By Wendy Noritake
The glowing blue words on the screen grabbed my attention. “Looking for Information about Cleveland High School Student Yoshito Noritake.” The inquiry was from 2001, six years before my research began. I sent an email, hoping the address was still valid.
A response arrived the next morning from Pat Rosenkranz, a former schoolteacher, a graduate of Cleveland High School in Seattle, Class of ‘49. She was the one who had posted the web announcement. “I would like to meet you. Did you find me because of the forest? Or was it my book? Call me.”
“I don’t know anything about a forest or a book,” I replied, rather puzzled. “I found your post on the Internet, seeking information about my uncle.”
A petite woman with blondish-white hair, she greeted me warmly when I arrived a few days later at her home in Madison Park, just a thirty-minute drive from where I lived. As we sat in the sunroom, she handed me a manila envelope filled with notes, newspaper clippings, and a copy of her book, Honored Dead, The Story of Cleveland High School’s World War II Gold Star Men. At her urging, I opened it and turned to page ninety. There was the handsome young face of Uncle Yosh in his 1940 senior-class picture, a photo I’d never seen. My hands trembled as I held the book. An entire chapter was devoted to him.
Weeks before meeting Pat, I had pieced together the information I found about my uncle, but seeing him commemorated in Pat’s book made the details of his experience seem more alive and real for me. My research showed that Yosh had arrived in Italy in September 1943 with the all-Japanese Nisei (second generation) 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and had fought in major battles throughout Italy and France. By October 1944, as the men moved northward toward Bruyeres, France, the days had become unusually harrowing. No U.S army unit had been able to break through the dense forests of the Vosges Mountains, until the 442nd arrived—low on ammunition, medical supplies, and food. The early arrival of winter was wet, frigid, and heavy with fog. I couldn’t help but imagine how miserable my uncle and his fellow soldiers must have been. Icy rain would have turned their breath into clouds and frozen their nasal hairs into needles. The cold and damp surely must have penetrated to their bones.
Worse yet, I learned that the Germans fought with “tree-burst” bombs, which caused tree limbs to become wooden spears that savagely pierced the body, as deadly as shrapnel. The 442nd was bombarded with small arms fire as the men dodged crippling Schu mines: small, hinged wooden boxes that held two hundred grams of cast TNT and a detonator. Cheap to make and not easily found with metal detectors, these mines were widely used by the German army. The freezing wind howling through the forest, and the snapping and cracking sounds must have kept the men on constant alert to the approaching Germans.
The U.S. Army Division Commander, Major General John Dahlquist, was inexperienced in infantry tactics and maneuvers, and had ordered the 442nd to rescue the Texas 141st Division’s “Lost Battalion.” Due to his own errors, he had stranded the Texans behind enemy lines. Dahlquist had callously shouted at a Nisei soldier who questioned where they were headed, “Get the Texans out if it takes every damn one of you!” During the Lost Battalion rescue, one hundred sixty Nisei soldiers died and more than twelve hundred were wounded in order to save two hundred eleven Texans.
Uncle Yosh died on October 16, 1944, in the mountains near Bruyeres, during one of the worst days of fighting. He was twenty-two. Had he resolved his differences with Grandpa before he left the internment camp? Did he know that his combat team was on a sacrificial mission to break through a stronghold of Germans to rescue the Lost Battalion? Was he overcome with exhaustion, hunger, and cold? How did he die? Did he suffer? So many unanswered questions.
After the Rhineland-Vosges Campaign had ended, research showed that on November 12, Major General Dahlquist ordered the Nisei soldiers to gather together for a victory ceremony on a snow-covered field outside of Bruyeres. Only a few hundred of the more than four thousand men had assembled. Dahlquist surveyed the scene and yelled disgustedly, “I want all the men out here, now!” A Nisei soldier looked at him and said, “All the men are here sir. This is all that’s left.”
Later in our conversation, Pat told me a remarkable story, one that I’d never heard before. No one in my family knew about it, either.
“In 1945, Cleveland High School’s Vice Principal, Ron Imus, went to a land auction with money that students and faculty had raised to buy a piece of property. They wanted to create a memorial to the students who gave their lives during World War II.” Her voice grew shaky. “When the other buyers heard Mr. Imus’s story, no one bid against him. He bought more than one hundred thirty acres of land in the Issaquah/Fall City area east of Seattle with three hundred dollars collected from bake sales and donations, much of it pocket change.” School kids had sold cupcakes and cookies, washed cars, and asked for contributions to create a memorial to honor the fallen students. Gesturing with thin arms, she continued. “Deep in the forest—and you have to hike to it—is a large rock with a plaque inscribed with the names of the thirty-two students who died.”
For many years, teachers had bussed high school students to the forest to study the flora and fauna, to plant trees and shrubs, and to build a small pavilion where services and classes could be held. Over time, however, the property fell into neglect and disrepair. By the year 2000, school officials wanted to sell the prime real estate, which was then worth more than fifteen million dollars, to fund other school projects. A number of alumni who were attorneys, and outspoken advocates like Pat, put a stop to the sale.
Determined to save and preserve the shrine, Pat and a teacher from the school directed the students to research the lives and deaths of the fallen soldiers. It was then that she posted the web request that I saw in 2007. From the students’ combined work, Pat wrote her book, Honored Dead, which captured the essence of each soldier during his brief life. Their deaths were in chronological order; their military campaigns crossed the globe from the South Pacific to Africa and Europe.
