Military heritage comes to life on a journey back to the past
April 20, 2009
- A Japanese American World War II veteran journeys back to where he was wounded in action.
- New local military heritage program connects young troops with veterans to increase awareness.
MASSA, Italy- A bus full of young Soldiers and Airmen from Camp Darby, Italy, listened intently as former Pfc. Noel Yuzuro Okamoto recalled the time when he was wounded in action in the hills by Massa, Italy.
Obviously, the tales he told didn't happen yesterday; it occurred when he was a young Soldier fighting in World War II. The trip back to Massa was a chance for Okamoto to locate where he was wounded in action, and for the young troops to learn first hand from a veteran about their military heritage.
Okamoto, a Japanese-American born in 1922 in Hawaii, joined the Army in March 1943. He was eventually assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 232nd Combat Engineer Company. He entered Italy from Naples and fought up through Anzio. When he arrived in Livorno, he took a boat to Marseille to "hold the line" and then came back to Livorno where he would end up driving bulldozers and jeeps to Massa.
"Orders came down through Capt. Nakada Pershing, the 232nd Combat Engineer company commander, to Tech. Sgt. (Tec/4) Edmund Ezuka (who was later injured) to lead a small group up to this certain spot in the hills above Massa and wait there for further orders," recalled Okamoto.
A group of eight or so left Massa under the cover of darkness April 5, travelling along a primitive road along the south side the Frigidio River, which runs into nearby hills.
"It was also completely dark; we traveled under orders to keep absolutely silent," said Okamoto. "It was a very slow pace and there were no other platoons around us; we were sent on ahead and ordered to wait in the specified area until daybreak."
He added it was just as light was beginning to show that they were hit with artillery fire.
"We could see a German patrol up on the mountain; the first shell was far off and the second even further off on our other far side," said Okamoto. "We wondered who the Germans were shelling until the third one came straight towards us. I dove under our truck, but was wounded.
"A rescue jeep was sent up from Massa to gather us all. It didn't seem to take long so where we were couldn't have been to0 far from the town.Aca,!A?
He then spent several days in a hospital outside of Lucca before requesting a return to his unit, which was quickly moving up towards Alexandria. He never knew exactly where in Italy he was wounded, and the town of Massa had sprung up over the years, changing the scenery. Still, he decided 64 years later to attempt to find the patch of ground where he was hit, as he, his daughter and granddaughter flew from the United States to Italy almost to the date of when he has WIA.
In an amazing coincidence, Massa was having its 64th liberation celebration and invited the Okamotos to participate when they appeared. The mayor of Massa, Dr. Roberto Pucci, presented Okamoto with a medal, with many elderly survivors of WW II approaching the veteran to thank him for his part in the liberation.
After speaking to a woman who told him how her family hid in the hills when their home was bombed Aca,!" and that her brother was a partisan who assisted Japanese-American Soldiers Aca,!"Okamoto remarked that "it felt good to see people who were able to come back to where they born and continue on with life."
After the ceremony, parade and wreath laying, two volunteers from Massa took Okamoto up into the hills to look for where he was wounded. For the accompanying Camp Darby servicemembers, it really brought the trip alive.
"I was aware of some of the battles in this area, but to come face-to-face and see the terrain he had to fight in, makes me appreciate and have a better understanding of our military heritage," said Sgt. Gerard Tate, 511th Military Police Platoon.
Airman 1st Class Daryl Perales, 31st Munitions Squadron, had a grandfather who fought in WW II and was glad history came alive for him.
"My grandfather never talked about the war, so I was excited to hear the stories first hand from Mr. Okamoto," said Perales. "Coming along on this trip definitely gives me a better sense of history and makes me appreciate being stationed here in Italy."
Okamoto never found the exact location where he was wounded, but he said it was "a very wonderful experience and a return journey he never thought possible."