Thomas Calabrese — Mikio Kuroda was fifteen years of age and second generation Japanese living in Escondido, California with his family when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. The American government became skeptical to the point of paranoia about Japanese sympathizers within our borders so on February 19, 1942 President D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the construction of relocation centers for over 120,000 Japanese Americans. Mikio was sent to Manzanar (which means ‘apple orchard’ in Spanish) at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in California’s Owens Valley between the towns of Lone Pine to the south and Independence to the north. It only took Mikio two weeks to decide that he wasn’t going to stay at Manzanar. “I’m outta’ here.”
A man from the War Relocation Authority looked at Mikio with puzzlement. “That’s easier said than done, but there is one option available.”
“What’s that?” Mikio inquired.
“You could volunteer to join the United States Army.”
That is how Mikio Kuroda joined the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He was sent to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi for training where he met other Japanese Americans, many originally from Hawaii. The 442nd Infantry Regiment was best known for its history as a fighting unit composed almost entirely of second generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry who fought in World War II. Activated on February 1, 1943, the regiment fought in the European Theatre particularly in Italy, France and Germany. Many of the soldiers had families in internment camps while they fought abroad. The unit’s motto was “Go for Broke”.
It was the most decorated unit in U.S. military history, having earned more than 18,000 awards in less than two years, including 9,486 Purple Hearts, 4000 Bronze Stars, Eight Presidential Unit Citations and 21 Congressional Medals of Honor. The unit sustained so many casualties in combat operations that it had to be replaced two times with a total of 14,000 men having served in the regiment.
On the evening of 15 December, 1944, the German 26th Volksgrenadier military division established an outpost on the west bank of the Our River. At 0300 hours engineers began ferrying men and equipment across the river and at 0530 German artillery began bombarding the American positions, knocking out communications as multiple infantry units started to advance with support by tanks. They were delayed however by American defenders who put up a tenacious defense at the Clerf River.
This was the prelude to the Siege of Bastogne that took place between December 20 and 27, 1944 between American and German forces as part of the larger Battle of the Bulge. The goal of the German offensive was to take control of the harbor at Antwerp and in order to do this they had to seize all seven main roads in the Ardennes highlands that converged in Bastogne.
Corporal Kuroda’s Bravo Company was sent to the Luxembourg village of Weiler to delay the Germans rapid advance on Dec 20, 1944. Supported by mortars and anti-tank guns, they resisted repeated attacks by multiple enemy battalions for two days before they were ordered to the outskirts of Wiltz, a town to the southeast to offer support to the 44th Engineer Battalion. Eventually they were overwhelmed and retreated into town, blowing up a bridge behind them to slow their pursuers. The 110th Infantry had already been completely destroyed as an effective combat unit, leaving it up to the men of the 442nd and remnants from other units to defend Bastogne. By this time Corporal Mike Kuroda was a seasoned combat veteran (he changed his name after enlisting), had already been engaged in several major operations and been awarded two Bronze Stars, one Silver Star and was wounded three times.
Panzer Corps commander General Von Luttwitz decided to encircle Bastogne and strike from the south and southwest, beginning the night of 21 December. German reconnaissance units had initial success, nearly overrunning the American artillery southwest of Bastogne before being stopped by Corporal Kuroda’s infantry company. All seven highways leading to Bastogne were cut by German forces. The American soldiers were outnumbered 5-1 and lacking in cold weather gear, ammunition, food, medical supplies and senior leadership. Due to the worst weather in memory, the surrounded U.S. forces could not be supplied by air nor was tactical air support available due to cloudy weather. The situation was dire and the forecast was for heavy snow and this would only add to the misery and hopelessness of the situation.
A message was delivered by a German messenger under protection of white flag that read:
To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The German Commander.
Since all of his senior leadership had either been killed or wounded, Corporal Kuroda was next in the chain the command. He sent the following reply to von Lutttwit;
NUTS! American Soldier, 442nd.
Sergeant Matthew Winchester was deployed in Afghanistan with 1st Battalion 5th Marines in 2017 when his great-grandfather passed away on June 21, 2017 at the age of 92 years of age. Mike Kuroda had worked at Camp Pendleton as a painter for 39 years before retiring to his small two acre farm in the Vista hills.
As a young boy, Matt heard stories from his grandmother,(Mike Kuroda’s daughter) and his mother about his great-grandfather’s heroism during the war, but when he asked about it, Mike Kuroda would dismiss it as ‘no big deal’ or the real heroes were the men who didn’t make it back. Matt would routinely visit his great-grandfather to help out with chores and despite their large age difference, there was a unique connection between the two and the rest of the family sensed it as well.
When he was thinking about joining the the Marine Corps, Matt went to his great-grandfather to discuss it, “I hate to leave you hanging with no one to help out around here.”
