Sunday, May 8, 2011
Going For Broke
(Above: Sadeo Munemori, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a live hand grenade to save his buddies. He had volunteered for the 442nd from the Manzanar detention camp, to which he and his family had been sent shortly after Pearl Harbor. He was only 22 when he died. The date was April 5, 1945 - the day I was born. I don't think it's a stretch to say he died so I could live.)
You've heard the cliché about how the French hate Americans? I don't know if that's true, but I do know one group of Americans they definitely don't hate.
Au contraire, mes amis. They absolutely love these guys. They build statues of them and name their streets after them.
I'm talking about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the famous Japanese American World War II regiment that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other unit in American history.
They liberated city after city in France. And though it happened more than 65 years ago, the French haven't forgotten.
I found this out a few years ago when I accompanied veterans of the 442nd when they went back to France to visit some of the places they liberated.
As we drove into the city of Bruyeres, the banners overhead didn't say, "Welcome to our liberators," as I had expected, but "Welcome to our saviors," instead.
They weren't kidding. The German commandant in Bruyeres, the imfamous Klaus Barbie (aka the Butcher of Lyons), was scheduled to execute hundreds of resistance fighters on the day the 442nd arrived and spoiled his plans.
One of those rescued was a teenager named Francois Mitterrand, who grew up to become President of France.
Official duties prevented him from being on hand to welcome the 442nd veterans back, but another boy who also was rescued that day was present.
His name was Serge Carlesso, and he was only 10 the day the 442nd liberated Bruyeres. His leg had been blown off by a German shell earlier that morning, and the 442nd medics arrived in the nick of time to save his life.
Serge proudly introduced the veterans to his grandson Laurent, who was the same age that he was that fateful day so long ago.
The excitement began even before we arrived, when the mayors of Bruyeres and Biffontaine got into a fistfight over which town would have the honor of having the 442nd guys march in its Bastille Day parade.
Bruyeres won, but the mayor of Biffontaine got even by hosting a gala banquet for the veterans the night before. Not to be outdone, the mayor of Bruyeres retaliated by throwing his own banquet the next day.
The Bastille Day parade itself was like something out of the old newsreels. People were literally weeping for joy, tossing flowers at the veterans from windows and rooftops. Mothers held their babies up for them to bless. And, yes, the street they were marching down was named Rue de 442.
It was one of the happiest scenes of pure, unabashed public joy I've ever seen in my life, right up with the night Obama got elected and the night Bin Laden got killed.
At this stage in their lives, the men of the 442nd don't get back to France very often anymore. But they still come to Oakland every spring to hold a memorial service in Roberts Park to honor their fallen brothers - and, by extension, all veterans of World War II.
This year's service will be held at noon on Saturday, May 21, and they cordially invite you to join them. Roberts Park is on Skyline Boulevard, on the way to the Chabot Space & Science Center.
I hope to see you there.