My mother told me more than once, in her later years, that when she reflected on my upbringing she had only one major regret: that she did not buy me the thing I most wanted for Christmas. I begged for it every year. It was in the Sears Christmas catalog, on the costume page with the nurse’s outfits and the ballerina tutus. But I didn’t want those, of course. What I was dying to have was a U.S. Marine Corps dress uniform.
There is no more beautiful uniform in the world than the Marine Corps “dress blues.” The sky-blue pants had a dark red stripe running down the outside of the leg. And the jacket – oh, that dignified jacket! – was a deep midnight blue and sported red trim, gold buttons, a sergeant’s insignia on the sleeve, epaulettes on the shoulders, a mandarin collar, and – best of all – a beautiful, wide white belt to make it all look so crisp.
I never found my coveted dress blues under the Christmas tree, so I spent many hours marching in circles around the dining room table wearing my father’s old olive-colored army hat and listening to my most cherished LP, “American Patriotic and Marching Songs.” My favorites were the military anthems, and I would belt out “Anchors Aweigh,” “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” “The Halls of Montezuma,” and “The Army Air Corps Song” until my parents wanted to rip that record right off the turntable.
Mom mentioned her regrets about the uniform so often that a few years ago I decided to find some dress blues and surprise her by strolling into her house wearing them. I checked ebay and costume shops and military surplus stores, but unfortunately I came up short. Even though I did find one or two authentic uniforms for sale, they wouldn’t nearly have fit me. I guess there aren’t too many 5’6”, 135-pound Marines. I did find some old Women’s Army Corps uniforms, but they were skirt outfits. Ew.
On this Memorial Day, I wanted to pay tribute to my great-uncle Reuben Steger – a genuine hero who lost his life in World War II. Uncle Ruby, like most of the relatives from my mother’s side of the family, grew up in Marshfield, Wisconsin. There were nine boys and two girls in the family and Ruby was the most loving of the boys, many of whom had dispositions coarsened by their hardscrabble lives. They wore shoes only to church on Sundays; otherwise, they roamed the farmlands barefooted. Their mother, despite having 11 children of her own, took in other people’s laundry to make ends meet. They grew their own potatoes and cabbage, raised their own cow for milk, and ate meat only when it was killed by one of the sons – squirrels, rabbits, deer, whatever they could find hunting the open lands.
When he was 19 years old, Ruby joined the Wisconsin National Guard, and he was a guardsman for four years until his unit was placed into active service in October 1940. He was almost immediately shipped to Australia, where he and his comrades spent more than a year in a tent city, waiting to be sent to New Guinea, into a war that President Franklin Roosevelt undoubtedly wanted us to join, despite his assertions to the contrary. Ruby and his fellow soldiers, in fact, may have been sitting in front of a crackly radio somewhere when the President gave his October 30 campaign address in Boston and brazenly stated to the American people, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
But everyone knew it was inevitable. The United States declared war on Japan one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and three days after that Germany declared war on the U.S.
Japan invaded New Guinea in January of 1942, and the Allies sought to retake it later that year. Ruby was 25 years old and a first sergeant in the 128th Infantry, Company C, when he found himself suddenly in command of a group of men in Papua, at the Battle of Buna. It was a miserable battle, fought in jungles and swamps during the wettest season of the year. Up to 95 percent of the Allied forces were carrying malaria. There was a terrible shortage of food and ammunition. Allied losses were enormous; it was one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater.
On November 20, all four of the officers in charge of the 128th Infantry were killed. The next day, sergeants Reuben Steger and Carl Cherney, both from the same small town in Wisconsin, assumed command. Reports were that the troops fought heroically, almost maniacally, but they made almost no progress. The carnage was overwhelming. In three days of combat, the 128th lost 63 men. But Ruby saved at least half a dozen. Time and again, under raging machine gun fire, he ran into the field to bring his wounded men to safety. Eventually, on the sixth or seventh foray, his luck ran out. He was picked off and drew his last breath on that field. His buddy Carl Cherney died a few hours later.
What courage and fearlessness and heart that young man displayed. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Service Cross, which is for “extraordinary heroism.”
It wasn’t until 1949, for some reason, that the army got its act together to present the long-overdue medals to Ruby’s parents, my great-grandparents John and Caroline. The Marshfield News-Herald’s article about the private presentation says that “the 83-year-old father’s shoulders were shaking and Mrs. Steger’s eyes were blinded by tears.”
