Prewar Life and Education

Entering the Army

Overseas with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team

The pressures of being a combat medic

Stories from combat

End of combat for Kuwayama

Heading up to the line

Reflections and Post-war life

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Kelly Kuwayama's official name is Yeiichi but everybody calls him Kelly. Kelly's first sergeant gave him the nickname, Kelly. Kelly was born in New York City and spent most of his life there. Kelly's father came to New York City as an immigrant at the turn of the century. The only job available to him was a cook. He was used to cooking Asian food and had to adapt to Western cooking. Kelly's father worked as a cook for a well off family. J. Walter Thompson was a famous businessman known for advertising and Kelly cooked for him. Eventually Kelly's father opened up his own Japanese restaurant. Kelly's father placed his bets on the stock market carefully and actually made money on the 1907 collapse. With that money he went to Japan, married Kelly's mother, and brought her back to the United States. They lived together and produced four children. Kelly did not experience much racism growing up. He was the only Japanese kid on 59th Street in New York. Kelly had a clique of friends that hailed from all different ethnic backgrounds. Their common bond was that they were all second generation. They used to argue how big their turkeys were during Thanksgiving. Kelly and his family moved from Brooklyn to Queens. His father bought a house in Queens. Kelly went to Newtown High School. Kelly applied and got into Princeton University. His sister went to Skidmore and his other sister went to Hunter College. It was a big deal that they all were able to afford college. Kelly started at Princeton in 1936 and finished in 1940. Upon graduation, Kelly got a job at the Japanese Department of Commerce.

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Kelly Kuwayama was drafted a year before Pearl Harbor and entered the Army. He was assigned to a coastal artillery unit that protected the approaches to New York City. Their unit was inspected by a general and he approached Kelly and asked for his name. Kelly gave his name and was transferred from the unit the next day. That was the first time Kelly had encountered any kind of discrimination. Kelly was shipped to Madison Barracks where he became a requisition clerk for motor parts. None of Kelly's friends had shown any discrimination towards him, yet this general had. While Kelly was at Madison Barracks a lot of recruits from Buffalo came in one day. They were to be shipped to Greenland. As draftees they could decide to go overseas or not. Most of the regular army guys in their unit were shipped to Greenland. When they were on maneuvers, Pearl Harbor was attacked. They had to accept the fact that they were in for the duration. Kuwayama was then transferred into a laundry outfit, but then his records came through and he was assigned to be a surgical tech. They refused to send him to the surgical tech school. Kuwayama did put on his scrubs and helped out with elementary things such as bandages. Kuwayama was then sent to Camp Shelby in Mississippi and he had never seen so many Japanese Americans in one place. Many of them were from Hawaii and many were from the West Coast. By this time Kelly had reached the rank of sergeant. At Shelby he was in the medics, but was kicked out because of an abundance of medics. Kuwayama was transferred out of the medics and sent to an evacuation hospital in Texas. Before the 442nd went overseas Kuwayama was assigned back to the unit. He served overseas with Company E as a combat medic. He stayed with that unit all the way through the war. At the time of Kuwayama's discrimination episode with the general, America had an isolationist policy. The world was already in a precarious position. Even after Paris, fell the attitude was “no war.” Japan was acquiring territory in the Pacific as well. Kuwayama believes that Roosevelt realized the situation and that the government of the United States was getting involved and that would lead to war. People used to ask Kuwayama before the war who he would fight for if they went to war with Japan. Kuwayama always said he would fight for the United States.

