By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
A week before his 96th birthday, Susumu “Sus” Ito was as sharp as ever as he gave a tour of his exhibition, “Before They Were Heroes,” at the Japanese American National Museum.
The collection of photos taken of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s 522nd Field Artillery Battalion in Europe during World War II will be on view until Sunday, Sept. 6.
During a visit to Los Angeles in July, Ito was joined by curator Lily Anne Yumi Welty Tamai as he shared memories about some of the photos showing the daily lives of the Nisei soldiers.
In addition to the photos on display, JANM created film strips — made from the negatives that Ito donated to the museum — and placed them on light tables so that visitors can get a glimpse of all 1,153 photos in the collection.
Born in Stockton to Issei parents, Ito was drafted into the Army in 1940. After Pearl Harbor, his family was sent to the Rohwer camp in Arkansas. He served with the 522nd in Italy, France and Germany until the end of the war, rising to the rank of lieutenant.
Although it was against orders, Ito made a photographic record of his experiences. “I bought this very cheap camera that if they took it away from me, no big loss. I took lots of film,” he said. “… I don’t recall developing any negatives, but as soon as we advanced to villages or towns, like magic photographic stores opened up … Film and sometimes cameras and things that they hid during the war were made available …
“Fortunately for me and for the future, nobody questioned it, even officers … It was heartening that I could take pictures of majors, colonels … In fact, they even posed for me.
“Amongst the many things I had to do, taking photographs was obviously not my primary objective. I just did it … Little did I realize that something like this [exhibit] would result.”
The camera was very simple, Ito said. “No setting, no focus, just point and shoot … That’s it, whether it comes out or not.”
The exhibit includes some shots taken at Rohwer when Ito visited his parents, an Afga camera like the one Ito used, a Nazi dagger and ashtrays, Ito’s uniform, a Bible with an engraving from Ito’s sister, Sachi, and a senninbari, a belt with a thousand stitches that was given to soldiers going into battle.
Looking around the gallery, Ito — who did not make prints of every single shot at the time — commented, “I must confess that so many I have not seen, so there are many, many photographs that are actually new to me, which is surprising. I’ve been through this [exhibit] several times, and each time I say, ‘Gee, did I really take that picture?’”
Tamai noted, “Sus actually started taking these photographs to send home to his mother to let her know that he was safe. So we see in that first picture it says, ‘To Mother from your loving son Sus’ … As we looked at the photographs further, there were not a lot of pictures of battle scenes. We see tanks, jeeps and guns here, lots of things related to the military. However, not all of it was them in actual combat … This is really a group of men being young men together … They’re building camaraderie … Once you start to look at lots and lots of pictures, you see that’s what’s happening. This is the time when they are forging the foundation for friendships …
“In a lot of these pictures, they’re eating and cooking, trying to catch rabbits, harvest chestnuts, pick grapes … You don’t get a clean shower, so if there’s a body of water and you have some down time, everybody’s going to try to get clean. So there’s some shenanigans happening.”
Tamai pointed to a photo in which a soldier who has just finished bathing hastily covers himself as Ito clicks the shutter.
The soldiers can also be seen taking in the sights, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum, during breaks in the fighting.
Explaining how the exhibit was put together, Tamai said, “Once we got the photographs conserved in the fall, we came back at the end of January and from there we were able to make contact sheets with about 12 pictures per 8”x10” page, and there were about 95 pages of pictures. So we pre-selected some of the pictures we thought would be great for the exhibition, and then Sus … had his magnifying glass and he did his best to identify as many people as he could.”
Ito said that the shots of his old friends “really bring back vivid memories … It’s a good feeling to see them.”
Among those pictured is his buddy George Oiye (1919-2006). “I took many pictures of George,” said Ito. “He was the best man at my wedding in 1948. We used to call him Montana [after his birthplace].”
Recalling his correspondence with his mother, Ito quoted her as saying, “First of all, we’re proud that you’re in the Army … but don’t volunteer or expose yourself to any dangerous situations.”
Ito served as a forward observer, directing the artillery unit’s fire from a forward position. “I never told her that I volunteered,” he said, “…until I got back just before Christmas 1945 … ‘I didn’t quite obey you. I was in some situations that were not very comfortable.’”
