Just before dawn on the morning of October 18, Fred Shiosaki crawled out of a dank pup tent, strapped a mortar tube on his back, grabbed his rifle, and began to walk toward the battle. With the other two battalions still fighting for control of the hills around town, Colonel Pence had ordered the Third Battalion to make a frontal attack on the German forces in Bruyères, liberate the town, and then advance toward the village of Belmont to the northeast. George “Montana” Oiye hoisted a carbine and fell in alongside Fred. He’d been temporarily assigned to K Company to serve as their forward observer in the event that they needed artillery support from the 522nd while making their assault.
As K Company spread out, moving through dense stands of pine, the sounds of the battle ahead of them were oddly muffled. A thick gray fog made it hard to see more than a dozen yards in any direction. Fred’s breath issued forth in small white clouds. His footfall was nearly inaudible, softened by thick piles of wet moss on the forest floor. The moss worried Fred. He had been warned that the Germans had hidden hundreds of Bouncing Betty mines in the stuff, and he feared those almost as much as he feared the deadly 88-millimeter shells that he knew might come shrieking at them out of the fog at any minute.
But when K Company finally emerged from the woods and entered the
flatter, more open terrain immediately in front of the town, everything around them seemed to explode. The roar of the battle engulfed them. Fred stumbled forward over muddy furrows in an open field. Bullets whipped by on both sides of him. Incoming shells whistled over his head. Columns of black earth and fractured yellow stone erupted in front of him and behind him. Wounded horses in a nearby barn screamed. Searing-hot shards of shrapnel flew in all directions, making weird fluttering sounds. The smell of explosives and diesel and mud and blood
filled the air.
Fred and the men near him dropped and began to crawl forward on their bellies as streams of machine gun fire poured from the windows of nearby farmhouses and machine-gun nests hidden behind stone garden walls. But returning the fire, lobbing mortars at the buildings, firing bazookas, and throwing hand grenades, K Company kept moving forward, assaulting each machine-gun nest in turn, concentrating their fire on it until it was silenced, then moving on to the next.
On the outskirts of town, they came across a wide bend in a road. Sergeant George Iwamoto, squad leader and one of Fred’s closest friends—a kotonk through and through, a kindred spirit from the east- ern side of Washington State—raised his hand to pause his men and get their attention. He didn’t like the looks of the place. He wanted them out of there as quickly as possible. He stood up, started waving his hands, bellowing, “Come on, you guys, come on!” urging them to cross the road quickly. Fred hunched over and ran for it. He made it across. They all did—except one. Just as Iwamoto began to follow the last of his men across, a shell landed right behind him, hurling him forward a dozen feet, shattering his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. Seeing his friend there, sprawled out on the road in the rain, bloodied, desperately trying to crawl forward, dragging his legs, helpless, Fred felt suddenly and overwhelmingly sick to his stomach. For a moment, he closed his eyes and slumped against a stone wall. Like everyone else, he wanted to turn and run from this place, from the horror. Like everyone else, he didn’t. A medic dragged Iwamoto off the road. The rest of them got up
and moved on.
At the entrance to the town itself, they faced a barricade—a road- block built of enormous logs, timbers, and boulders that the Germans had chained together and intertwined with land mines and booby traps in order to block one of Bruyères’s main streets. George Oiye got on a field phone and called up the Fire Direction Center. A few minutes later the 522nd, still several miles to the east, dropped a shell precisely onto the barricade. Gravel and dirt flew in all directions, but the effect was mostly to rearrange the tangle of obstacles into an even more imposing jumble of wood, stone, and explosives. Finally, with German snipers firing on them from nearby houses, engineers from the 442nd’s Combat Engineer Company crept forward, wrapped explosive Primacord around the larger obstacles, and blew them far enough apart to allow men, jeeps, and half-tracks to start snaking their way into the center of the town.
Fred advanced cautiously, crouching, running from one doorway to the next as K Company worked its way down a narrow street. Lobbing grenades, knocking down doors, racing to rooftops, clearing houses, the Nisei gradually drove the Germans out of town. By early evening, most of Bruyères was theirs, though occasional German shells and mortar rounds continued to fall in the streets as a furious battle for the high ground raged on just to the east. The streets were littered with the detritus of war—slate roof tiles, bricks, piles of stone and mortar, burned-out vehicles, here and there a dead German in a bloodied gray uniform lying in the street or a charred, contorted corpse sitting in a burned-out half-track. The smell of powder lingered in the air, along with a whiff of singed flesh and death.
