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Photographic Memory: World War II Through the Lens of a Japanese American Soldier

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In the 2010s, taking a photograph is a quick, simple, and all-too-common occurrence: Just whip out your smartphone, set it to camera mode, and click. If the photo is blurred, or too dark, the subject is out-of-frame, just delete and re-shoot. Your smartphone's internal memory or memory card allows for a virtually unlimited amount of pictures; you might even have pictures residing on your camera that you took last year.

In the 1940s, taking a photo was a more involved task: Open up your big, bulky camera, load up the film, adjust the lens, set the shutter speed, make sure you had enough natural light, and hope everything turns out fine before your film runs out. Because you won't have any idea how your picture turned out after you had your roll of film developed.

For Dr. Susumu "Sus" Ito, taking a photo was no small feat, especially as a soldier during World War II. As a younger man, defying odds and bending rules, he snapped thousands of photographs of his fellow soldiers and his superiors, depicting the daily lives of wartime troops during his tour of duty in France, Italy, and Germany, and even capturing visual accounts of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp and the rescue of the Lost Battalion.

His photographs are the subject of a newly-opened exhibit at Little Tokyo's Japanese American National Museum, entitled, "Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito's World War II Images" (running until September 6). The exhibit also includes his negatives, camera equipment, and personal wartime memorabilia, such as his boots and uniform.

Much has been told about America's World War II soldiers, and the "Greatest Generation" they came from, and many books, movies and documentaries have been made depicting the war. But Dr. Ito's story is one that many history books or films haven't really covered.

Born in 1919 in Stockton, CA to Japanese immigrants, he had a relatively normal upbringing in rural Northern California. He learned to drive at the age of 13 and attended trade school in San Francisco, working at an auto shop. As the eldest son in the family, he was deemed to inherit his father's family farm near Hiroshima, as per Japanese tradition. But having never visited Japan, and not being fluent in Japanese, he turned down the inheritance and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1940, where he was stationed at Camp Haan near Riverside, in a non-segregated unit servicing trucks and vehicles.

Then December 7, 1941 came, and the world changed.

Ito and all other Japanese Americans in the Army had their rifles taken away and combat training suspended. He was also asked to help interrogate Japanese American residents on their allegiances following the Pearl Harbor attack, but he declined, citing his poor command of Japanese.

In the meantime, his family was uprooted from Northern California and incarcerated at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas.

In 1943, Ito was selected to serve in the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion of the Army's renowned Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which trained at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. Being relatively close to Arkansas, he was given the opportunity to visit his family at Rohwer on occasion.

When he was deployed to Europe he took three items with him: A pocket Bible given to him by his sister, a senninbari (a traditional cloth belt amulet given to soldiers in Japan) by his mother, and his relatively-compact Agfa camera -- despite a "no cameras" policy in the Army.

"Even my senior officers knew I had a camera, but no one questioned that, and it did not surprise them," said Dr. Ito. "It was an Army general policy, and many minor orders or suggestions are not enforced. Everyone else obeyed their orders and sent their cameras home. It was somewhat in my nature to bend rules that might or might not be harmful. I thought might be fun for me, I took advantage of that. Towards the end of the war, once we started liberating places, many other soldiers took the liberty of bringing cameras...some would call that looting [laughs]."

Guests view the JANM exhibit, which features Sus Ito's photos, negatives, and wartime memorabilia. | Photo: Elson Trinidad
Guests view the JANM exhibit, which features Sus Ito's photos, negatives, and wartime memorabilia. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

The photographs in the JANM exhibit depict the breadth of life during wartime Europe, where the life-or-death heat of combat is also contrasted with long periods of waiting, and even opportunities for recreation. Photos of young Japanese American men are seen posing in uniform next to vehicles and mounted guns. Some photos show them riding around leisurely in bicycles, or posing next to the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum in Rome. One photo has a uniformed soldier stand next to another soldier, totally naked, save for a strategically-placed helmet. There are even pictures of Ito's white commanding officers, smiling for the camera.

Some of these photos possess photojournalistic qualities, such as the images of Jews being led away from the Dachau concentration camp, which Ito's unit helped to liberate. Perhaps it's the black and white nature of the prints, where coloring and lighting deficiencies can be forgiven, but a great deal of the photos seem to bear good framing and composition, as if they were taken by a professional photographer.

"I never had training in photography, it was done simply as an amateur, for fun." said Dr. Ito. I take no credit for any appropriate composition or results that came out...I did it all one shot, if it came out, fine, if not, that was it...to this day, I'm amazed at the photos the museum recovered."

About 14,000 Japanese American soldiers from the U.S. mainland and Hawaii served in the 442nd Regiment, the 100th Infantry Battalion, the Military Intelligence Service, and Women's Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II. Twenty-nine received the Congressional Medal of Honor, 53 earned Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 garnered Silver Stars, 5,200 got Bronze Stars, and 9,486 received Purple Hearts. So while their family members were sent away to internment camps, Japanese Americans became one of the most highly-decorated groups during the war.

After wartime, Ito used his G.I. Bill benefits to attend college, eventually earning his Ph.D in Biology and Cell Biology. He joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School in 1960, becoming professor emeritus in 1991, and has been a longtime resident of Boston.

He has also since re-visited the old battle zones in Europe numerous times, as part of veterans' events.

"I get goosebumps, it brings back so much memories. We even got to lay down in the very same foxholes some of us dug," Dr Ito recalled.

In the 1990s, JANM learned of Dr. Ito's volume of wartime photographs and sought to preserve them as part of its permanent collection.

"I never dreamed these photos would end up in a museum, that they would put so much effort into printing them," said Dr. Ito. "Many of the pictures are new to my eyes as well, it was a very rewarding experience to see, it brings back vivid memories to what we were doing."

According to Dr. Ito, he only meant to take his wartime photos for fun, or to show his mother that he was doing fine. The fact that it would be valuable for posterity or historic reasons was entirely oblivious to him at the time.

"The photos were valuable to me and the people involved [in the pictures]," Dr. Ito continued, "Many people have asked me, 'Do you happen to have a picture of my dad or my friend?' In that respect, they were valuable, told a number of people whose family members who were in the Army that I may have some of their pictures. Such rewarding feedback I got, with the little effort I had to carry them with me and bring them back. I must say JANM did a unbelievable, marvelous job of displaying them, I'm very proud of them."

Dr. Sus Ito, following a July 12 speaking event at JANM, where he discussed his life, the war, and his photographs. | Photo: Elson Trinidad
Dr. Sus Ito, following a July 12 speaking event at JANM, where he discussed his life, the war, and his photographs. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

On Sunday, July 12, as the exhibit was previewed by JANM members and special guests, Dr. Ito himself made an appearance to a capacity crowd for a speaking engagement at the museum, where he talked about his life, about the war, and about his postwar career. The Japanese American veteran turns 96 years old in late July, and not only did he recall events from the war and his youth vividly, and flavor it with so much wit and even self-deprecating humor, but he even could recall quotes from family members or commanding officers. In addition, the relatively spry nonagenarian had no qualms about standing up occasionally during his talk. So naturally, I had to ask him about his secret to a long life.

"I've felt that all my life, I've enjoyed doing things for the joy of doing it, I take each day as it comes, I accept good fortunes. Life is good, it really is good. Why am I living so long? Darned if I know."

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