Among his many service accolades, Henry Y. Arao was awarded the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross. Photo: Courtesy of Mas Hashimoto
By Mas Hashimoto, Special Contributor
Getting ready for a full-dress parade is not the most exciting part of military service, but this parade was going to be special. All personnel of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team were to assemble. The war against Nazi Germany was finally over in May of 1945, and this special moment was a time of reflection for Staff Sgt. Henry Y. Arao.
For now, Arao had to ready himself for the ceremonial parade that acknowledged his heroic actions. For a spontaneous act of bravery on April 5, 1945, Arao was awarded the U.S. Army’s Distinguished Service Cross. “It was quite an honor standing there in front of the men,” Arao once reflected, with tears in his eyes.
The Japanese attack on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, changed many lives. Arao, 21, volunteered on Dec. 11, 1941, at the local draft board in Santa Cruz, Calif. Sixteen weeks of basic training were completed at Camp Roberts, near Paso Robles. Arao did so well, he was to join an anti-tank unit as part of the cadre (instructional team). Instead, he was separated and segregated. He ended up doing “KP” (kitchen police) work.
The 700 Nisei soldiers at Camp Roberts were ordered to board a special train, whose destination was Camp Robinson, Ark. Arao’s group ended up at Fort Riley, Kan. The Nisei soldiers were reduced to performing subservient roles for white officers or digging ditches and latrines.
When the call went out for the formation of an all-Nisei unit, the 442nd RCT, Arao volunteered. After successfully completing basic training again, he was one of 2,000 replacements, ready to join the fighting as part of the 100th Battalion’s Company A in the European theater of operations.
From Fort Dix, N.J., in June of 1944, the group sailed across the Atlantic to Algiers. Eventually, they were ordered to liberate the town of Bruyeres, France. They had been ordered by Maj. Gen. John E. Dalhquist to rescue his Texas “Lost Battalion.” The 1st Battalion of the 141 Regiment of the 36th Division had been cut off for seven days by the Germans. Arao once told his buddies, “I guess we’re not going home (alive).”
The rescue of the Texans cost the 100th/442nd RCT 184 killed and over 600 wounded. Arao was one of the few who could still muster for formation. Later, during an exceptionally dark night, Arao’s squad was ordered to locate the enemy position. The squad came face-to-face with a German Panzer tank. The tank opened fire, but it was firing wildly. Arao told his men to hit the dirt and crawl back to their lines. Arao called for an artillery strike after giving the 522nd Field Artillery the proper coordinates.
While in France, Arao was wounded in the neck and was taken to the field hospital. The doctor sewed up the wound without giving Arao a shot for the pain. The bleeding stopped, so Arao was sent back into combat. He had been gone for about an hour. Yes, he earned the Purple Heart. The shrapnel is permanently lodged in his neck, his own twisted “Medal of Honor.”
Arao’s most frightening moment came when a German mortar shell landed five feet from him, and it didn’t explode. “I guess it wasn’t my time to go,” Arao once recalled. Then, the 100th/442nd RCT was returned to Italy.
For more than five months, army divisions could not break through the Gothic Line. In the Apennine Mountains, the German SS troops were dug in with rock and concrete bunkers. The U.S. Navy bombarded the area, and the U.S. Army Air Corps’ P-51 pounded the area. The Germans, undaunted, held the high ground. When the offensive order came, the officers of the 100th/442nd RCT decided that I, L and M Companies of the 3rd Battalion would quietly climb up the ridge of Mount Folgorita in total darkness!
A Nisei solider fell to this death off the steep cliff without uttering a sound. That brave soldier didn’t want to give away the element of surprise. Watsonville’s volunteer from Poston Camp II, Pfc. Shig T. Kizuka of “Love” Company, was among the very first up that mountain. They had caught the Germans completely by surprise and took possession of the mountain. This battle took less than 33 minutes.
Meanwhile, men of the 100th Battalion on April 5, 1945, whose objective was to secure neighboring Mount Cerreta, were pinned down by deadly machine fire. Someone tipped a land mine, and during the scramble, several more land mines were set off, causing heavy casualties and bringing down hand grenades and machine gun fire on A Company. The pincer drive had faltered.
