do in six months worth of assaults on the line.

These heroic accomplishments were not the exception. The unit as a whole performed valiantly. Nisei soldiers in Europe earned 9,486 purple hearts. The men of the 100th Battalion and 442nd RCT received 18,000 individual medals and eight presidential unit citations.

Deguchi returned to the coffee fields of West Hawaii and became the first full-time employee of HCFCU while pondering his options for college.

Dean Uemura, executive vice president of the credit union, said the establishment’s history of being founded by coffee farmers and employing members of the 442 made it an obvious choice to host the exhibit.

“We felt it was important to provide a venue for their story,” Uemura said. “We’d like to see more people come down.”

The exhibit was created in the 1980s by Nisei veterans in California and was shown around the country in the decades that followed. Earlier this year, the Nisei Veterans Legacy Center brought the exhibit to Hawaii, where it has appeared on the neighbor islands for the first time. Deguchi proposed bringing the exhibit to the credit union and Matsuyama, West Hawaii’s only member of the Sons and Daughters of the 442, worked to make it happen with the help of the Kona Japanese Civic Association.

“It’s really an incredible display,” said Jiko Nakade, minister of the Daifukuji Soto Mission in Honalo, after touring the photographs and watching a documentary on the soldiers.

“It moved me to tears,” she said. “The pictures convey so much.”

The exhibit runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.