A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, May 29, 2014

American Heroes

(Above: Veterans of the 442nd on their visit to Bruyeres in July, signing autographs for a starstruck G.I. They have that effect on a lot of people, including me.)

I've been writing this column for almost 30 years; and if you asked me what was my favorite story, I wouldn't have to think twice.
It's the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the all-volunteer Japanese-American World War II unit that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other unit in American history.
They were fighting two wars simultaneously: against the Nazis abroad and against racial prejudice here at home. Many of them volunteered while imprisoned behind barbed wire in detention camps, where they and their families had been sent in the anti-Japanese hysteria that followed Pearl Harbor.
More than 110,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up on the west coast. Most were American citizens, born right here in the USA. None, repeat none, of them ever did or said anything to suggest that they were anything less than 100 percent loyal.
And yet these men – boys, actually – responded by volunteering to fight for the same government that had done this to them. Is there any greater example of returning good for evil?
And boy, did they fight! They were the ones the Army called on to do the impossible, whether it was rescuing the Lost Batallion, a Texas national guard unit trapped behind enemy lines in the Alsace region of France, or breaking through the Gothic Line in Italy in only one night, after other American troops had been unable to make a dent in it for six months.
And boy, did the French appreciate it - and they still do. Many of the main streets in the cities and towns of Alsace are named "Rue de 442," and when I accompanied some 442 veterans in 1994 to some of the cities they liberated, the banners that greeted us didn't say "Welcome to our liberators," they said "Welcome to our saviors."
That's because the German commandant, Klaus Barbie, the notorious "Butcher of Lyons," was planning to execute thousands of resistance fighters, including a 16-year-old boy named Francois Mitterrand, who grew up to become President of France. But the 442 showed up a few hours before the scheduled execution and spoiled his party.
Twenty-one years ago the men of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team planted a redwood sapling in Oakland's Roberts Park to honor their buddies who never came back. And every year on Armed Forces Day - the third Saturday in May – they return for a memorial service for their fallen friends and, by extension, all veterans of World War II.
This year's service will be on May 17 at noon, and the men of Easy Company invite you to join them. Roberts Park is on Skyline Boulevard. Just follow the signs for the Chabot Space & Science Center and take the turnoff on the right to Roberts Park about 1.3 miles before you get to Chabot.
Drive through the first parking lot to the second lot, then follow the sounds of patriotic music a few hundred yards into the park, where the service will be held.
Today, that little sapling has grown into a mighty tree. Not many of the 442 veterans who attended that first memorial service are left; but a few are still here, and it will be a joy to see them again and say thank you, thank you, thank you.

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