The Stamford Historical Society Presents
Pride and Patriotism: Stamford’s Role in World War II
The interview below is from AN AMERICAN TOWN GOES TO WAR by Tony Pavia, 1995, ISBN: 1563112760
The book may be viewed at the Marcus Reseach Library of the Stamford Historical Society.
With permission by the author.
Sam Ichiba was born in California, the son of Japanese immigrants. Although he was born a citizen of the United States, his parents were prevented by federal law from becoming American citizens. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sam and his family were placed in an internment camp. In 1944 he enlisted in the U. S. Army and fought with the 3rd Battalion of the celebrated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He saw action in France and Italy and was wounded in action.
My father arrived in the U.S. in 1914. A few years later my mother arrived. Their marriage was arranged by their parents because both families came from the same prefecture near Hiroshima.
When the war broke out we lived on a ranch in Woodbridge, California, where my father worked as a gardener. I attended the public schools, played a lot of baseball and had quite a few Caucasian buddies. Then, when the war started, I was isolated, but, two of my best friends stuck by me. In fact, when one of them was killed in the war, another friend wrote me in Italy to tell me about it.
Right after Pearl Harbor rumors flew that we were going to be sent back to Japan, incarcerated, or even shot. In March of 1942 notices appeared that all persons of Japanese extraction were to assemble and prepare to be moved. We were told that we could bring along only one bag each so we had to scramble to get rid of our belongings. My father had just bought a new refrigerator and I remember that he had to sell it for $30.00. He was particularly fearful because when he had returned to Japan years earlier he could see the handwriting on the wall. The country was being controlled by the military and he did not want to be sent back there.
First we were placed in an assembly center in Stockton, California. We lived in barracks there until the permanent camps were set up. That September we were herded into railroad cars to be taken to Arkansas. Of course, the ride was beautiful. We got to see the country. But this was not the best way to do it. Each time we pulled into a town we had to lower the blinds on the train. MPs guarded the train and they were under strict orders not to divulge the identity of the passengers. Once, we stopped right next to a troop train and they kept asking the MPs who we were. They thought we were POWs.
We finally ended up in Rohwer Camp right outside of McGehee, Arkansas. The people there thought we were POWs, too. But when they saw that we spoke English they were surprised. The administrators were Caucasians but other than that, the camp was run mostly by the Japanese within the camp.
We were kept isolated, but once word got out that there were “Japs” in the camp we had a few shotgun blasts shot into the camp. After this the administrators sent work crews out to clear out the woods around the camp. We went out every day and cleared out about 100 yards width around the camp. It was actually a good idea because we used all of the wood for the potbellied stoves that were our only source of heat.
Once our supervisor took a crew out to help with some surveying and one of the natives of a nearby town thought that he was helping some of the prisoners to escape. He ended up shooting one of the boys and taking the rest of them at gunpoint to the local jail. Luckily the boy was not badly wounded. Members of the Justice Department had to come in and bail the prisoners out.
Although the perimeters of the camps were guarded by MPs, it was more for our protection. After all, even if we escaped, where would we go? Other than that, the camp was run like an army camp: rows of barracks, a mess hall, laundry facilities. Each block had a captain. At first cooks were brought in from the outside but later the WRA (War Relocation Authority) hired two cooks right from within the camp. We ate lots of liver, rice, and fish, mostly tuna and sea bass. You worked in the camp and you were paid. I was a dishwasher and made $7.50 a month. Doctors got $28.00 per month. Other professionals made about the same. We also got $3.50 a month for clothing. We all ordered them from the SearsRoebuck catalog. They made a lot of money on us. The town of McGeehee also made a lot on us. After a while we were allowed to go into town and we spent our money there. In time we even got better treatment from the townspeople.
There was a big division in our camp. There were some people who were militantly pro-Japanese and against us serving in the American military. Others wanted to enlist. I was one of these. I always considered myself an American. My father asked me not to volunteer. But when I told him that I was going to, he said to me, “Now it is your duty to fight for your country. When you go into battle, fight proudly and don’t bring shame to your name.” I’ll never forget that.
When I went for my physical, the doctor told me that I didn’t have to go, I had flat feet. I said, “Major, I have to go. My parents are in a camp. I have to prove that I am worthy of being an American.” He was puzzled but he said, “OK, son. If that’s what you want, then good luck.”
Any Japanese American was automatically assigned to the 442nd (Regimental Combat Team) or Military Intelligence Service. By the time I got in, I was one of the replacement troops. When I got overseas I was assigned to K Company of the 3rd Battalion. Just before this, the 442nd had suffered heavy casualties in northern France when they went in to rescue the 141st Battalion (36th Division). Some companies came back with only handfuls of men. I think “P” Company had only six men who weren’t killed or wounded. But after this campaign (in the Vosges Mountains) public opinion turned right around on the Japanese American soldier. It did us a world of good. The 36th Division which was from Texas made every member of the 442nd an honorary Texan, and we are still invited to all of their reunions.
Once I got to northern France and assigned to K Company, I said “Where do I go?” and a guy said “Over there.” I looked over and saw a few pup tents. That was all that was left of them. They had to be taken off the line until they could be brought up to full strength again. We stayed in the Maritime Alps in Southern France for a while. We were in a holding action and during this time we had contact with the French Resistance.
In March of 1945 we went back to Italy and were assigned to the 92nd Division for the last breakthrough into the Po Valley. Our job was to clear out the last German holdouts in the mountains. They had General Kesselring’s machine gun battalions entrenched up there – mostly SS Troops. Now we had to go dig them out. The 100th Battalion had to make a frontal assault on the German positions. They took a beating. We were going to another point higher up.
