Today is Memorial Day, May 30, 2016. When I was growing up, my mother would take me to the cemetery in El Cerrito where her parents and brothers were buried and we would ohaka mairi, which in Japanese means to visit the graves of the ancestors. Usually one might go around the anniversary of their death, or maybe their birthday. But we would always go on Memorial Day to place flowers on my grandparents’ graves and her brother Thomas Tamemasa Sagimori, who died in Italy during World War II.
Today is Memorial Day, May 30, 2016. When I was growing up, my mother would take me to the cemetery in El Cerrito where her parents and brothers were buried and we would ohaka mairi, which in Japanese means to visit the graves of the ancestors. Usually one might go around the anniversary of their death, or maybe their birthday. But we would always go on Memorial Day to place flowers on my grandparents' graves and her brother Thomas Tamemasa Sagimori, who died in Italy during World War II.
My Uncle Tom was born on July 29, 1919 in Berkeley, California. He was the first son of Tamemasu Sagimori and Suye Kobun Sagimori–they had come from Wakayama and Osaka areas in Japan a few years earlier. Tom attended Berkeley public schools and then to college at UC Berkeley, majoring in Forestry. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the U.S. entered the war, he and his family were ordered to move from Berkeley to the Tanforan Assembly Center across the San Francisco Bay in San Bruno. They were later moved to Topaz Relocation Center in Delta, Utah.
My mother was 12 years old when the war broke out, and while she struggles to retain her memory of recent events, her memories of the war, relocation, and the loss of her brother are still vivid to her today. She would often dream of Tom and she would tell me, “Tom came to me in a dream, he was there. It was like I could touch him.” It is so real for her in her dreams, but he is not here in this world and I have never met him. She misses him so much.
I suppose this is what “missing someone” can be like, missing someone like an ache in the heart that comes and goes, reappears when you least expect it. It might be in a dream, or in a sound, music that reminds you of that missing person, a scent, or voice. In dreams it is so real, but it is not.
When Japanese Americans were permitted to enlist in the U.S. Army, Tom volunteered. Because he was a college graduate, he could have been an officer. But his heart was with the ranks of the volunteers, enlisted men who were his peers, Nisei (second generation, American-born) men from Berkeley and beyond. He served with Company L, 3d Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), attached to the 92nd Infantry Division. I was always told of his bravery in that he gave his life for this country while his parents and family were incarcerated in Topaz. But I did not know much about how he fought and what he did.
Over the last couple of decades, more information has become available about the 442nd and their hard fought battles in the European Theater. In the late 1980s, Masayo Umezawa Duus published Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and the 442nd (Stanford University Press, 1989). On the cover of the book was a picture of a Nisei GI and a French family of the town of Bruyeres. Duus had received the photo during her interviews with families who lived in France during the German occupation. She used it for her book cover, but the Japanese American soldier was unidentified. My aunt and my mother saw it and identified the picture: It was my Uncle Tom. This was the beginning of their attempts to bring closure over his death during the war. They began to go on trips with other Nisei vets who knew Tom and visited France and Italy where the 442nd and 100th fought. They gave information to researchers who were documenting the experiences of the Nisei vets as well as those who died.
A couple of years ago, I gave an introduction to Tom Graves, who was speaking at the San Jose State King Library. He is the photographer and author of Twice Heroes America’s Nisei Veterans of WWII and Korea. As I introduced Tom’s work, I mentioned that my uncle had died on Mount Folgorito in Italy. I did not know what the battle was about, but Tom told me that that battle was the key to breaking the Gothic Line and to winning the war.
I later found a narrative about that battle published in an oral history memoir project: 442nd Battlegrounds Revisited by Genro Kashiwa. He wrote:
That night as soon as it got dark, we were ordered to go forward, down the valley to the bottom and then climb up the steep mountain side up to the top of the mountain all in a single file, without making any noise. It was to be a surprise attack. It was dark and we had to follow the person in front, right behind him so that we would not lose contact. There were many times that we lost our footing and slid down, making loud noises, surely that would arouse the Germans who would send up flares and we would be discovered, the whole battalion all bunched up in a single file on the side of the mountain, presenting a good target for their mortar barrage. Luck was on our side, we were not discovered until L Company, the lead company reached the top and turned left in an attack formation. First platoon led by Lt. Koizumi advanced forward for some distance without encountering resistance.
First platoon was able to advance to the foot of the small peak at the top, situated at the end of a finger of the mountain range. I called the small peak Mount Folgorito, though in fact Mount Folgorito was the mountain from the valley below to the top culminating in the small peak. First platoon’s advance was stalled by sniper fire from the hill opposite its position. Third platoon led by Sgt. Sagimori was attacking the hill from which the sniper fire was coming, starting from the bottom of the saddle below 1st platoon and following up a rock wall. Ordinarily that would have been safe, but in this situation, 3rd platoon was subject to sniper fire from the hill 1st platoon was trying to take. So instead of being safe, 1st and 3rd platoon were stalled being subject to cross fire from hills next to their respective objectives. We took casualties, Sgt. Sagimori was killed, among others Howie Hanamura was wounded, Tonto Aoki was wounded and Hiro Nishikubo was also wounded.
In more detail:
Despite heavy enemy fire, Technical Sergeant Sagimori led his platoon to secure a ridge and he killed four of the enemy. He then exposed himself further to attack a machine gun nest, throwing a grenade and killing one of the enemy and wounding another. In this action, Sergeant Sagimori was fatally wounded.
Tom was awarded the Silver Star (posthumously) and Purple Heart for his bravery. It has been more than 70 years since Uncle Tom’s death. I never knew him, so sometimes I don’t know what I’m missing. I know only what has been conveyed in my mother’s stories and others who have brought the 442nd RCT’s bravery in combat to the forefront of American history. I know that I miss him for who he was, what he fought for, and the greatness that comes from the sacrifices of the first born son.