When the squad leader was badly wounded by a grenade burst, Pfc. Arao tended to the wound and reorganized the small squad. Most of them were youngsters. At 25, he was the “old man” of the squad. Arao took charge.
He once said, “I told the men to say low. They really weren’t combat ready. I crawled around to the left. (I) got behind the Germans.” Arao took out the pin of his hand grenade, released the handle, counted off two seconds and then threw the grenade into the bunker.
With his “Tommy” (Thompson submachine gun), he finished off the first machine gun nest of six Germans. Realizing that there was another machine gun nest raining fire down on his men, he quickly moved into position without any regard for his own safety and eliminated that machine gun nest using only his “Tommy.”
Arao had crawled up and through a heavily landmined field. His heroic actions had spearheaded the attack, and the 100th Battalion had broken through. In 33 minutes of actual combat, the Nisei soldiers were able to break through the Gothic Line that had held out for nearly half a year.
Germany surrendered a month later on May 7, 1945. Returning home via New York harbor, Arao remembered, “I saw the Statue of Liberty when I left, and I saw the Statue of Liberty on my return. Tears came to my eyes when I saw her. I was lucky enough to come home alive.”
The Statue of Liberty was a goodwill gift from the people of France to the people of the United States that was presented in 1886. This statue has, among others, welcomed Issei immigrant parents, visitors and returning Americans. Arao was a true Son of Liberty.
On Aug. 12, 2007, the Watsonville-Santa Cruz JACL was honored to present Arao as one of its nominees to “Salute and Honor the Veterans of WWII” aboard the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier docked in Alameda, Calif.
For the 811 Nisei soldiers killed in action, their names are permanently inscribed on the Honor Roll of the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in Washington, D.C. Sgt. Henry Y. Arao, A Company, 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart, five theater campaign medals and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Arao was once asked if it was worth the effort. “Yeah, it was worth it,” he recalled. “We did what we had to do. We had to prove that we belonged in this country. There’s nothing as good as the United States.”
Arao was born on the west side of Santa Cruz on March 9, 1920, to Kumaji Arao and Rui Terasaki Arao.
Upon his return to civilian life following the war, Arao raised strawberries with his brothers in different areas of California, from Moss Landing to Hollister to Pescadero and then to Watsonville, where he farmed on his own.
He married Phyllis Miyoko Osato in 1950. They had three beautiful children, Reba Ellen, Michael Dean and Shirley Ann.
After years of growing strawberries, he went to work managing the Nakashima Nursery in Pajaro, growing roses and carnations for the cut flower market. Arao worked there from 1962 until his retirement in 1988. For the last few years of his employment, he lived in Indio, Calif., where he built and managed a new branch of the nursery.
Living away so far from home wasn’t what he wanted to do. It was something he had to do. Making sacrifices for others was a way of life for Arao. When he retired in 1988, Arao moved back to Watsonville. His retirement years were mainly spent with his wife and fishing with his buddies.
Arao also attended the A Company reunions in Las Vegas. The guys loved to reminisce about their wartime experiences — about breaking ranks to steal cabbage from this angry Italian farmer. They got salt and made tsukemono in their helmets. When the pay master paid for the stolen cabbage, peace was restored.
When his 442nd veteran roommate passed away, he didn’t have anyone to go with. Arao also misplaced his medals. With the help of the Veterans Administration of Santa Cruz County, many of his medals were replaced. His medal record is included with his 201 file, his service record.
The Watsonville-Santa Cruz JACL decided to case them up so that he couldn’t lose them anymore. He appreciated that. The entire chapter certainly appreciated him. Phyllis passed away in October of 2005. It was a shock and a great loss. Through the love of Reba, Mike and Shirley, their devoted care fulfilled their father’s wish of living out his life in the comfort of his home as he wanted. Thank you.
Henry Y. Arao passed away at the age of 87 on Nov. 20, 2007.
Whenever I’m at the Statue of Liberty or see a photo of it, I think of Sgt. Henry Y. Arao and of all the guys and gals who didn’t return. “Henry, you are a charter member of the Greatest Generation. You served your country, your family and your Nikkei community well. You served the cause of Liberty. ‘At ease,’ Henry, now’s the time to be ‘at ease.’ ”