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Japanese-American GIs Are Focus of Dachau Memories : World War II: Nisei veterans are reunited with some people they rescued from horror of Nazi death camp.

December 01, 1991|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Allied bombs were dropping in the snow of Dachau in April, 1945, 16-year-old Janina Cywinska was lined up against a wall and left to wait for a bullet that never came.

"A Nazi was putting a blindfold on me," said Cywinska, a Polish Catholic who had survived six years in the Nazi death camps. "I thought, how ridiculous. I have seen so much killing by now, why be so considerate to put the blindfold on my face?"

But when the soldier stepped back, there was no sound of boots on gravel, no sound of a gun cocking. She does not remember how long she stood there before someone pushed her to her knees and tugged off her blindfold.

"When I looked at him, he was a little Japanese man," Cywinska said last week. "I said, 'Oh, no, now you guys won and now you are going to shoot us. Why don't you just shoot us and get it over with?' He went down on his knees . . . looked up in my face and said, 'We are liberators. We are American soldiers. We are American Japanese."'

In disbelief, Cywinska begged again to be shot. With tears streaming down his face, the soldier pointed to his American uniform, and then the American flag.

Cywinska's savior was a Nisei soldier in the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, a unit of the segregated Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team that shot the locks off the gates and liberated Dachau in a little-known episode of World War II.

Veterans say they were told not to talk about what they saw on the day they liberated Dachau, and many kept quiet for years. But now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, they see no reason not to tell the world what happened on April 29, 1945.

The 442nd, the most highly decorated unit in American military history, included Japanese-Americans from Hawaii and volunteers from mainland internment camps who wanted to prove their loyalty to the United States. During the last days of the European war, its 522nd Field Artillery Battalion was assigned to help other Army units chase retreating Nazis toward Munich.

Scouts from the 522nd were 10 miles ahead of the main force when they ran into the Dachau concentration camp, shortly after the Germans fled.

"We were not ordered to take Dachau, we just kind of stumbled onto it," said George Oiye, now 69 and living in Los Altos. "I didn't even know it existed."

"It had snowed quite a bit, a foot and a half or so," he said. "My first awareness was seeing these lumps that turned out to be dead bodies in the snow. They were extremely emaciated and they had striped suits on."

Radio communications officer Clarence Matsumura recalled his first horrible glimpse of the camp.

"All we saw was dead people all over the place," said Matsumura, now 70 and living in San Gabriel. "There was some smoke coming out of the stack of the crematorium. The smell . . . . You can't describe what scorched human flesh smells like."

Although some military historians and others are aware of the Dachau incident, and it is mentioned in at least one account of the 442nd's exploits, official Army records do not reflect that the Japanese-American 522nd unit was ever there.

"As far as I can tell from sources, the 522nd was not involved in the liberation of Dachau," said Stephen Gammons of the U. S. Army Center of Military History, who said the records show the camp was liberated by the 42nd Infantry Division. No written history of the 522nd exists, he said.

However, Gammons' colleague, Walter Bradford, said he is aware that Japanese-Americans were involved in the liberation, although he has not personally researched the records.

"People have sort of overlooked the fact that the Japanese-Americans did make contact with the people at Dachau," Bradford said. "It was pretty ironic that their relatives were in camps in the U. S. while these people were freeing (a Nazi camp.)"

Bradford added: "I don't think anybody tried to hide it, I just don't think it was made a big deal of, that's all."

Both Gammons and Bradford said the day-to-day journals of the 522nd are in the National Archives. San Francisco military historian Eric Saul, who has been interviewing veterans and Holocaust survivors and collecting photographs taken by Japanese-American soldiers at Dachau, said he plans to visit the National Archives in two weeks to document and then publicize the incident.

"They were told when they liberated Dachau not to tell anyone," said Saul, a former director of the Presidio Army Museum. That, combined with a reluctance among the veterans to brag and a reticence about the horrors they witnessed, has kept the incident relatively unknown, Saul said.

Matsumura said he was told not to discuss what he had seen at Dachau, while Oiye said he never received such an order. But both men recall being told not to give food to civilians and to leave the care of any prisoners to special hospital units that were supposed to be arriving behind them.

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