Mike Kuroda replied, “I appreciate your concern, but I’ll get by. I’m not saying I won’t miss you, but if this is what you want to do then you have my blessing.”
“How did you feel when you left your family to go off to war?” Matt asked.
“I was in an internment camp and I’d like to think that I joined because of my patriotism and love of country, but that was not the case. In reality I was angry at the United States for what they did to Japanese-Americans. The real reason I enlisted was because I would have done anything to get out of the hellhole they put us in, figuring that anything had to be better.”
“Both were bad, just in different ways,” Mike laughed, “ I did learn very quickly that no matter how bad you think your life is, it can always get worse. That fact is assured once you start playing the ‘woe is me card’. In life you have to do your best and go for broke.”
Upon returning to the states after his deployment, Matt’s parents gave him a large metal box that his great-grandfather had left him. Inside it were his Congressional Medal of Honor, several letters, and military maps and a faded journal. On the inside cover of the journal were the words: To Matt, Someday you will know why I wanted you to have this. The entries inside the book were short and to the point; weather is cold, low hanging clouds, looks like this is going to a rough day. Otani, Hayashi and Moto got it today…good men…I’m going to miss them.
There was poignancy in the brevity of the statements and Matt could sense what his great-grandfather was going through at the time and it touched him so deeply that he became obsessed in finding out everything about the legendary 442nd Regiment and their heroic exploits. After he left the Marine Corps, Matt enrolled at Mira Costa Junior College in Oceanside. There was a three week Christmas break coming up so Matt approached his parents with something that was on his mind, “I’m thinking about going to Europe.”
“When?” Dad asked.
“Over the holidays,” Matt answered.
“You won’t be here for Christmas? You’ve missed the last three while you were in the Marines. I was planning something special this year,” Mom protested.
“The 75th anniversary of the battle when great-grandfather won his Medal of Honor is coming up on December 26th. I would like to be where it happened on that date and since I wasn’t there for his funeral, this would be my way of saying goodbye and honoring his memory. I’m sorry Mom if this interferes with your plans, but I have to do this.”
Dad thought for a moment, “We’ll have Christmas with the family as usual and when you get back, we’ll have another one.”
Getting a flight reservation on Christmas day was extremely easy since most people wanted to be at their destination by then and not sitting on an airplane. Matt booked a non-stop out of Los Angeles International for Brussels in the morning and a return flight on New Year’s Day. The plane was only a quarter full and every passenger had a row to himself. Matt stretched his long legs, pulled out his great-grandfather’s journal from his carry-on and began looking at it once the plane was airborne. He had gone through it at least a hundred times and had memorized every entry, but it seemed that each time Matt flipped through the pages, he found something new.
He rented a car at the Brussels airport and began driving the 114 miles to Bastogne. The skies were dark gray and snow was in the forecast and Matt hoped to make his destination before it started. On the outskirts of town, Matt saw something out of the corner of his eye so he pulled off the highway to investigate. When he was outside the car, he heard noises in the distance so he walked toward them. As soon as he got into the forest, he was yanked to the ground as bullets whizzed overhead. When he looked over he saw a young man next to him, “You don’t want be walking around like that, got a lot of German snipers out there and they’re not half bad at hitting what they aim at.”
Matt saw dozens of soldiers hiding behind trees and lying flat on the ground. When he looked closer at the young man next to him, Matt saw the name Kuroda on his field jacket. This was his great-grandfather, much younger, but it was definitely him.
“Haven’t seen you around, but you look very familiar,” Mike said.
“Maybe we crossed paths back in the states,” Matt replied and noticed that he was now wearing World War II Army combat fatigues and had an M-1 rifle in his hands.
“You picked a fine time to get here; we’ve been getting our butts kicked.”
“Yeah, it does look a little rough,” Matt replied as machine gun fire riddled the area and bullets came within a few feet of their position.
“I think I’m going to like you,” Mike commented.
A single German battalion held Hill 140 with support from artillery. They had previously wiped out Lima Company, 3rd Battalion and inflicted severe casualties on Golf Company 2nd Battalion when they tried to take the high ground. It was now up to the men of the 442nd to do what the other units could not, but a constant barrage had them pinned down at the hill’s base. Division Commander General Dahlson did not have a lot of respect for Nisei soldiers. (Nisei is a Japanese language term in North and South America to specify the ethnically Japanese children born in the new country to Japanese-born immigrants.) and considered them to be expendable. He ordered a frontal assault against the German’s fortified positions and the soldiers of the 442nd were cut down before they could even get halfway up the hill. Medics were overwhelmed by the amount and severity of the casualties, but instead of changing his strategy, General Dahlson ordered another assault with the same results. The snow was falling heavily now and the injured and dead soldiers were quickly covered by the white powder.