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Kelly Kuwayama had been used to all of these different types of Americans growing up in New York City. The meeting of the Japanese Americans at Camp Shelby was strange to him. Food was also an odd issue. The Army traded the potatoes out for rice. Scrambled eggs were served with rice instead of potatoes. The Hawaiian Japanese Americans spoke pidgin English. Some of the guys came from the West Coast had families in internment camps. While everyone was Japanese American, it was still a diverse group. While they were overseas in combat they were spread out but still worked as a team. Kuwayama did not get the training period where he would have met the guys and got to know them a little better. Kuwayama did get to know some of the guys while in combat. Kuwayama notes that while the guys relied on him heavily as a medic, he also relied on the guys to do things for him. Getting water was something usually done by the guys for Kuwayama. The spirit among the men was top notch. Everyone felt like they had each others’ backs. Kuwayama notes that they certainly had the “Go For Broke” attitude which became their motto. The 100th Infantry Battalion had already established a good reputation as a Japanese American outfit. Everyone was eager to get into combat, but no one knew if they would measure up to the exploits of the 100th. On the ship ride over they were on a Liberty ship. It was cramped and Kuwayama slept on the deck sometimes. People began to realize that combat meant dying. People were more or less accepting of that. They arrived in Naples. They went up to the line of departure and at night they heard a firefight. In the morning while moving up to the line, Kuwayama walked past four dead men who were more than likely involved in the firefight. It was the first time Kuwayama saw combat casualties. Kuwayama used to knock wood before he went into combat. Everybody is scared going into combat, but once things start happening your training sets in. Kuwayama's part was helping the wounded and that is all he thought of when the bullets started flying. Their business became killing the Germans and they did it day after day. Usually they would be on the line for a week and then granted a reprieve where they could grab a shower, some clothes, and a decent meal. They were on that schedule until they reached Pisa and then were transferred to France. Half of Kuwayama's company was wounded, including himself. The Germans were pretty good at recognizing the Red Cross insignia and allowing the medics to do their jobs. A lot of medics were lost from tree burst artillery. Kuwayama's unit left from Norfolk and arrived in Naples. Kuwayama had been out of the country before but was struck by the extreme poverty and devastation of war in Naples. The entire port was in ruins. Sanitation was at a low level. Food was a scarcity. Prostitution was rampant as well. The extreme poverty and the degradation of the human spirit was everywhere. The Americans were doing their best to help out with the food situation.

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Kelly Kuwayama landed in either May or June 1944 in Italy. They worked their way up the boot of Italy. When they were in France they encountered monsoons. For the “Lost Battalion” action [Annotator’s Note: mission to rescue 275 trapped soldiers of the 36th Infantry Division on 24–30 October 1944 in the Vosges Mountains] it was around October and the weather was miserable. They were always afraid of tree burst artillery. Kuwayama realized it was war when he saw those first four dead bodies. Seeing death for the first time was a striking thing. Kuwayama realized that it was not a game. It also struck him how similar the American dead bodies looked in comparison to the German bodies. The infantry worked in conjunction with the field artillery. At Biffontaine at night they had to cross a railway embankment. The Germans were incredibly close to their lines. They were able to launch mortars at the German position. Kuwayama got to examine some of the damage done by the mortars and it was quite spectacular. On another occasion American bombers were able to hit a concentration of German troops and Kuwayama remembers they had to use a bulldozer to get the bodies out of the road. It was the first time Kuwayama had seen so many dead people in one place. By that time, he was used to seeing death. The soldiers ate K rations and canned beans. Full meals were unusual. Care packages from home were rare. The front line of the business end of an infantry advance is rough living. Kuwayama cannot remember who he treated first. The main thing was to stop the bleeding and use a tourniquet. Kuwayama tried not to look at the faces of the men he was treating. In combat you have to think fast and the main thing is to stop the bleeding. Since Kuwayama was a surgical tech he got used to seeing blood. Seeing blood in combat is under vastly different circumstances and under extreme pressure. The pressure is to stop the bleeding.

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Kelly Kuwayama landed in Marseilles, France and it was rainy and miserable. When they hit combat in France, it was house to house combat. In Italy, it was more about negotiating the terrain. The wounded are wounded no matter the terrain. The “Lost Battalion” had exposed themselves by capturing a ridge and letting the Germans surround them. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was asked to save the battalion. It was at a cost. The Germans were well entrenched and willing to commit troops to their defense. The mortar teams were of great help because of the terrain. Even though the terrain was mountainous, it created a perfect situation for the use of mortars. Kuwayama remembers a replacement from Texas who carried a Browning Automatic Rifle. A lot of guys did not want to carry the BAR because the Germans would single those guys out. This particular replacement who volunteered to carry the BAR was killed his second day on the line. Kuwayama remembers another replacement, who had not even been on the line yet. He was cleaning his weapon and a shell came in and killed him. The 442nd was always on the continuous attack. Thinking about this later in life is remarkable for Kuwayama. Kuwayama was out helping a soldier and he saw a flash out of his left hand side peripheral. One of the G company guys saw Kuwayama was hit and helped carry him away. Kuwayama was shot on the side of the head. [Annotator’s Note: Kuwayama removes his hat and shows off his scar.] Kuwayama had to get his head x-rayed and then was sent to convalesce to get better. After about a week of getting better, Kuwayama returned to his unit. Their job when Kuwayama returned to the unit was to keep an eye on the Maginot Line. Every now and then the Germans would let them know they were still there. Every now and then a shell would kill someone or a German sniper. They spent the winter there and sometimes guys were given passes. In Italy, it was constant combat. In France, they were more sedentary. They spent one month in the same position. It was more nerve wracking waiting for the Germans then to be on the offensive. The casualties were much less, but the way they occurred it played on your mind more.

