LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — Just two weeks shy of his 96th birthday, a dapper Susumu "Sus" Ito strolls easily around an exhibition of his work at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo wearing a bright gingham shirt, a gardenia peeking from the lapel of his sport coat.
Memories come flooding back as he walks past his photographs, taken when he was a soldier during World War II: the ornery mule his unit encountered somewhere along the border between Italy and France. The weary peasant couple standing outside their bullet-strafed home. The fellow serviceman who playfully covered his face when Ito attempted to snap his portrait in the middle of the Vosges Mountains in France.
"I can't stop looking at some of these," Ito exclaims joyfully. "I'm seeing some of them for the first time!"
Ito's pictures offer an intimate view of daily life in the middle of one of the 20th century's most epic conflagrations. But they are remarkable for another reason, too. The photographer was part of the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit made up of Japanese American soldiers.
As many of their families sat in internment camps in the U.S., this group of young men fought in eight major European campaigns. They also led the daring rescue of a group of nearly 300 U.S. soldiers _ the so-called Lost Battalion _ that had been surrounded by Germans in the Vosges. In the process, the 442nd became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history, a title it holds to this day.
Through it all, Ito was taking pictures (despite the fact that he wasn't supposed to have a camera on him at the front). And he has donated his vast archive _ thousands of images _ to the Japanese American museum, where several dozen went on view recently as part of the exhibition "Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito's World War II Images."
"It covers a gap in the imagery of World War II," says Lily Anne Welty Tamai, the museum's curator of history. "We don't just see white soldiers. We see Asian American soldiers sitting in cafes with Italian and French women. We see Asian American men holding the American flag. We see some of the only images of Asian American men in combat during the war. Asian Americans can be so invisible. That's what makes this so important."
During the war, Ito says, Europeans were often stunned to see a regiment of Japanese soldiers in American uniforms roll into town. "Sometimes when Germans were captured," he recalls with a belly laugh, "we'd tell them, 'Don't you know that Japan is fighting with the U.S Army now?'"
Certainly, Ito didn't set out to become an important chronicler of war.
The American-born son of Japanese immigrants who worked as sharecroppers in Stockton, Calif., he was a mischievous student in elementary school (one particularly good tale involved young Ito coming to class with his pockets stuffed full of grasshoppers). He straightened out by high school and was even accepted to University of California at Berkeley. But concerned that his Japanese heritage might be a hindrance, Ito's parents pushed him to do something more practical.
"I was a good mechanic," he says, "so I focused on that."
He was drafted into the Army and spent much of the early war years as a motor sergeant in Riverside, Calif. But the job, he says, was boring. When the opportunity arose to join the 442nd as a forward observer, he jumped on it.
Among the belongings he took to Europe was an Agfa Memo, a 35 mm camera that fit neatly into the palm of the hand. It was cheap, with limited focus and zoom capabilities, but it was easy to transport.
"I wanted to take one because we weren't allowed to," Ito says with a wry grin. "I like to break the rules."
But, surprisingly, the camera was never confiscated _ and somehow Ito made it from Newport News, Va., to Italy's Adriatic Coast with the little Agfa tucked safely into the front pocket of his field jacket.
Ito spent his deployment in Europe, which began in 1944 and lasted through the war's end, taking pictures.
He would load the cartridges under his blankets at night so the film wouldn't become exposed and then wrap the cartridges carefully in tin foil for safe-keeping.
"Then I'd get them developed along the way," he recalls. "Photo shops pop up like magic when you liberate a town."
He would then send the negatives to his parents, who were being held at the Rohwer internment camp in Arkansas.
Ito was never interned himself. But his family _ his father, mother and two sisters _ was. During basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, he had an opportunity to visit them at Rohwer, which was just a few hours away. While he was there, naturally, he took plenty of pictures, including images of family members sitting before their military-style barracks. (These are also on display at the Japanese American museum.)
And the fact that he was fighting for a country that had imprisoned his family? "Well," he says nonchalantly, "it was ironic."
In his European images, Ito captures plenty of charming moments and picturesque scenery, but he also records the harsh realities of war. There are photos of the dazed-looking soldiers of the Lost Battalion, who had somehow fended off the Germans until help arrived. There are silhouetted outlines of fleeing refugees. And there is the image of Adolf Hitler's bombed-out Bavarian retreat.
Some of the most powerful photos capture concentration camp prisoners after their release. One man, clad in stripes, smiles deliriously into the camera's lens.
Ito was part of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion (a subdivision of the 442nd), which was sent into Germany toward the end of the war). The battalion was the first to arrive at some of the subcamps at Dachau.
"To suddenly see the prisoners in the stripes," says Ito, "it was ...." For the first time in our interview, he is unable to find words to express what he saw.
After the war, Ito moved to Cleveland, where his family had settled after its release from internment. He attended college, where he became obsessed with biology. And for more than half a century, he had an extraordinary career as a cell biologist _ spending much of it as a researcher and professor at Harvard Medical School. He also married (his wife, Minnie, died three years ago), had four children and is the grandfather of five.
When he shipped out to Europe in 1944, Ito took with him three important objects: his camera, a small Bible and a senninbari, a Japanese belt given to soldiers on their way to war. His mother had crafted this traditional protective amulet out of a bleached flour sack _ the only material available to her in the internment camp. Ito never wore it in the field, since he was worried it might raise eyebrows among his superiors. But he dutifully carried it in his pocket wherever he went.
"How did I stay safe when so many colleagues died?" he asks. "I accept the possibility that the senninbari protected me. I give credit to my mother's love."
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