By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Susumu Ito constantly carried three things with him during his tour of duty in World War II: a bible with a medal shield, his camera, and a Senninbari. The latter item is a Japanese strip of cloth decorated with 1,000 stitches which is made by women when men go off to war. It was part of the Shinto culture of Imperial Japan. His mother made it for him to protect him from harm. It worked as Ito returned without injury. Ito made sure that no one saw his Senninbari as he did not want to alarm any of his fellow soldiers. For his service in World War II, in 2010 Susumu Ito received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian U.S. medal.
After the war, Ito moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio. Ito worked in a garage working on automobiles but decided to return to school for further education using the G.I. Bill to pay for his education. He went to Western Reserve University which is now known as Case Western University. He then went on to Cornell Medical Center to study cell biology. After receiving his PhD in Biology from Cornell, he began teaching at Harvard Medical School. His research utilizing an electron microscope on the gastrointestinal system is world renowned. Although he retired in 1990, Ito still is active in the lab even at the age of 95.
It’s amazing to think that Ito could have just settled to be a small town car mechanic if things were different. The renowned war hero and cell biologist might not have come to be if not for World War II.
Ito grew up in Stockton, California where the town was socially segregated. “We kept pretty much to our own community.” Ito’s parents were farmers and worked from farm to farm. He recalls not much of an education when growing up as there was no electricity or running water in the schoolhouse. Still, he was accepted into the University of California, Berkeley.
But, he declined going because there were few future opportunities for people of color.
Instead, Ito went to community college for a year before attending auto mechanic school.
Practically, he thought that becoming an auto mechanic would be the way to ensure a stable future. But, even being an auto mechanic presented its own hurdles. “They would not let me join the auto mechanic’s union,” recalled Ito. “It was blatant and obvious discrimination. It was not only prevalent but accepted.” As a result, Ito’s opportunities to work in car garages were limited as only Whites could work in union garages.
In 1940, America was at war and Ito, an American citizen, was drafted into the military.
Maybe surprising, Ito was pleased with being drafted. “I just turned 21 in July and I was drafted in October,” Ito stated, “I was quite happy about that.” While Ito’s response may be unusual for many, it showed the angst of a young man seeking adventure. “I was bored working in garages. It didn’t seem like much of a challenge and much of a future.”
Ito was placed in a unit with other Japanese Americans. The irony of the situation was that while Ito and his fellow soldiers of Japanese ancestry were fighting for their country, the United States, their country had decided to send Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent to internment camps.
Ito’s family was uprooted from their home in California as they were moved to an internment camp in Oklahoma. He recalls visiting them in his military uniform at the camp. It was a surreal experience.
Ito’s army regiment, the all-Japanese-American 442nd Regiment was the most decorated unit for its size in the U.S. Army during World War II. “Most of us were totally gung ho about fighting for the U.S. despite fighting their home country of Japan,” Ito stated, “The decision being made [to fight] was a privilege for us and allowed us to show our patriotism and devotion to our country of the American way of life.”
Although it was banned, Ito brought along his camera to take pictures of his experiences in the U.S. Army. “Nobody questioned me,” Ito stated about using his camera. “I carried it with me throughout the war and in combat.”
Ito has donated the negatives to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California. Many of Ito’s pictures have been published and used in exhibitions. He states that the museum has digitized the photos. It has sent him 1,100 of the photos for him to identify and comment on for further use.
During World War II Ito and his regiment was involved in a heroic effort where he stormed a section of the Vosges Mountains to rescue a captured battalion of Texas Infantrymen.
Although his regiment suffered extremely heavy casualties, Ito did not suffer any injuries.
Also during his tour, he helped liberate prisoners of a Nazi death camp.
Ito is one of a variety of seniors featured in a book, “From Working to Wisdom: The Adventures and Dreams of Older Americans,” which addresses growing old. At 95 years old, Ito has led an exciting life. “His talents were such that they simply couldn’t keep him down,” said Brendan Hare, the author of the book. “He has no bitterness about anything.” Hare refers to the many instances of discrimination Ito experienced throughout his life, yet persevered through it all.
“Do what you love and enjoy doing it to the best of your abilities,” advised Ito of living a fulfilling life and career. “If you enjoy doing it, all other things fall into place.” (end)
Jason Cruz can be reached at email@example.com.