SUS ITO: The life of an American soldier and noted biologist

Susumu “Sus” Ito is renown within the medical field for his work with the gastronomical tract. Despite retiring as a professor from Harvard Medical School in 1990, the 92-year-old continues to go into the lab in Boston a few times a week to study. His work has won him recognition around the world and has taken him as far as Africa to study infectious diseases.

ACHIEVEMENT OF A LIFETIME — Speaker of the House John Boehner stands with Ito as he accepts his Congressional Gold Medal. Kyodo News photo

His latest and greatest accolade, however, is for his valor on the battlefield. Ito is among the 317 veterans who were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — the nation’s highest civilian honor — for his service in World War II. According to Diane Tanaka of the National Veterans Network, 800 honorees including Ito, his fellow veterans, widows and the next-of-kin of deceased and killed-in-action veterans attended the ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 2.

Prior to becoming a renowned biologist, however, Ito was a young Army draftee from Stockton, Calif. Born on July, 27, 1919, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in the fall of 1940 and inducted in February 1941 as part of a non-segregated Quartermaster Corps, Heavy Maintenance unit located in Camp Haan, in Riverside County, Calif.

“I was an auto mechanic amongst a unit of mostly Caucasian men,” said Ito. “Only 10 percent of us were Japanese American.”

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. Army sent him and 200 other Nisei to Oklahoma and placed them in a non-combative unit, Ito said. “The Army came and took our rifles away,” he said. “They didn’t know what to do with us.” Ito served as a mechanic in Oklahoma; other Nikkei were placed in non-combat positions, including chauffeurs.

Ito said he understood why their weapons were taken away, but he did not feel good about it. His fellow men and officers at Camp Haan were sympathetic toward the Nikkei soldiers. “We got along with the rest of the men and officers,” said Ito. “They felt a great deal of sympathy toward us.”

While his family was incarcerated at the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas, Ito became part of the cadre of the all-Nikkei 442nd Regimental Combat Team in 1943. He was selected to serve in the 552nd Field Artillery Battalion, and was promoted to instrument sergeant, a position that entailed scouting and directing mortar fire toward enemy howitzers (cannons). The position was one of the most dangerous. The work was generally done alongside commissioned officers, who served as forward observers (scouts).

He was later given a battlefield commission in Italy, shortly before entering France.

“Colonel Harrison called me up early one morning … and told me ‘congratulations Lieutenant Ito, your commission came through,’” Ito recalled. “It was totally out of the clear blue sky.” He gladly accepted the promotion as he could remain with his unit and get double the pay he was earning as a staff sergeant.

Ito went on to serve in the 442nd’s operations throughout Europe until the end of the war and finished his tour of duty as a first lieutenant. His exploits included the rescue of the Lost Battalion of the 36th Division of Texas. The 442nd was indispensable to rescuing the 36th Infantry Division, which was trapped by German forces in the Vosges Mountains in France in the fall of 1944. The 442nd faced severe casualties in the battle; the Go For Broke National Education Center stated that 54 men were killed and many more were wounded. During the larger 34-day campaign, including the six-day rescue operation of the 211 Texans in the “Lost Battalion,” the casualties for the 442nd amounted to 216 dead and more than 856 wounded, the center said.

“We were the lead attack company to the Lost Battalion, we were the first to make contact with them,” said Ito. Though it was ultimately a triumph, Ito’s company suffered heavy losses.

“Our unit was virtually decimated,” he said. Out of the 170 members of I Company, all the officers were wounded or killed. “There were only eight riflemen, and in total only 17 or so survived … we had the highest casualties in the rescue.” The story of his experiences along with others were collected in a book entitled, “And then There Were Eight: The Men Of I Company 442nd Regimental Combat Team.”

Ito still has vivid memories of the four or five days he spent fighting the well-entrenched German forces, but to him, it resembles a “long drawn out strenuous battle.”

“At the time, I didn’t know what to expect,” Ito said. “We took it as a routine battle operation and didn’t realize until later how extraordinary what we did was.

“To this day, when I recall those days, I get goose bumps all over my body.”

He said though, that his wartime experience did not seem to affect his mental state following his return from Europe. He came back to the U.S. after the war. Upon finding that he could not return to California yet, he went to Minnesota before settling in Cleveland with his sister and brother-in-law. He continued his work as a mechanic at first, but was unsatisfied and took advantage of the G.I. Bill to earn a degree in biology.

Ito has fond memories of his life after the war. He was among other war veterans who he said treated him with respect regardless of his ethnicity.

“I felt no discrimination what so ever, I feel so privileged by all this,” he said.

Ito has shared both his own accomplishments, and those of his fellow Nisei, after the war. He has given talks at high schools, colleges, Jewish organizations (his battalion had helped to break up a Nazi death march from Dachau toward the end of the war) and given interviews to describe his experiences.

Ito also took more than 60 rolls of film with a camera he smuggled from Camp Shelby in Mississippi to the European Theater.

WAR PHOTOGRAPHER — While Ito was told not to bring a camera with him to Europe, he managed to photograph more than 60 rolls of film while on duty. photo by Sus Ito/courtesy of Japanese American National Museum

“I normally obey military orders … but sometime I try to bend the rules,” he said. He carried the camera in his breast pocket and photographed anything he thought was of interest.

“(Everybody) knew the rules, but nobody objected to it,” he said. “I figured if they confiscated it, [it] was a cheap camera so oh well, and if they didn’t, I get to keep a wealth of photos.”

He saved his film and later purchased an enlarger and printed many of his photos himself. He has since donated his film and many of his prints to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

On Nov. 2, Ito, Lawson Sakai and Grant Ichikawa accepted the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor on behalf of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). Ito said he was happy to be able to participate in the ceremonial events along with 11 family members and hundreds of other veterans and their families. Ito said the award was a culmination of years of loyalty and service by the Nisei.

“For my fellow Nisei veterans and me, to serve in the military was in itself an honor as well as a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate our dedicated patriotism which we tried to accomplish by living up to the tradition of ‘go for broke’ or going all out for everything asked of us,” Ito said in a statement on the National Veteran’s Network (NVN) Website. The NVN helped to advance the Congressional Gold Medal bill.

“Having the Congressional Gold Medal bestowed on the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team and the MIS will be a most cherished award that must be dedicated to those among us of who lost their lives in WWII; to the many veterans no longer with us; and to those who cannot be here for the medal presentation.”

He added in an interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly, “so many colleagues have gone, … and meeting the survivors is very heart warming. There’s about 350 (veterans); many are in wheelchairs. At 92, I feel fortunate in reliving out experiences.”

“In retrospect, when we were serving, it didn’t come across our minds we were sacrificing a lot,” he said. He has since realized, however, that while his parents were incarcerated in rural Arkansas and he was in the Army, he had upheld a tradition of loyalty. “The final recognition of the Congressional Gold Medal culminates the many rewards of our services and sacrifices, not because we purposefully went forth to earn this, but out of our sincere desire to show dedication to the country.”

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