A Nisei Veteran recognized for uncommon courage
By Matthew Renda, Staff Writer
Photo by John Hart
Imagine being placed in a prison camp, restricted to a rough postage stamp of land with guns pointed at you, preventing your coming and going.
Then imagine sacrificing everything for the very nation that robbed you of your fundamental rights. Imagine laying your life on the line so that nation may continue to exist.
This is exactly what Nisei Veterans, like 87-year-old Mas Tsuda (Poston 219-7-B) of Alta Sierra did once upon a difficult and harrowing time. During World War II, many Japanese Americans were forcibly interned in camps throughout the western United States, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.
The 442nd is the most highly-decorated regiment in the history of the United States armed forces with 21 Medal of Honor recipients and a slew of other distinctions too numerous to list.
Tsuda, who was set to be awarded with a Congressional Gold Medal on Nov. 2 by the U.S. Congress, but could not attend the ceremony due to a family illness, fought in Italy and Southern France as a member of the 442nd. A Japanese-American, Tsuda was born and raised in the agricultural pastures of Watsonville, Calif. He grew up with traditional Japanese parents, as his father was persistently after Tsuda to learn the Japanese language; nevertheless, Tsuda identified with America's cultural values.
So much so, that in 1941, in the days immediately after Pearl Harbor, Tsuda attempted to enlist at the age of 16 with a couple of his schoolmates, he said, but was informed that children of Japanese and Chinese immigrants were ineligible.
A senior in high school at the time, Tsuda said he remembers the ordeal as an adventure, whereas his parents and members of their generation struggled mightily.
"We were young," he said. "My friends and I, we would sneak out and walk to the Colorado River which was only four miles away. We would play in the river, chase the wild horses and then come back before night.
"The old men and women, though, they were miserable," he said.
Tsuda rejects the notion that Japanese-Americans were placed in those camps for their own protection.
"The guns were pointed at us and the sentry towers were not there to keep people out," he said. "They were there to keep us in."
All the while, Tsuda remained hungry to join the United States armed forces and contribute to the war effort that was rapidly gaining force.
"We were citizens," he said. "We wanted to fight for our country like everyone else our age. We wanted to serve and prove we were Americans — prove our loyalty."
In 1943, Tsuda was finally afforded the opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty, as a combat team was formed within the internment camp and training commenced. Soon after, he and other young men were deployed to Hattiesburg, Miss., for sanctioned military training. The famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team was born. The commissioned officers were Caucasian, but treated the young men as soldiers, Tsuda said, and did indulge in bigotry.
"They were good at what they did," he said. "They wanted us to succeed."
"We landed on the bottom of Italy's boot and walked up north," Tsuda said. "For a while, it was easy. We had better weapons, better air support and more ammunition and the Germans gave up easily. But one day they mounted a counterattack and, boy, did we get beat up. The Germans were good soldiers and we found out."
Tsuda was in Southern Europe for 18 months engaging in various encounters with the enemy while battling the elements of a foreign territory.
"I don't think I'll ever get that scared again," Tsuda said. "In the wintertime (of '43) it was so cold. There was snow on the ground and we didn't have the right clothing. There was always rain and we were fighting in the frost."
After Rome fell into American hands there was a brief respite from battle, he said. However, the lull did not last long as the 442nd was soon sent to Southern France in August of 1944 where mayhem and destruction lurked for the American forces.
As they marched north, the 442nd liberated the town of Bruyeres in the Vosges Mountains. The same regiment also rescued the "Lost Battalion", the 141st Regiment comprised mostly of boys from Texas, who had inadvertently become trapped behind German lines about two miles east of Biffontaine. The rescue mission was brutal, he said, featuring some of the heaviest resistance the 442nd faced and resulted in massive casualties for the 442nd (some historians believe this to be due to the command ineptitude of John Ernest Dahlquist, who was criticized by other officers for his blatant disregard for the lives of the Japanese-American soldiers). Tsuda, earned a Purple Heart during this period.
"I got in the way of a mortar and got some shrapnel all over," he said. "I still carry it around with me. We had a helluva lot of casualties. We were called the Purple Heart battalion."
Tsuda still has his Purple Heart alongside other medals arrayed in a display case, positioned unostentatiously in his home.
"I proved my loyalty," he said, proudly. "I proved I was an American."
One day, soon after he returned to California from the war, he and his brother-in-law stopped at a gas station just outside of Watsonville and were denied gas, despite having the cash to pay for it. Tsuda told other veterans in the area about the incident, complaining that the gas station owners had not served in the war and made the same sacrifice he had made.
"People boycotted that gas station and they went out of business," he said. "I still hold it. It bothers you. I got mad at those guys. I don't like being ignored. People pretend they can see right through you."
Mas and Ann Tsuda live in Alta Sierra, having moved to western Nevada County in 1988, after Mas retired from his landscaping business. He tries to reunite with other Nisei Veterans every year and stays in contact with many of his fellow regimental members.
Despite encountering instances of racism sporadically during his civilian life, Tsuda said he remains extremely proud to have served his country.
"When I went to Japan as tourist, I did not feel Japanese," he said. "I felt like an American and I am proud of it."