"I volunteered from a concentration camp," said 95-year-old Kenji Yaguchi.
The Japanese-American citizen and his family were forced to relocate to an American interment camp following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942 and he volunteered to enlist in the United States Army in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II.
He told his story as if he’d read it a million times and had memorized the words.
"It was 1942, yeah, yeah,” 95-year-old Yaguchi began candidly with his thick Japanese accent.
During the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Lt. General John L. DeWitt was insistent that “Once a Jap, always a Jap." President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 mandating the "evacuation and relocation" of persons of Japanese descent to War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps. Yaguchi and his family were taken to Minidoka, one of 10 WRA camps which opened Aug. 10, 1942, detaining almost 10,000 Japanese-Americans at full capacity. According to the National Park Service, 120,000 persons of Japanese decent were incarcerated in WRAs of which two-thirds were American citizens.
"I think President Roosevelt [had] some real bad advice," Yaguchi said. "They didn’t call it 'concentration camp' at first. They says, ‘internment camp.’ But, [it's] a concentration camp when they have a barbed wire fence, machine gun posts every so many yards and they have a guard walk the perimeter of the compound. So, that’s a concentration camp – yeah, yeah – not internment camp. I think the government didn’t want to admit they had a concentration camp for their own citizens who were incarcerated in the camps.”
Yaguchi said the camp conditions were, “Terrible. It was demoralizing being behind a barbed wire fence and machine-gun posts every so many yards."
Under Executive Order 9066, Japanese-Americans were classified 4-C.
"Do you know what 4-C means? Enemy aliens. So, that left us in a very precarious position," said Yaguchi. "Our government didn’t want us. Nobody wanted us. It was a terrible, terrible thing. I think they found out they made a mistake.”
Yaguchi had been incarcerated at Minidoka for nine months when he volunteered to serve in the US Army in the 442nd RCT. Having been born in Tacoma, WA, Yaguchi was one of thousands of second generation Americans of Japanese descent referred to as "Nisei," meaning "second born." The 442nd was made up solely of volunteer Nisei troops to act as a missions spearhead to fight the Germans during WWII.
“When I volunteered, my whole family was able to leave,” said Yaguchi, who enlisted in the Army June 12, 1943. The terms of his service enlistment were stated as "for the duration of the war or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law."
“Everyone know [sic] our record [in] World War II,” said Yaguchi, referring to the 442nd RCT. The 442nd earned more medals than any other American regiment in US history. Yaguchi said he and the soldiers of the 442nd fought in Italy from Sicily to Naples, from Naples to Anzio Beachhead, from there to Rome and then to the Arno River. They crossed the Arno River and went back to the Po River.
“Our biggest battle was Biffontaine and Bruyeres, France. We were real tired, hungry, wet and they finally gave us a break. We got our break, we took a shower, got dry clothes and warm food. And while we were eating our food, they told us we had to hit the lines again because of the Lost Battalion,” said Yaguchi.
In October 1944, the 1st Battalion of the Texas 141st Regiment found themselves surrounded by Germans in the Vosges Mountains of France. Yaguchi said two other regiments had attempted to rescue the Lost Battlion to no avail. The 442nd RTC and the 100th Infantry were ordered to attempt a rescue.
“The Germans had a habit of sucking you in. It was one of their strategies. They sucked this whole battalion in and surrounded them so they couldn’t get out," said Yaguchi. After nearly six days of nonstop combat, the 442nd reached the Lost Battalion. “I know why they call on us, because we never lost a battle during the war – never retreated once. Every battle we were in, we accomplished our mission. Maybe that was the reason why they call us to get this Lost Battalion.”
During the Lost Battalion rescue mission alone, the 442nd Combat Team suffered the loss of more than 800 men saving the 211 American soldiers who had been surrounded and stranded.
“We lost more than we saved,” Yaguchi said. “But, that doesn’t make a difference to us. That was our mission to save these our comrades. When we finally reached them, I wasn’t in the first wave. The first wave, they have to secure the perimeter so the Germans can’t come back in again. I was in the second wave. One of the men in the Lost Battalion hug me so tight I could hardly breathe. He was so happy to see us. After that, he handed me a sack of cigarettes; seven cartons of cigarettes. See, they had all the food and cigarettes they were air dropped to them. And I don’t smoke,” Yaguchi laughed. He noted that the Battle for the Lost Battalion was an “Honor Battle,” one of only about 10 honor battles in the history of the US from the Revolution to WWII.
The 442nd Combat Team became known as the "Purple Heart Battalion" due to the high casualty rates it suffered during these high-risk missions.
“We all thought that this is how the war was fought, but it wasn’t,” said Yaguchi. “They used us as spearhead troops.”
Yaguchi and the 442nd Combat Team were sent to recuperate on the French-Italian border for about a month and then, he said, “After that, they called us to make the southern invasion in France,” said Yaguchi. “We fought our way through France to Frankfurt, Germany.”
Yaguchi served two years overseas with the 442nd Combat Team, a tour of which Yaguchi said, “Our mission, our main purpose, was to save our great country from our adversaries. That was the mission for all of us – in Europe, in Pacific – all over.”
