Nisei history recorded in comic book

KAHULUI – As the years go by and the number of World War II Japanese-American veterans dwindles, remembering their life stories and their tales of valor have become all the more important to the members of Maui’s Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans.

Their efforts to record for history the exploits of the soldiers of the famed 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up mostly of Japanese-Americans and one of the most decorated units in the war, has taken a new twist.

Comic books.

At the annual memorial service Sunday to honor those in their ranks who have passed, Stacey T. Hayashi, author of “Journey of Heroes,” spoke about her illustrated book in the manga, or Japanese comic book, form. She uses chibi characters – cute Japanese comic book characters with small bodies – to tell the story of the nisei, or the second generation of Japanese in America, and of their experiences in Hawaii’s plantation camps, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the internment camps on the Mainland and on the battlefields of Europe.

“Stories are the foundation of our culture,” Hayashi said to a packed crowd inside the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center in Wailuku. “They are the ways we share our values and pass them along to future generations.”

Hayashi, a Hawaii-based entrepreneur and founder of clothing websites, spoke to the crowd about her interest in Japanese-American and Hawaiian cultures and what led to the creation of her book and its form.

“I realized at the heart of it I wanted to talk about stories,” she said. “I’ve been working on creating this 442 movie for 12 years because the stories of these nisei veterans are so important to the world.”

Letters from Maui’s Saburo Maehara, who served in the 100th Battalion, to his young daughter helped move the project toward the manga style.

“What surprised me about Saburo was how tender he was with his daughter,” she said. “He would write her letters and draw her pictures of a pup tent, saying this is daddy’s house, or a rabbit saying this is daddy’s new friend.”

Hayashi had read the letters in a 100th Battalion newsletter a few years ago and said she was shocked when she found out that he had been killed in action. Maehara died on his 30th birthday during the war and left behind a wife and a 2- or 3-year-old daughter, she said.

“Pictures can say so much more than words and can convey so much meaning especially for a child too young to understand war,” she said. “Here was a man with everything in the world: a new house, a beautiful wife, a daughter; he had everything to live for. That’s not to say that those who were not married had less to live for – they all made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Hayashi said these letters and stories – and the cost of creating a movie – led her to the book with chibi characters.

“Let me tell you this little 30-page book has had more impact on kids than I could have dreamed,”she said. “Kids have always liked comic books, and kids have always needed heroes. So to me this was the perfect blend of teaching them something in a way that was engaging and interesting.

“And the heroes were real.

. . . They are you.”

Hayashi said she is donating 5,000 copies to 83 schools in Hawaii, including some on Maui. Teachers are constantly asking for copies because there is not much history on the 100th Battalion/442nd.

“I went to a class of 26 5th-graders – only one of them had heard of the 442,” she said. “But after their teacher read them the comic book, they were all so impressed and had new respect for you, not only as war heroes but people with character.”

Hayashi’s longterm goal still is to make a movie with her novel but is looking for new and creative ways to present history using modern media and technology.

“Some of you may worry that your legacy will die when you do, but I want to assure you that it will not,” she said of the veterans who are in their 80s and 90s.

Every year, the veterans group holds a memorial service on the Sunday closest to Sept. 29, the day when Shigeo “Joe” Takata was killed in Italy in 1943; he was the first 100th Battalion/442nd soldier killed in World War II. The gathering also honored veterans of the Military Intelligence Service, the 1399th Engineering Battalion, the 232nd Engineers and the 522nd Field Artillery.

Replica flags of the 100th, 442nd, 1399th and Military Intelligence Service were presented at the ceremony and will be on display at the center. Guidons also were ordered for the 232nd Engineers and 522nd Field Artillery units.

Dave Fukuda, a member of the Maui’s Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans and whose father fought in the war, began a new tradition at the ceremony of highlighting one of the 101 nisei soldiers who died in action. For this service, he selected Louis Kahaulelio Sakamoto of Waihee, who was killed on Oct. 23, 1943, outside of San Angelo d’Alife in Italy.

He was 30 years old.

“The men of 100th Battalion C Company, made up of mostly men from Maui, were thrown into battle for the first time,” Fukuda said. “It was on that day that few in the company would ever forget – they would lose five of their comrades.”

Fukuda said friends remembered Sakamoto as a “superb athlete” who could possibly have played baseball professionally in Japan. He was promoted to staff sergeant and was called a “natural leader” who could have “easily been a lieutenant.”

On the day of his death, his company was under heavy machine-gun fire. Sakamoto crawled toward the enemy and threw hand grenades, which forced them to retreat. This allowed his platoon and others to advance, he said.

“Sakamoto was unfortunately shot dead by an enemy sniper hiding in a hollow tree,” Fukuda said. “Company C had experienced its first taste of combat, and it was a costly one. Staff Sergeant Sakamoto was awarded the silver star for his heroism.”

The memorial chaired by Jill Ross provided food and entertainment for guests, with Chrysanthemum Festival queen contestants greeting people at the door.

Leonard Oka, president of the group, was pleased with the showing and grateful for Hayashi’s appearance.

“We invited her here to speak because we need youth and enthusiasm to keep these memorials going,” he said. “We need to make sure this knowledge is passed on to the next generations.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at