Tuesday, April 27, 2010
(Above: Sadeo Munemori, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a live grenade, saving his buddies at the cost of his own life. The date: April 5, 1945 - the day I was born. He died so I could live.)
Sixty-five years ago this week, Germany surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe.
It's been called "The Good War," but in fact it was the most terrible war ever fought, with deaths topping 60 million. And the overwhelming majority of those deaths were civilians.
The war brought out the best and worst of humankind. It's obvious who were the worst: the Nazis and their collaborators.
And I would argue that the best were the American G.I.s, who left the comfort and security of their homes and families and laid their lives on the line to set free a suffering world.
And the best of the best were the men - boys, really - of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Army unit that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other unit in American history.
They rescued the famous Lost Battalion, a Texas National Guard unit that was trapped behind enemy lines, saving 211 men – but at a cost of more than 800 of their own.
They liberated the French town of Bruyeres just hours before the Gestapo was scheduled to execute thousands of Resistance fighters in its prisons – including a 16-year-old boy named Francois Mitterrand, who grew up to become President of France.
They broke down the gates of the Dachau concentration camp, rescuing many prisoners who were on the brink of death.
And the most remarkable thing is that they did all this while their own families were languishing behind barbed wire back home. More than 150,000 innocent Japanese Americans were rounded up and imprisoned in detention camps for the duration of the war.
And yet these men volunteered to fight for our country. Our government betrayed them, but they kept the faith. It's hard to think of a similar example of returning good for evil.
But you'll never get them to admit that they are heroes. Every year at this time, they gather at Roberts Park in Oakland to honor the people they consider the real heroes: their buddies who never came back.
Under the cathedral-like canopy of the Blossom Rock Navigation Trees, they hold an interfaith service at the 442nd Memorial Redwood Tree, which is flanked by a small stone monument and a memorial bench.
It's the only private monument in the East Bay Regional Park District, whose rules forbid such shrines. William Penn Mott, the park district's longtime director, was so moved by the 442nd's story, he made an exception for them.
This year's service will be held Saturday, May 15, at noon, and the men of the 442nd would love you to join them. They especially want to invite young people, the next great generation.
Roberts Park is on Redwood Road, on the way to the Chabot Space & Science Center. Turn right into the parking entrance and drive to the south lot. We'll gather there at about 11:45, then walk a hundred yards or so to the site.
The ceremony will be short but very moving. And the chance to meet these wonderful men is an opportunity not to be missed.
We are losing our World War II veterans by the thousands every day. We won't have them with us much longer. The least we can do is say, "Thank you" while we still can.