Japanese-American GIs Are Focus of Dachau Memories : World War II: Nisei veterans are reunited with some people they rescued from horror of Nazi death camp.
As Allied bombs were dropping in the snow of Dachau in April, 1945, 16-year-old Janina Cywinska was lined up against a wall and left to wait for a bullet that never came.
“A Nazi was putting a blindfold on me,” said Cywinska, a Polish Catholic who had survived six years in the Nazi death camps. “I thought, how ridiculous. I have seen so much killing by now, why be so considerate to put the blindfold on my face?”
But when the soldier stepped back, there was no sound of boots on gravel, no sound of a gun cocking. She does not remember how long she stood there before someone pushed her to her knees and tugged off her blindfold.
“When I looked at him, he was a little Japanese man,” Cywinska said last week. “I said, ‘Oh, no, now you guys won and now you are going to shoot us. Why don’t you just shoot us and get it over with?’ He went down on his knees . . . looked up in my face and said, ‘We are liberators. We are American soldiers. We are American Japanese.”’
In disbelief, Cywinska begged again to be shot. With tears streaming down his face, the soldier pointed to his American uniform, and then the American flag.
Cywinska’s savior was a Nisei soldier in the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, a unit of the segregated Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team that shot the locks off the gates and liberated Dachau in a little-known episode of World War II.
Veterans say they were told not to talk about what they saw on the day they liberated Dachau, and many kept quiet for years. But now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, they see no reason not to tell the world what happened on April 29, 1945.
The 442nd, the most highly decorated unit in American military history, included Japanese-Americans from Hawaii and volunteers from mainland internment camps who wanted to prove their loyalty to the United States. During the last days of the European war, its 522nd Field Artillery Battalion was assigned to help other Army units chase retreating Nazis toward Munich.
Scouts from the 522nd were 10 miles ahead of the main force when they ran into the Dachau concentration camp, shortly after the Germans fled.
“We were not ordered to take Dachau, we just kind of stumbled onto it,” said George Oiye, now 69 and living in Los Altos. “I didn’t even know it existed.”
“It had snowed quite a bit, a foot and a half or so,” he said. “My first awareness was seeing these lumps that turned out to be dead bodies in the snow. They were extremely emaciated and they had striped suits on.”
Radio communications officer Clarence Matsumura recalled his first horrible glimpse of the camp.
“All we saw was dead people all over the place,” said Matsumura, now 70 and living in San Gabriel. “There was some smoke coming out of the stack of the crematorium. The smell . . . . You can’t describe what scorched human flesh smells like.”
Although some military historians and others are aware of the Dachau incident, and it is mentioned in at least one account of the 442nd’s exploits, official Army records do not reflect that the Japanese-American 522nd unit was ever there.
“As far as I can tell from sources, the 522nd was not involved in the liberation of Dachau,” said Stephen Gammons of the U. S. Army Center of Military History, who said the records show the camp was liberated by the 42nd Infantry Division. No written history of the 522nd exists, he said.
However, Gammons’ colleague, Walter Bradford, said he is aware that Japanese-Americans were involved in the liberation, although he has not personally researched the records.
“People have sort of overlooked the fact that the Japanese-Americans did make contact with the people at Dachau,” Bradford said. “It was pretty ironic that their relatives were in camps in the U. S. while these people were freeing (a Nazi camp.)”
Bradford added: “I don’t think anybody tried to hide it, I just don’t think it was made a big deal of, that’s all.”
Both Gammons and Bradford said the day-to-day journals of the 522nd are in the National Archives. San Francisco military historian Eric Saul, who has been interviewing veterans and Holocaust survivors and collecting photographs taken by Japanese-American soldiers at Dachau, said he plans to visit the National Archives in two weeks to document and then publicize the incident.
“They were told when they liberated Dachau not to tell anyone,” said Saul, a former director of the Presidio Army Museum. That, combined with a reluctance among the veterans to brag and a reticence about the horrors they witnessed, has kept the incident relatively unknown, Saul said.
Matsumura said he was told not to discuss what he had seen at Dachau, while Oiye said he never received such an order. But both men recall being told not to give food to civilians and to leave the care of any prisoners to special hospital units that were supposed to be arriving behind them.
“We were told not to feed prisoners, or any of the public, because we were not supposed to fraternize,” Oiye said. “But that was a hard thing not to do, so we did it anyway. . . . But we were disobeying orders, so we never talked about it.”
Matsumura said the only live prisoners he saw at Dachau were running from the Japanese-looking men in uniform. Their orders were to find the Nazi officers who had taken most of the Dachau prisoners on a 60-mile death march that ended near the town of Waakirchen. About 6,000 to 8,000 survivors, starving and barefoot in the snow, were spread out over about a 10-mile area, he said.
Matsumura said he and his sergeant eventually found the survivors by following the trail of striped-suited bodies by the side of the road. He spent three days in Waakirchen trying to feed and shelter the living.
“These people were so weak they couldn’t chew the rations. It was too hard, they couldn’t swallow it and they choked,” he said. “We used our helmets to heat hot water, and put the stuff in the hot water and made soup.”
Cywinska’s family was rounded up for helping Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, and they were all herded into a gas chamber at Auschwitz when she was 10. Her parents perished, but Cywinska regained consciousness amid the bodies and said she was rescued by a Jewish woman who gave her prisoners’ clothes.
By the time the Allies arrived at Dachau six years later, Cywinska said, she weighed 40 pounds and could not remember her own name. She does remember, however, that the American soldier who pulled off her blindfold did not give her anything to eat. She is grateful. Another soldier gave the woman next to her a Hershey’s chocolate almond bar.
“She died on the spot,” Cywinska said, a victim of shock and dehydration.
Although remembering is painful, Cywinska said she feels compelled to speak publicly about her experiences at Auschwitz and Dachau after being confronted by neo-Nazis who told her none of it ever happened. But others who saw Dachau say they only want to forget.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said Yoshiaki Kobataki, a 522nd veteran who lives in Pearl City, Hawaii. Kobataki said he went into Dachau with two white officers, and began to cry when asked what he had seen there.
“I don’t even talk to my children about it . . .,” he said. “It affected my thinking about what human beings could do.”
Nevertheless, Kobataki attended the first breakfast reunion of the liberators and the Dachau survivors held in San Francisco in October. Survivors and veterans plan to meet again at Centenary Methodist Church in Los Angeles on Dec. 4 to exhibit photographs taken by the Japanese-American soldiers.
Cywinska, who now runs a ballet studio in San Francisco, also came to the October reunion.
Although she had told the story of the Japanese-American liberators, Cywinska said she had begun to wonder over the years whether she had fantasized the incident. But when she saw the veterans at the reunion she realized her memories were true.
“So there I was at this sushi-and-bagel breakfast, just hugging them,” she said. “I couldn’t get enough of touching them, because I was so grateful that they came.”