But then, one by one, Fred noticed flags emerging from upstairs windows—French flags and the Croix de Lorraine, the emblem of the French resistance. The people of Bruyères, peering out from their hiding places, seeing American jeeps and tanks entering the village, began pouring out into the rainy and rubble-strewn streets. Confused at first, seeing Asian faces, they exclaimed, “Chinois! Chinois!”
The Nisei, pointing to their uniforms, tried to explain. “No, no, Americans. Japanese Americans!” “Japonais!
” The French looked at one another, clearly baffled, but nobody really cared. Young women, old men, children, utter strangers, ran to the men, embraced them, kissed them on both cheeks. Old men brought out bottles of wine and strings of sausages and offered them to their liberators, patting them on the back. Children flocked around the Americans cheering, shouting things in French the men mostly could not understand except for the one word, over and over, “Merci, merci, merci!
” Fred dug a chocolate bar out of his kit, broke it into bits, and handed them to the kids.
Then he moved on, making his way toward the southwestern side of town, bullets from a sniper up in the hills still occasionally whipping by, ricocheting off stone walls. But the civilians kept coming out. Fred rounded a corner and came upon an old lady grinning, standing in a pile of rubble next to a collapsed soda-pop warehouse, handing bottles of pop to the men as they hurried past. Around another corner a middle-aged woman waved at them and began vigorously sweeping battle debris from the street, even as artillery shells whistled overhead. She swept with such cheerful enthusiasm that to George Oiye it seemed as if she were trying to sweep away the war itself.
As evening settled in and the town darkened, the Nisei consolidated their hold on Bruyères, and the mood of the civilians seemed to shift. Fred heard loud, shrill voices. The French began dragging certain people out into the street, mostly women who had consorted with German soldiers, but men, too—anyone who had been too helpful to the Germans. Crowds gathered around. They beat the men, pummeling them with fists and broomsticks. They stripped the women naked, shaved their heads, and then ran them through the streets in the rain, jeering, spitting at them, hurling insults and trash at them—potato peels and rotten vegetables and offal—as the women ducked and dodged and tried desperately to hide their nakedness. Fred watched impassively. This wasn’t for him to judge, he figured.
Over the next few days, K Company left Bruyères behind them and slowly inched deeper into the Vosges itself. At the same time, slightly to the rear of K Company, in the midst of a bloody battle raging on Hill D, F Company’s technical sergeant, Abraham Ohama, walked forward under a white flag, attempting to recover a wounded comrade. German forces, disregarding the flag, opened fire and wounded Ohama. When Nisei litter bearers tried to remove the two wounded men from the field, the Germans opened fire on them as well, killing Ohama as he lay help- less on a stretcher. Seeing this, and infuriated, the men of F Company, nearly two hundred of them, rose spontaneously and charged. They plunged into the German lines so suddenly and unexpectedly that many of the Germans didn’t even have time to return fire. As the Nisei over-whelmed their position, dozens of German boys—some just sixteen or seventeen—cowered in their foxholes, throwing their arms in the air, so scared that the Nisei had to reach down and drag them out in order to take them prisoner. Others fell to their knees, crying, begging for their lives. When it was over, eighty-seven German troops were dead, dozens more wounded.
At a railway embankment east of town, K Company and much of the Third Battalion got bogged down for hours, until the 522nd laid down a long, sustained, thundering barrage that went on for twenty straight minutes, pounding the embankment and the ground immediately behind it. For a few moments after the last shell fell, there was dead silence but for the hissing of rainfall. The smells of powder and wet earth drifted over the men. Fred, crouching in a foxhole, peered through the rain and drifting smoke and saw the Germans finally falling away to the east beyond the tracks. K Company rose to their feet and scrambled across what was left of the railroad embankment.
Beyond the twisted rails and craters and mounds of scattered gravel, they moved cautiously forward across muddy and heavily mined fields. Approaching some densely wooded hills, K Company’s sergeant James Oura spotted what appeared to be a high-ranking German officer emerging from a line of trees ahead, walking toward them, apparently un- aware of their presence. Motioning his men down, holding his fire until the man was well within range, Oura rose and dropped him with a burst of fire from his BAR. When they got to his body, K Company found maps indicating the disposition of enemy troops throughout the hills in front of them. This was an unexpected windfall, and they needed to capitalize on it quickly. Rudy Tokiwa headed back to the regimental command post at a lope, clutching the maps.