We were making our way up the mountains in the fog. It seemed like every time we made it up one crest there was another one in front of us. At daybreak we finally rested in a draw in the mountains and that’s when the Germans opened up on us. They must have seen us coming because at first they dropped smoke shells in on us. It quickly ran through my mind that in training I had read that the Germans used the smoke shells to adjust their sights on us. We were all out in the open and they were zeroing in on us.
That’s when my good friend Fuka (Yamamine) who was the acting Sergeant jumped up and yelled for everyone to take cover. He wasn’t even concerned for his own safety. We all took cover and I wanted to yell for him to get down but it was too late. A shell came in and killed him instantly. It bothers me to this day that I couldn’t help him. He was like an older brother to me. When I came in as a replacement he took me under his wing. Most guys wouldn’t do that with a replacement.
As we were being shelled I saw one of our guys bringing two German prisoners down the mountain. The last time I saw him, he was running to get behind this boulder. I saw a shell come in and hit right next to him. I always wondered what happened to the guy but a few years ago I ran into him at a reunion. He told me that the shell did hit right next to him but he was shielded by the boulder. He got his two prisoners in.
A few days later we were almost out of supplies and we saw an American plane fly over. We assumed that they were air-dropping supplies. So our commander sent three of us out on patrol to see if we could find the supplies. Even if we found them I don’t know how we were supposed to get them back. The three of us went out and had a hard time finding the supplies. At one point we were behind German lines. We finally got to the airdrop site and discovered that the plane had dropped a huge spool of wire. It was starting to get dark and as we were making our way back we were fired on. We were on a ledge and bullets started hitting all around us. Dirt was flying up and I could hear bullets going right by my ear. It didn’t make a whining sound. It was more like a snapping sound. It turned out that it was our own guys, Charlie Company, that were firing on us. They must have realized it was us because they stopped firing. None of us got hurt but it was awfully close. At one of our reunions I ran into a guy from Charlie Company and he remembered the incident and seemed a little embarrassed by it. I shook his hand and said, “By the way, what’s your name” and he ran off and said, “I’ll catch you later”.
Now it was really getting dark and after a while all of the mountains started to look alike. The oldest of us, Tom, was leading the patrol and I don’t know how he finally got us back. The grass was up to our chests in some places.
It was pitch dark when we finally stumbled back to our lines. The Germans were firing at us and we could make out a building which we thought was our command post. We were running toward it when a guy yelled to us, “What’s the password?” We didn’t know it so one of the guys just yelled out “Buddha heads,” and we all dove into the building. When I dove in I fell through a hole in the floor and I almost went all the way through the floor to the basement. The next morning my commander sent me back to the aid station to get my leg wrapped.
Two Italian partisans walked me part of the way there. Then they gave me a walking stick and sent me on my way. That’s when I noticed the carnage there, mules, boots, human limbs. You wouldn’t believe it. There were bodies all over the place. No trees left standing, only jagged stumps. The wind was blowing smoke all over the place. What a spooky feeling it was to be alone there at that moment. I felt like I was in Dante’s Inferno.
When I rejoined my company we had moved even further and had taken a small town named Tendola. It was one of the last German strongholds and it guarded a highway.
We attacked the town right in the open, in broad daylight, at noon. We crept up and caught the Germans by surprise. I guess they were expecting an attack at night. The entire hillside was lined with German machine guns and when I think about it I still get the chills. If they had caught us advancing we would have been wiped out.
When we reached the town, a machine gunner did open up on our left flank. Instinctively, I shoved the sergeant next to me. We both fell and the tree next to us was hit. I was nominated for the Bronze Star. The citation went in, but that was the end of it (Sam finally did receive a Bronze Star in 1990).
When the Germans finally surrendered it was quite a sight. All of these tall SS soldiers coming down the road in perfect formation. They looked beautiful. We lined the road as they were walking down, all spit and polish and here we were a real rag tag outfit. I remember saying I’m glad we didn’t have to tangle with these guys.
After the fighting stopped we went into Genoa and were treated as liberators. The Italians treated us great. Some of them looked at us funny and said, “Chinese?” but others were yelling “Bravo Americans” and were offering us vino. It was also about this time that we heard for the first time that FDR had died. It was at dusk and we were in a schoolyard and a pall just settled over the men.
Once the war ended we had to stay in Italy a long time. We were one of the last combat units to return. We didn’t get home until 1946. Then we were asked to march in Washington, D.C. We marched right up Constitution Avenue and right to the back of the White House where we were reviewed by President Truman and given a Unit Citation by him. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Sam returned to the U.S. and worked several jobs (including a stint as a semi-pro baseball player) until he finished Art School in Chicago on the GI Bill. His father died in 1953 never having the opportunity to become a U.S. citizen. His mother did live to see the laws change and was proudly a U.S. citizen until her death in 1967. Sam became a Photo-Retoucher, raised a son and daughter in Stamford, and is presently retired. He received the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Combat Infantry Badge, the Presidential Unit Citation, Three Battle Stars, and the Bronze Star.
In 1988, Congress made an official apology to the Japanese Americans who were interned and voted to compensate the victims. In January of 1993 President Bush expanded the payments to include spouses and parents of the victims in the amount of $20, 000 each. The President added that, “No monetary payments can ever fully compensate loyal Japanese -Americans for one of the darkest incidents in American constitutional history. We must do everything possible to ensure that such a grave wrong is never repeated.”
© Anthony Pavia, 1995
442nd Regimental Combat Team
Japanese Americans in World War II
Stamford Service Rolls