“Why don’t you come to the Memorial Day service next week?” Pat asked. “We’re planning a ceremony with honor guards and gun salute, a skit by the students, and afterward, we will walk to the rock.”
“I’d be honored,” I said. I wondered what the boulder would look like, and how I would feel, knowing that Yosh’s name had been inscribed on it for sixty-two years, unknown to our family.
“Please bring any of your relatives who might want to come along,” Pat said.
Uncle Yosh’s youngest sister, seventy-nine year old Patricia Tatsumi Noritake Uno, went with me to the service. We arrived on a warm, sunny Memorial Day. The air was filled with the scent of fir, maple, and cedar that bordered the parking lot. The spring sun created a mist, and the aroma of freshly mown grass hung in the air.
As we walked, Auntie Pat talked about her brother. “When Yosh was in high school, I was ten years old. I asked him what the word constitution meant, and he told me that I was an ignoramus! He was always the smart big brother and I was the dumb little sister.” Her face broke into a wide grin.
Gazing at my tiny aunt, I admired her fine bone structure and lively, deep-set eyes. I couldn’t help but envy her barely wrinkled face, which had won both hearts and beauty pageants during her internment camp years. We made our way to a clearing, uncertain what to expect, and sat on gray metal folding chairs that had been set up for the guests. Before us, a small stage had been set for the morning’s events.
There was a flag ceremony, led by men dressed in uniforms like those worn in the First World War. A master of ceremonies stood at the podium to lead the students, faculty, alumni, veterans, and families in prayer. Sitting with the students, I noticed the many nationalities who now attended Cleveland High School: Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, Middle Easterners, as well as Caucasians. More than thirty-five ethnic groups were represented. I prayed for the end of racism, discrimination, and for all senseless wars. But especially for my uncle, in the hope that he had found peace.
“Would the Noritake family please stand?” the speaker asked.
I took my aunt’s warm hand. We smiled at each other, surprised and grateful to be part of the service, and my eyes filled with tears.
My father had told me that my uncle’s body had been eventually shipped home to Seattle. “But no medals or awards could ever bring him back.” I remembered seeing a photo of Yosh’s funeral. I doubt that there were any taps or gun salutes, or consoling words from the military. Behind his coffin, a large U.S. flag hung on the wall. The service was Nichiren Buddhist, a form of Buddhism created by Nichiren Daishonin in the thirteenth century. Many of my ancestors had been Nichiren priests, and still are to this day, perpetuating a legacy and lineage of almost five hundred years.
Yosh’s funeral had been held in a red-brick church that my grandfather had helped to establish in the early 1900s, and built to blend into the architecture of the city. Incense would’ve burned at his funeral, and each participant would have held a small drum and kept time with a wooden stick. They chanted, Namu myoho renge kyo, which translates to, I awaken to the Buddha nature where our lives and the universe are one. Even for me, raised as a Christian and years later sitting inside the church made me feel great unease. The ominous black dragon painted on the ceiling seemed to leap onto the heads of the congregation. I understood that for the people who forced my family into concentration camps, Buddhist ceremonies had only added to their conviction that Japanese-Americans were alarmingly different.
After the memorial ceremony, my aunt and I walked deep into the forest. I paused, noticing the unevenness of the trail and its unexpected twists and turns, which seemed to symbolize my own journey. I was unsure what we would find around the next bend in the path. The smell of pine penetrated the air, and I could hear red-winged blackbirds calling out as we walked silently in single file. Did Uncle Yosh listen to the birds singing in the trees of the Vosges Mountains?
After a quarter-mile hike, a large boulder abruptly appeared. I didn’t expect such a huge rock. It seemed out of place. On its north side, a weathered bronze plaque two feet wide and one foot high was framed by soft green moss and slender strands of ivy. At the top was a relief of an eagle clutching a sheaf of wheat in its claws. Beneath it were the words: “In Memoriam to Those Honored Dead of Cleveland High School Who Gave Their Lives for the Freedom of Our Country in World War II.”
I had reached hallowed ground. I was overcome with sadness and humility. The thirty-two names represented young men whose families had been forever changed by their deaths. I could feel the presence of their souls as I looked at the plaque. A light sheen of moisture shrouded the names, and I saw Yoshito Noritake in the third row.
“I don’t know why you’ve brought me here Uncle Yosh,” I told him silently. “I wish I had known you, but I’m glad to have come this far for you.”
Although Yosh and I were just two tiny dots in the broad landscape of our family’s long history, I felt that he was leading me somewhere. In the ten years that followed, he would take me to places I never expected to go, accompanying me with grace and wisdom as I explored the depths of the human heart and spirit.
For the last several years, Wendy Noritake has been working on a memoir about a relationship with an uncle whom she had never met and who died in France in WWII while volunteering to serve in the all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He has taken her on a miraculous journey over a period of ten years. Hallowed Ground is a chapter from this book. She has had several stories published, “It’s Seaweed Weather,” appearing in LOST Magazine; “Diving Deeper,” in the Black Earth Institute’s About Place Journal; “Finding Uncle Yosh,” in the anthology Secret Histories: Stories of Courage, Risk, and Revelation.