Four of the five Masaoka brothers who served in the U.S. Army. L-R: Ben, killed in action; Mike; Tad, wounded in combat; Ike, totally disabled. Hank volunteered for the 442nd but was transferred to the paratroops. Photo: Courtsey of Michelle Amano
By Michelle Amano
I am honored today to share the story of my Great uncle, Private Ben Frank Masaoka, who is interred here at Arlington National Cemetery, in Section 13- 1. For as long as I can remember my family and I would come here to pay honor to him. He was killed in the Vosges forests after the Lost Battalion rescue. Uncle Ben’s story begins by me telling you about the Masaoka brothers during WW II.When the government issued the call for volunteers for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, five of the six Masaoka boys, without prior coordination between or amongst themselves, all volunteered.
The eldest, Joe Grant; who was 34, was encouraged not to volunteer so he could remain home to care for his mother. This was also a precaution by the government to ensure that just like in the movie, “Saving Private Ryan”, the government did not want to take the chance of all six Masaoka boys getting killed or wounded. As to the fate of the remaining five:
- Ben Frank was killed in action. He volunteered from Idaho, where he had worked as a field hand.
- Ike came home 100% disabled from combat wounds. He was drafted into the Army before the War began.
- My grandfather Mike was slightly wounded. He volunteered while serving as Executive Secretary of the JACL.
- Henry, the second youngest, served in the paratroops. He lived in Nebraska from where he volunteered for the 442nd. In the 442nd, he served in the Anti-Tank company.
- Tad, the youngest volunteered from the Manzanar Internment Camp.He was wounded in battle, and was left with a permanent limp.
My great grandmother Masaoka had to endure having one son killed in action,and three others who were wounded in combat. All four received the Purple Heart Medal.
Grandpa Mike has the distinction of being the first Nisei to volunteer. When he volunteered, War department officers chided Grandpa, for they expected Mike to request to be commissioned. Grandpa Mike said, “No. To the contrary, if he were offered a commission he would not accept it.”
Grandpa enlisted as a Private, was promoted to Private First Class a rank he held to nearly the end of the war when he was promoted to Technician 4 th Grade or Sergeant. His predecessor at Camp Shelby had the rank of Major. Grandpa Mike told a colleague after the war that acceptance of a commission would have carried the wrong message in the Japanese American community.
Uncle Ben served in Company B, 100th Battalion and was subsequently transferred to Company E, 2nd Battalion. Following ten days of intense fighting to liberate Bruyeres, Belmont, Biffontaine, and other towns, the 442nd was pulled back to a safe zone for rest, hot showers and hot meals. But this did not happen. Instead, they were ordered the next morning to return to the Vosges forests to rescue a Texas battalion trapped by the Germans. Hitler had personally ordered those trapped to be killed. After five days of bitter combat under conditions of rain, sleet and snow, out of an original 276, 211 Texans were rescued.
This later became known as the “Rescue of the Lost Battalion.” While 211 Texans were saved, the 442nd endured a very high casualty and mortality rate. After the rescue operation, instead of giving the Nisei time to rest in a safe zone, the Division commander once again ordered the 442nd to pursue the retreating Germans. Frontline company and battalion commanders watched their men closely and alternated their assignments between safer areas and high risk assignments. After extended service in the hazardous area, Uncle Ben was assigned to a less hazardous assignment.
One day, Uncle Ben visited Grandpa Mike at his Public Relations office in Service Company, located in a relatively safe area. Uncle Ben told Grandpa he was planning to return to the front line. Uncle Ben told Grandpa, “Ï just wanted to let you know.” Grandpa Mike asked why take the risk, why not stay where you are. Uncle Ben said “Yeah, the Colonel said the same thing. The Colonel said I did not have to go but he would not stop me if I really wanted to go. Uncle Ben said, “The boys on the front line were getting hit hard taking lot of casualties and he felt he ought to be there.” Uncle Ben had made up his mind, and he just wanted to tell Grandpa Mike what he was going to do. Before Uncle Ben left he turned to Grandpa and said, “Here Mike, this is something I made for you.” It was a ring. In his spare time Ben had carved a hole in the center of a 25 cent piece and had painstakingly beaten it into a plain silver ring with whatever crude tools that were available to him.
Later that evening, after dark, uncle Ben had gone out on a patrol. The patrol ran into a German ambush. Uncle Ben was apparently shot and his body was not recovered. Grandpa obtained approval to visit the forest area where uncle Ben fought and together with the men of B Company, they searched for Uncle Ben.
Grandpa had hopes that uncle Ben was taken prisoner by the Germans. But when Uncle Ben’s dog tags were found, Grandpa Mike feared that Ben was killed, and not taken prisoner. A couple years after that, Grandpa and the family received an Army report that Ben’s grave was found in the Vosges forests.
The sense of comradeship, Uncle Ben’s sense of obligation to be with his buddies in time of danger was one of the silent hallmarks of the 442nd Regimental combat teams great combat record. Grandpa Mike almost instinctively knew that this exchange of brotherly love, was Ben’s way of saying goodbye. While few words were exchanged, this encounter and the memory of it stayed with my Grandpa for his entire life.
Grandpa Mike said he wore that ring as a combination wedding ring and keepsake memory of his brother. After my grandfather’s passing, I too wore the ring for many years as a remembrance of both my uncle Ben and Grandpa Mike. And even in death, Ben and the Masaoka family continued to support our country. Uncle Ben’s death benefits were used by my great grandmother Masaoka to fund an annual memorial scholarship each year over a 25-year period. One of the recipients of scholarship was Cherry Tsutsumida, who later became the first executive director of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation during the planning, construction and grand opening phases of the Memorial in 2001.
I like so many other descendants of the Nisei veterans take great pride in their shining example of bravery, heroism, and sacrifice. Even as our families were unjustly incarcerated by the country of their heart these men still chose to fight and some giving the ultimate sacrifice to their country.