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Kelly Kuwayama was away from his unit for about three weeks before he had to rejoin them. The 44nd was sent back to Italy for the main thrust through Florence and Bologna. One of the 442nd units was able to infiltrate a German position at night by scaling a near vertical cliff. They were able to capture the headquarters unit and within hours they had made headway into the Po Valley. Daniel Inouye was wounded there and received the Medal of Honor. Once they pierced the Gothic Line, they knew the war was over. Kuwayama and the guys around him did not want to be the last person to die. They knew the Germans were done but they remained in combat all the way up until the war officially ended. Kuwayama and his unit were moving down into the Po Valley when the war ended. They were in the Po Valley when they got the official announcement. German prisoners started coming in and they had to help process them. They would be deloused and their weapons were taken from them. During that process Kuwayama went to Venice. He was a high point man because he had been in the military since before Pearl Harbor. Kuwayama came home via Queens and was honorably discharged from Fort Dix. Kuwayama remembered hearing about the atomic bomb blasts and Japan surrendering. During the Italian campaign, he had run out and patched someone up in no man’s land. He was awarded the Silver Star when he got wounded in Biffontaine. The Legion of Merit was awarded to Kuwayama shortly before this interview. He received the Purple Heart for his wound. His wound does not bother him anymore. The bullet scraped past his head. The x-ray showed a minor crack. Combat was always a scary experience. Heading up to the line was always peaceful until you heard the guns going off. If you get killed, you are unaware of it anyways. Water is one thing the guys always wanted on a hot day. Cooking in helmets was somewhat humorous. Kuwayama wore the Red Cross armband. Kuwayama carried bandages, sulfa, tourniquets, and other essential medical gear. Scissors were a big deal since they were needed to cut away clothing. Kuwayama used to have morphine, but they realized some of the medics were giving too much of the stuff out. They did not have penicillin. Plasma bottles and some of the popular images from the war were from the rear echelon. Front line medics do not carry needles and bottles of plasma.

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Kelly Kuwayama feels that the war changed him because he met so many Japanese Americans. It was the first time seeing so many, and secondly, it was the first time seeing the diversity among the group. The guys came from all walks of life. Their continued relationships postwar have been invaluable as well. Kuwayama would have never met these people if peacetime had continued. Kuwayama was offered a job working for a Japanese company. Kuwayama said he would want to be promoted. The practice in the Japanese companies was to not promote Americans. Kuwayama had no problem doing this and it worked out. Kuwayama met a lot of Americans who were coming back into Japan. Most of the Americans coming in at first were the bankers. Kuwayama came back to the United States and eventually became a manager. As a manager, he had to go back to Japan. Kuwayama's wife saw an ad in the paper for a job for the Department of Commerce and Foreign Investments. Kuwayama had a problem getting a job in the government after the war. Kuwayama was offered the job on the spot, but before the discrimination had been so rampant he did not even get an interview. Kuwayama eventually got the job in the US government. Kuwayama retired from the Federal Government. Kuwayama did not have any discriminatory problems when at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. He did see the “White Only” signs and other signs of segregation. Kuwayama always wondered where his skin tone fell on the spectrum. Some of the guys had gotten very dark being out in the sun, and one time they tried to get on a bus in Hattiesburg and the bus driver had no idea what to do with them. Apparently the Japanese Americans were so annoyed by this bus driver, they kicked him off and drove the bus themselves. Kuwayama heard this story off hand. Kuwayama hopes that our current wars are the last wars we are involved in. The atomic bomb has changed the landscape of war. Kuwayama hopes that there will not be a World War III. Hitler and Mussolini were both fascist and they rivaled the worlds democracies. Kuwayama believes the war has to be studied. We have to study ourselves as well. What do we mean by democracy? Kuwayama is afraid that America may have to accept a lower standard of living. We consume a great deal of the world’s resources. Whether America will except this is a whole other question. With the rise of China and India, the United States is looking at a different world with different problems. Kuwayama wonders if Americans will accept the casualties that a new war would create. Kuwayama believes that the issue of birth control may need to be looked at in the future to preserve resources. Kuwayama believes it is important that we have a National WWII Museum. Kuwayama wants people to remember how many different types of people came together. He wants to people to remember that war was very destructive for the countries we fought in. It was a tremendous display of power for the United States.
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