It was impossible to tell exactly where they were so the medics had no choice but to leave them moaning for help in their own frozen hell.
Mike turned to Matt as artillery shells exploded around them, “That crazy General is going to keep sending us up that hill until we’re all dead.”
“You got a better idea?” Matt asked.
“I don’t know if it’s a better idea, but it’s a different one,” Mike said.
“You lead and I’ll follow.” Matt smiled.
The two men loaded up with as much ammunition as they could carry and began crawling up the hill. Every so often they would come across a dead or wounded soldier and as much as they wanted to stop and help, they knew that their primary mission was to get to the top of the hill before the General ordered another suicide assault. Luckily for the two American soldiers that the snow began to fall even more heavily when they reached the crest of the hill. This obscured the visibility of the German gunners enough for Mike and Matt to attack a machine gun position on the left flank and take control of it. They turned the weapon on the artillery guns and neutralized the crews. The Germans did not know where the incoming fire was coming from and this allowed Mike and Matt the opportunity to eliminate most of them during the confusion. They leapfrogged from one entrenched position to another while fighting Germans in hand to hand combat along the way. When the remaining soldiers of the 442nd reached the top of the hill and saw Mike and Matt they knew why they faced so little enemy resistance during their ascent. The Germans who had not been killed were now in full retreat down the backside of Hill 140.
Mike looked over at Matt as they finally had a moment to rest, “Go for broke.”
Matt sighed and repeated the unit’s motto, “Go for broke,” and leaned against a stack of German ammo boxes and closed his eyes. When he awakened he was wearing his regular clothes and there was no indication of any battle. The ground was free of snow as Matt walked down the hill toward his car, desperately searching for something, anything that showed that this was not the most vivid hallucination in the history of hallucinations. He passed a monument in a small park that was dedicated to the men of the 442nd. Engraved on the marble slab were those who made the ultimate sacrifice and also that received medals for their actions. Matt looked down the alphabetical list until he saw his great grandfather’s name. As he looked further down the list, he saw the only name that was not Japanese, his own, Matthew Winchester.
Matt was sipping on a hot buttered rum drink in a hotel bar in Bastogne and was lost in thought when the bartender brought him another drink. “I didn’t order this.”
The bartender pointed to an elderly man sitting in the corner. “He said thank you for your service.”
After boarding the plane and finding his seat, Matt fastened his seatbelt and waited for his return flight to take off. He dissected the events of the past week in meticulous detail, but still had more questions than answers. The first thing that he was going to do when he got back to California was request an appointment with the Veterans Administration for a psychological evaluation. Maybe this whole week was the side effects of undiagnosed PTSD. He had been in combat and thought that he was alright, but maybe he wasn’t. He took off his coat, put it in the overhead bin and sat back down.
Once the plane was airborne, the flight attendant came down the aisle pushing the drink cart, “May I get you something?”
“Cranberry juice please,” Matt replied.
The flight attendant poured the drink and handed the cup to Matt. When he reached out he saw a small tattoo on his right forearm with the following; 442nd above an American flag with the words Go For Broke beneath it. He was so startled to see it that he almost dropped his drink. Matt didn’t remember ever getting it and the situation was getting more bizarre by the moment.
“Sir…sir…you need to return your seat to its full upright position,” A woman’s voice echoed through the emptiness.
When Matt opened his eyes, he saw the flight attendant standing next to him and mumbled, “What’s going on?”
“We’re about ready to land and you’ve been asleep almost the entire flight,” The flight attendant saw Matt was having trouble awakening so she asked, “You didn’t take any narcotics, did you?”
“No, nothing,” Matt replied, “I’m usually a very light sleeper, I don’t know what happened to me.”
“I’ll bring you a cold washcloth; maybe that will help.”
“Thanks.” Matt noticed someone who looked a lot like his great-grandfather sitting in the front of the plane. At that precise moment, he felt something inside the rear cover of the journal so he bent it back just enough to reach in with his index and middle finger and pull out a single photograph. When Matt looked at it, his face turned ashen white; it was a photograph of him and his great-grandfather in World War uniforms. When he turned it over, he was breathless when he saw what was written; December 26, 1944, Hill 140, Matt and Me, freshly fallen snow and soldiers.
Matt’s father was driving north on the 405 and was about 20 minutes from Los Angeles International Airport when he looked over at his son who had dozed off somewhere back around San Clemente and had just awakened, “I know how much you cared for your great-grandfather and that you want to honor him, but there’s more to this, isn’t there?”
Matt replied simply, “One day I might be able to put it into words, but for right now you’re just going to have trust me. I can tell you this though; sometimes in life you just have to Go For Broke. ”