My mother always had a special place in her heart for Ruby, who was not only her uncle but her godfather, and his death hit her hard. She never forgot him, and decades later she embarked on a four-year mission to get copies of his medals. She found the relevant photos and news articles with the help of the Marshfield Public Library, and ultimately she was able to get the medals through the efforts of Rep. Mike Thompson of California’s 5th Congressional District. Congressman Thompson himself was a Purple Heart recipient for wounds he suffered in the Vietnam War.
Although Memorial Day is meant to honor soldiers who lost their lives, I can’t help but think about another American soldier who survived his wounds but showed a kind of honor and commitment that went beyond what he endured on the battlefield. His name was Kunio Shimamoto.
Kunio was a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was primarily a Nisei unit. Most Japanese Americans who fought in World War II were Nisei, which means that they were “second generation” – born in the United States to immigrant parents. The 442nd was the most highly decorated military unit, for its size and its length of service, in the history of the American armed forces. The unit’s motto was “Go for Broke.”
What absolutely astonishes me about the Nisei soldiers, though, is that so many of them experienced fierce bigotry during the war, and many had families who had suffered forced relocation to internment camps. President Roosevelt ordered more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to be relocated and imprisoned in internment camps after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Anyone with an ounce of Japanese heritage was ordered out of California and certain regions of other West Coast states unless they were in government camps.
The relocations were ostensibly conducted because there were fears of security risks. But statements made by high-ranking officials at the time would indicate that there was no small amount of racism involved. Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt, head of the Western Command and administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress that “I don’t want any of them [Japanese Americans] here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. . . . [W]e must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.” The Joint Immigration Committee of the California Legislature alleged that Japanese Americans were “totally unassimilable.”
The conditions at the camps were spartan at best. Some centers offered only cramped housing with no plumbing or cooking facilities. Beds were just saggy cots. Medical facilities were often unsanitary and overcrowded. Food poisoning was common, and diseases like dysentery and malaria made their way easily into the camps.
Kunio Shimamoto and his family were interned at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in southeastern Arkansas. “My grandparents came over from Japan and ended up in Los Angeles County as sharecroppers in strawberry farming,” Kunio’s daughter Joyce told me. “They lost their home and all belongings when they returned from camp. My dad was very much into photography before being interned and had to leave his darkroom and cameras behind. They were staged at the Santa Anita racetrack for a couple of months while waiting to be shipped to Arkansas. I remember my dad telling me that they lived in the horse stalls, which were not cleaned out, and they only had straw to sleep on. Writing this brings tears to my eyes.”
I don’t know all the details, but Kunio was eventually able to leave Rohwer on a work furlough, so he was employed for a while at auto plants in Detroit, helping to make parts for military tanks.
Then he decided to volunteer for the United States military. For the very government that had forcibly relocated his family to rural Arkansas.
“My dad was always very pro-American despite his internment,” Joyce says. “I was always amazed at how patriotic he was after all that he went through. It was even to the point of buying an American-made car. I once asked him why he just didn’t leave and go to Japan. He said that Japan wasn’t his home.”
I cannot begin to fathom the strength of character it took for a man to defend so honorably a country that had been so ignoble to him and everyone he loved. Kunio fought in Italy, France, and Germany and was awarded both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He was injured more than once, at one point hospitalized for three months because of devastating shrapnel wounds. Painful back problems that he endured throughout his life were a result of those injuries.
But he rarely talked to anyone about his experiences. “He didn’t want to discuss the hardships he went through,” Joyce remembers. “When he did tell me things, it was still very upsetting to him even after several decades. I didn’t even find out that he and his family were interned until I was in high school.”
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which apologized for the internment and admitted that U.S. government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
Kunio Shimamoto passed away exactly 7 years ago today. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Like so many superlatives today, the word “hero” is tremendously overused. I’ve always said that heroes are people who actually do things like throw themselves on grenades. Reuben Steger ran repeatedly into a hail of bullets and knew that eventually one would kill him. Kunio Shimamoto put himself in harm’s way to protect a country that hurt him but that he loved deeply. These were noble men fighting for a noble cause.
Thank you, Uncle Ruby and Kunio, for your dedication, your courage, and your patriotism. Thank you for having a sense of purpose that transcended your individual selves. You were both true heroes. Thank you for giving us your last full measure of devotion.
For SF Giants fans, my latest Giants blog posts (most of which are dullsville) are at http://sportsspotlight.com/blog/author/paulabocciardi/