Within an hour, Major Emmet O’Connor had studied the captured maps and launched a special task force to take advantage of the intelligence it represented. That night, as the rest of the regiment continued crawling forward, O’Connor and his task force slipped through enemy lines and made their way along a forested ridge well ahead of the Third Battalion’s position. By dawn on October 21, they had outflanked the enemy, circled back, and occupied a vantage point from which they could see a large concentration of German forces in and around a cluster of houses in a clearing, just where the maps had indicated they would be. Crouching in the woods, Lieutenant Al Biondi and George Oiye began quietly calling in coordinates. A few minutes later, the 522nd un-leashed their howitzers—the shells again timed to arrive all at the same moment—and the houses disappeared in an eruption of fire, earth, and smoke. Eighty Germans were killed outright, another sixty wounded. O’Connor’s task force swept down on the astonished survivors from their rear as K and I Companies surged forward from their front. By noon the Nisei had seized the entire sector, taking fifty-four prisoners, the only Germans left alive in the vicinity.
As Rudy made his way back to the battalion’s command post to report the successful completion of the maneuver to Pursall, K Company’s medic, James Okubo, stopped him.
“Hey, Punch Drunk, when you came through, you see . . . dead Germans out there.”
“You see any of ’em alive?”
Rudy shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I never look.”
Okubo had been up all night tending to the wounded, but now he wanted to see if there were wounded Germans still out on the field.
“Aw, you know I can’t carry a rifle. Will you go with me?”
Rudy shrugged again, but he picked up a Thompson submachine gun and led Okubo into the hills. The two men began to sort through a pile of German dead and eventually found one boy who was still alive. Okubo patched him up as best he could, and the two of them carried him back to an American aid station. There, Okubo turned to Rudy and said, “I hope you don’t get mad at me now.”
Rudy replied that he was glad they’d helped the boy. But the truth was, it seemed odd to him, after he and his guys had spent so much time trying to kill Germans, to be trying to save one. It wasn’t really that he objected. He just didn’t particularly care one way or another. But it got him to thinking about something he’d pondered more and more, something that had been eating at him ever since he’d shot that German soldier carrying photos of his children his first day in battle. “I wonder,” he thought, “when I get out of this, if I do, whether I’ll be a human being.”
That night, exhausted, the young men of K Company tried to hunker down and finally catch some sleep, sliding into slit trenches the Germans had dug or craters left by their own artillery shells. By now both the trenches and the craters were half-full of cold, muddy water, but many of the men were beyond caring about that. They just lay against muddy walls, closed their eyes, and let their feet and legs soak. A few chose to lie out in the open instead, despite the possibility that shells might at any moment begin dropping among them again. Fred lay in one of the trenches, his eyeglasses smeared with mud, his teeth chattering uncontrollably. The worst of it, though, was that his feet ached terribly. He lifted a foot out of the water, pulled off one of his boots and a soggy sock, and noted that the foot was turning an odd shade of purple, the beginnings of trench foot, the slow, agonizing death of the nerves and tissues in his feet.
Nobody really slept that night. When morning finally came, gray and wet and cold, they got up and pushed on to the northeast. They were entering increasingly rugged terrain now, steeper hills cloaked in dark forests, advancing into the face of periodic artillery barrages, blistering fire from German tanks mounted with 88s, the howling Nebel-werfer rockets they called screaming meemies, and the growling of German burp guns. For two more days and two more nights, they just kept moving forward, yard by yard, under fire almost continuously, with nothing to eat but cold K rations, nowhere to sleep but in the mud. And still the rain kept falling.
By late on October 24, the 442nd had taken control of the villages of Belmont and Biffontaine and pushed the Germans deeper into the Vosges. K Company had now been on the battlefield for seven days and nights. Some units had been out eight days. Finally, that afternoon, as the sun finally broke through, two Texas units—the 141st and 143rd Infantry Regiments—began moving up through the 442nd’s lines to relieve them.
Copyright © 2021 by Daniel James Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.