Ito said of his service, “I guess I can’t really say I enjoyed it. I felt fulfilled by it. I was never really afraid I would not come back, and I never, ever thought that I would be killed. So I had a very positive frame of mind, although I saw very close associates wounded and killed.”
Despite the fact that his position had “among the highest casualty rates of any job,” he said, “I came through completely unscathed. I remember I made sure I carried my senninbari … and a Bible.” But he confessed, “I didn’t read it.”
Standing next to his well-preserved uniform, Ito said he could probably still wear it, but joked, “I’m shrinking. I wasn’t as short as I am now. Everyone seems to be growing around me.”
Tamai gave some background on the 522nd: “They provided the firepower for the 442nd, so they weren’t in the front like the infantry … they were in the back with their guns …There were only about 650 men in the 522 … Much of this exhibition focuses on the young men that were in C Battery …
“The 522 was the only [Japanese American] unit that fought in Germany. They began in Italy, went into France and then went into Germany … In March 1945, when the 522nd were separated from the 442nd, they became a roving battalion, attached to many different units … They were one of the most efficient firing units in the Army at that time.”
Ito humbly described the 522nd as “ordinary soldiers doing our mission as effectively as possible.”
One photo that stands out shows Sgt. George Bokuji Thompson, a Hapa soldier from the Big Island of Hawaii, covering his face with his hands in October 1944 in France’s Vosges Mountains, where the 442nd rescued the “Lost Battalion” of Texas, which had been trapped behind enemy lines. The fighting was fierce and the 442nd suffered heavy casualties.
Ito, who was armed with just a pistol, remembered tree limbs flying around during firefights with the Germans as the 442nd “leapfrogged” its way up the hill — without the benefit of modern tools such as night vision — for six days. “It was hard to distinguish the first day from the third day,” he said. “The nights were very uncomfortable nights in foxholes.”
Thompson came along to see what it was like being on the front lines, Ito said. “On the way up … We sat down. We were resting … I said, ‘George, let me take your picture.’ He said, ‘No, no’ … I didn’t even think, I just took it.”
When Thompson covered his face, “he wasn’t really afraid, he wasn’t really in shock, he wasn’t trying to wipe out memories of what’s happening around him. He just did it on the spur of the moment,” Ito said. However, the photo “is one of my favorites because you could interpret what George felt … trying to hide his emotions.”
Liberation of Dachau
The 522nd is remembered for liberating some 5,000 prisoners from two slave labor camps that were part of the Dachau Concentration Camp in April and May 1945, shortly before Germany’s surrender. Ito emphasized that Dachau was made up of nearly 130 sub-camps and that his unit did not liberate the main camp.
Ito’s photos include a freed prisoner near Dachau, German POWs, and 522nd soldiers searching an abandoned Nazi airplane.
Ito said he was “totally surprised” to encounter the survivors, many of whom were left unguarded after their Nazi captors had fled, as well as dead prisoners lying in the snow.
Ito, Oiye and others have spoken about what they saw at Dachau on many occasions. “In 1989 we had a panel,” Ito said. “George and I organized a reunion in San Francisco. I loaned some of the negatives to [curator] Eric Saul, who even took them to Israel for a tour, and they’re at the Holocaust Museum as well …
“I have spoken to many Jewish groups. The Holocaust Society got together hundreds of people about 10 years ago in Washington, D.C. … In August, I’m supposed to go to New York City to speak to a Holocaust group there. In October, the Boston Symphony is having a special program of Holocaust survivors and liberators. They invited me to go to that as well.”
Summing up the exhibit, Ito said, “What the museum did … is unbelievable, and so satisfying and gratifying to see … I understand this will be kept here for posterity, so many future generations will be able to see it.”
After the war, Ito earned a Ph.D. in biology and embryology and taught at Cornell Medical School, then joined Harvard Medical School, where he was a professor for 30 years. He and his late wife, Minnie, had four children (one deceased) and five grandchildren.
JAMN is located at 100 N. Central Ave. in Little Tokyo. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.