Hank Nakada, seen here relaxing in his home in Homer, doesn't consider himself a hero. But his heroic efforts and those of comrades are the subject of a script for a movie entitled "Little Iron Men."
Photo by Hal Spence
It was late October and cold in the Vosges Mountains, the kind of weather that made you want to linger safe and warm behind the front lines. But orders were orders, and the ones just handed the soldiers of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team promised zero security and all the wrong kind of heat.
Long-time Homer resident Hank Nakada, 83, was one of those soldiers, a second-generation Japanese-American, a Nisei, serving his country in the European theater, while his parents and others of his family waited behind barbed wire in a federal internment camp.
The soldiers of the 100th/442nd had no need to prove their loyalty or their courage; that had been clearly established in Italy and in France. Indeed, the regiment was destined to become the most decorated fighting unit of its size in the war and would earn the nickname “The Purple Heart Battalion.”
But that fall in 1944, not far from the German border, they would do so yet again, this time in rescuing a Texas battalion trapped by enemy forces deep in the forests of the Vosges (“Vohz”) Mountains near the French-German border. In a bloody, six-day battle that would cause more casualties among the Japanese-Americans than the lives they saved, the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” was successful.
Now that story is close to becoming a feature-length movie called “Little Iron Men” celebrating the heroic efforts of members of I Company during the battle. A promotional trailer and other information can be found at www.littleiron men.com.
“We are in what most would call the development stage,” said the project’s director and writer, Jesse Kobayashi. “With the schedule we are at, we look to be hopefully approved for the pre-production and production stages in six months,” Kobayashi said.
The “Little Iron Men” project has earned the attention and help of a notable Hollywood figure, producer Howard Kazanjian, whose credits include being executive producer of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi,” along with numerous other movie and television productions. “Little Iron Men” could begin shooting in about a year, possibly in Canada since the cost of shooting in France is cost-prohibitive.
Kobayashi’s film isn’t the first to portray the efforts of the 100th/442nd or the rescue of the “Lost Battalion.” A film called “Go For Broke,” the 442nd’s motto, was made in 1951. More recently, another company produced “Only the Brave,” which was shown at the Austin Asian Film Festival last fall. According to information on the Internet, it is currently in post-production.
“Little Iron Men” will trace the exploits of eight I Company soldiers, including seven Nisei soldiers and their Caucasian commander, Capt. Joe Byrne. Pvt. Hank Nakada, then just 22, is one of those.
In October 1944, both the 141st Texas Regiment and the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team were part of the 36th Division, led by Major Gen. John Dahlquist, who, despite warnings, ordered the 1st Battalion of the Texas Regiment to push forward four miles beyond enemy lines where they were surrounded. Attempts by other battalions of the 141st to reach the more then 200 men failed.
On Oct. 26, 1944, the 100th/442nd was ordered to do the job, though the soldiers were exhausted, having just come through house-to-house combat capturing the town of Bruyeres.
According to records, in five days and nights of continuous fighting, the 100th/442nd suffered more than 800 casualties, including about 140 killed, in rescuing a total of 211 men of the 141st. Nakada’s 1st Platoon was reduced to eight riflemen.
Nakada considers himself lucky, because he missed a portion of the battle. As a forward scout for I Company’s 1st Platoon, Nakada normally would be found “at the front” of his platoon, which often led I Company.
“We were better trained than the other two platoons,” he said.
At one point during the battle, Nakada and another man were sent to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade. The jeep they were riding in struck a mine, tossing them into the air. Fortunately, they landed in soft moss.
“It was my lucky day, because while I was gone, the guy from 2nd Platoon started the big push (to reach the trapped battalion). Luck is a funny thing. If I hadn’t been a scout and knew where that guy was killed, I would have been with that bunch and probably not survived.”
The next day, Nakada was with the patrol that finally reached the “Lost Battalion.”
Nakada is humble and reticent to talk about himself. In his view, he had “nothing much to do with it, except getting blown up by a mine.”
While “Little Iron Men” will attempt to show the extraordinary difficulties faced by the Japanese-American forces in effecting the dramatic rescue, it will also focus on prejudice faced by the Nisei soldiers and how Capt. Byrne struggled to understand the loyalties of men whose families were living in guarded compounds behind barbed wire in their own country.
The parents and siblings of many of the men, including Nakada’s, were compelled by federal policy to live in internment camps during the war. While on furlough before being shipped overseas, Nakada visited his family at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming.
“It was a God-awful place,” he said, adding that the only thing equivalent he’d ever seen were German concentration camps. Getting off a bus, he was confronted with a tall fence of “10-strand barbed wire with coils on top, and guard posts up high every couple of hundred yards. It scared the s**t out of me.”
Nakada’s family was later transferred to a camp in Arizona. But while family remained in a guarded encampment, Nakada and six of his brothers served in the American armed forces.
Hank Nakada became a professor of biochemistry at the University of California Santa Barbara. He and his wife Mitsu, now deceased, raised three sons. In the mid-1970s, Nakada returned to Alaska, where he’d lived before the war. He moved to Homer around 1976 and became a fisherman.
He lives quietly now in a small apartment in Homer. In a frame on his wall hang a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and numerous campaign medals. They are there, he said, at the insistence of his son Mike.
“I’d just toss them in a drawer,” Nakada said with a shrug.
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