When they were in France, the 442nd was called back to Italy because General Mark Clark sent 45,000 troops to break the Po Valley German defense and had been at a standstill for six months.
“We were in France,” said Yaguchi. “They call us back to see if we could crack that line. Guess how long it took us to crack that line – 32 minutes! See, we climbed a 3,000 foot cliff that was on the west bank of the German line. Germans never thought anybody will climb that hill. We started at 8 o’clock in the evening, got on top by 6 o’clock and crushed that line in 32 minutes. Now, I didn’t do that because I was wounded. There was a pocket of Germans in this valley and in the process of clearing them out, I was wounded. I was in the field hospital when all this happening [sic].”
Yaguchi had been shot a couple of times, hit in the arm and his side, and spent two months in the hospital.
“That’s the way it goes. When you get hit by a bullet, you really don’t feel it. You might feel a sting. Like I said, that is war. But, the worst part of the war is in between battles. You worry about, ‘When is the next bullet going to hit you?’ Once the war starts, you’ve got no time to think about anything. Your next move is to get that German, to get your enemy. So, you forget about all. This in between time, you have worries or nightmares. War is hell. Everybody who served in the war will tell you the same thing,” said Yaguchi. “But, once you start shooting each other it’s a different story. Like in Italy, our wounds were so great and the Germans were the same thing. So, the war stopped, we go and get our wounded so we can take them back, they get theirs, we exchange cigarettes with the Germans, then we go back shooting each other again. I have the most high respect for a German soldier. I’m sure the Germans have the same thing for us. You know, you’re fighting for your country, see?”
Yaguchi recalled that once he and his unit had captured an SS troop who was about 6’4. He had his hands up in surrender and Yaguchi took his pistol away from him.
“You know what he said? He spoke perfect English, he says, ‘I dare you to shoot me.’ I says, ‘This isn’t the way America do things. You may do things like that, but not Americans. We don’t do things like that,’” said Yaguchi.
“I got back to the unit in June. I was told there was a pocket of Germans in the Po Valley that won’t give up. So, we gather all the armor we could get, allied tanks, infantry – to go after this pocket of Germans. It must’ve been about 900 of them in this group that won’t give up. So, we started down the road, got down about two hours, here comes up the white flag. The German soldiers give up. The reason they give up, there was young German soldiers, they shot their officers so they could give up.”
A few short days after that, the war ended, which Yaguchi said was, “A good thing.”
After the war was over in Europe, Yaguchi took an assignment with the Allied Military Government (AMG) and was in charge of 31 little towns in Italy.
"We brought food and clothes to all these people because they were on the German roads and they were starving. When we drove our Jeep to these towns, these people come around and touch our Jeep because the Germans told them that the United States didn’t have any metal," said Yaguchi. "Propaganda – they were surprised our Jeeps were made out of metal.”
The AMG duty lasted for about a month and when Yaguchi returned to his unit, they were given leave for “R&R” in Switzerland where the Swiss government fed them the best food, took them around and put them up in the best hotels. He had enough credit to leave service and return home, but thought he’d never be able to go back to Switzerland and took the opportunity to enjoy leave there.
“This was just wonderful,” said Yaguchi. “That was Switzerland’s way of paying our government for all the food and everything we furnished them during the war because Switzerland didn’t have anything. The US government gave enough food and clothing and everything so they could survive.”
Back home, after being released from the camp, his father went to Nyssa, OR; his brother to Spokane, WA; and his sisters went to Caldwell, ID. While he was overseas, one of his sisters passed away. Yaguchi said, “I could have came [sic] home for the funeral, but I says [sic], ‘She’s gone. There’s nothing I could do. I didn’t want to leave my buddies. We’re a team.’ So, I stayed in Europe when she died.”
Yaguchi shared two Japanese phrases he credited for keeping him sane during his incarceration at Minidoka, giving him peace during the war and guiding him throughout his life: Shekatanae meaning “events that cannot be helped” and Gama “to forgive because things will work out for the better.”
Yaguchi married in 1948, to his beautiful wife and had four children: two boys and two girls. He became a chiropractor and lived in Ontario, OR. In Oregon, Yaguchi became a member of the Masons in 1957 and Shriners in 1959. He lost a son in an auto accident who was on the cusp of starting a career as a pharmacologist and opening his own drug store.
Yaguchi said he didn’t talk to his children about his service much. One reason he cited was that there had been so many articles written about it, they could just read it. But, on the other hand, he said he didn’t know why they didn’t talk about it more.
Toward the end of last year, Yaguchi and his wife came to visit their daughter who lives in Fairfield Glade. He said they were only supposed to stay 10 days. That was nine months ago. While he misses his Oregon friends, he supports his wife wanting to stay.
“Each soldier has a story of his own,” Yaguchi said. “Whenever you can serve to protect your nation from your adversaries, that’s a duty you have as a US citizen. That will always be the same – never change. We all got to be proud that we’re Americans.”