When the U.S. government put out a call during World War II for volunteers for the Army’s all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one who signed up was Masaru Taira. Like Private Taira, thousands of Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) stepped forward to join the 442nd from the territory of Hawaii, while others came from the mainland, where wartime incarceration camps would hold as many as 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry.
The segregated 442nd would later be joined with the smaller all-Japanese American 100th Battalion, formed previously amid anti-Japanese hysteria following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The 100th/442nd endured heavy casualties in Europe and became one of the most decorated military units in American history. The motto of the 442nd was “Go for Broke” – go for it all. Among the 442nd soldiers killed in action was Masaru, on July 4, 1944. He was 19 years old.
Masaru was my uncle, one of 13 children born to Kame and Kamado Taira, Okinawan immigrants who owned Pacific Bakery in Honolulu. After Masaru’s death, my brokenhearted grandparents displayed a photo of him in his Army uniform on their home butsudan (Buddhist altar) while they tried to come to terms with their loss and the sacrifices of Nisei soldiers fighting for a nation that was denying basic freedoms to Japanese Americans.
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Masaru was a high school senior when he decided to enlist with 17 classmates and his 22-year-old brother, Wilfred. My grandparents were anguished when they learned their two eldest sons would be together on the front lines, and rushed to a studio for a final portrait with Masaru and Wilfred. Within days, the 442nd shipped out for basic training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
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In March 1944, Masaru and a few other soldiers were allowed to leave Camp Shelby to see the family of their former Japanese language school principal at the Jerome incarceration camp in Arkansas. Remembering the visit behind barbed wires, Masaru noted matter-of-factly in a letter that the principal’s wife “was very swell to us – in fact it was almost like home.” Yet, the principal was being held separately from his family at another incarceration camp holding Japanese Americans at Tule Lake, California.
With deployment to Europe that spring, Masaru sought to ease fears back home as his ship approached Italy. “We will be in our foxholes sometime in the near future. This boat ride is a cinch, the only thing is it’s too long,” he wrote in a letter. “Tell Mom not to worry too much. I am in good health and as I always say, ‘I never felt better in my life.’”
During the Allied campaign from Rome to the Arno River, Masaru, now in the 442nd 3rd Battalion, Company L, found himself in the thick of the action near Liverno. In their own official account, soldiers in the 3rd Battalion said that on July 4, 1944, they were ordered to relieve the 100th Battalion in fighting the Germans for a strategic point, Hill 140.
Orville C. Shirey, in his book, “Americans: The Story of the 442nd Combat Team,” explained that the transfer to the 3rd Battalion “carried out in broad daylight, brought on a storm of enemy self-propelled and artillery fire, causing heavy casualties in both battalions. One machine gun squad of Company L was wiped out completely by a single shellburst.” That was likely when Masaru died. Despite mounting casualties, the 442nd eventually took Hill 140, positioning Allied troops to secure Livorno, a critical supply port.
Fellow soldier Hideo Nakayama poured out his grief in a letter to one of Masaru’s sisters, my aunt Edith:
“His death was a blow to us, he was just like a brother to me. … At first we couldn’t believe it for he was killed in the same barrage with our machine gun boys. He was a battalion runner when we came to Italy. … July fourth is no holiday for us for that’s the day your brother was killed with the rest of our company boys.”
Masaru’s brother Wilfred, a 442nd medic, never talked about July Fourth. Nor did Wilfred speak about the Bronze Star he was awarded for his actions in combat in Italy, or the Silver Star for treating and evacuating five wounded men under heavy fire near Bruyeres, France. Before he died in 2011, Wilfred offered this blunt statement to author Dorothy Matsuo in “Silent Valor, The Story of the 442nd Medics:” “Both Wilfred and his brother Masaru volunteered to serve the nation to prove their loyalty in spite of mixed reactions from their parents.”
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The year before he was killed, Masaru described an encounter on the train ride to Camp Shelby, when three white women volunteering for the Red Cross offered coffee, milk, sandwiches and cookies to the Nisei soldiers. “The ladies were very kind to us, and some of the boys tried to donate some money to the Red Cross in appreciation, but was refused by the ladies, who said that they need not contribute because they were in the Army – and that’s plenty,” he wrote in a letter home. “I hope you would take notice of this incident because it did happen and it made me feel very proud.”
I’ve often reflected on Masaru’s life and death, and his and Wilfred’s words echo across the generations in the reckoning over racism and patriotism. While I have pieced together Masaru’s combat death mostly through letters and official records, Richard, one of his other brothers left behind a single, cryptic sentence that reads, “The day he was killed, he took the place of someone else.”
Through the fog of war and with the passage of time it’s unclear what actually happened, but of this I’m certain: Pvt. Masaru Taira took his own place of honor in American history on that July Fourth, heading into battle alongside his fellow Nisei soldiers, going for broke.
Linda Taira is a former correspondent at CNN and CBS in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and is a writer and communications consultant; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan selected her for its 2015 Japanese American Leadership Delegation.
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