March to freedom filled with danger (part 3) by Renita Foster

In a deep underground air raid shelter beneath a Berlin railway station, 2nd Lt. Jimmie Kanaya, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, fearfully listened to the nonstop bombing above.

It was Thanksgiving 1944, and the young Nisei (Japanese American) couldn’t help but remember a similar situation two months earlier near Biffonataine, France.

The Germans had ferociously attacked the village throughout the night and captured him the next day. Now, as the pounding and explosions seemed to increase with every second, he wondered if he’d live to see the outside world again.

Kanaya offered a colossal prayer of thanks as he walked into the morning light the next day. Outside the railroad station he found thousands of old men, women, and young boys with sledgehammers, picks, and shovels putting the railroad tracks back together again.

"And yes, the trains were running on schedule," said Kanaya.

A few weeks later, Kanaya became a resident of Oflag 64, a Prisoner Of War (POW) camp about 60 miles northwest of Warsaw.

From the start, hunger was the biggest problem. Only supplied with around 800 calories a day made food a crucial issue. Tiny potatoes from the surrounding fields provided some relief. But eating them raw gave the POWs severe diarrhea. Figuring out a way to boil them became a vital mission.

"I think we spent more time boiling those potatoes than what they were worth," said Kanaya. "But we were that desperate."

Sometimes, the Germans issued Red Cross packages. The relentless hunger, however, led to gorging. Unused to the rich food, the prisoners were again cursed with brutal digestive problems, including vomiting.

The Russian offensive in January 1945 prompted a mass evacuation from Oflag 64.

The temperature was a bitter 21 degrees below zero the day Kanaya and his fellow POWs began a forced road march.

Walking as much as 20 kilometers a day in the bitter cold and snow cross country, the only rest and shelter came at night in abandoned haylofts.

"All we had was a wool blanket and a Red Cross box," said Kanaya. "And one meal a day of hardened bread and a bowl of boiled potatoes and beets."

Kanaya attributes his survival to his youth and strength. Prisoners unable to continue the march were mostly from the Polish Officer POW column ahead of Kanaya’s and had been imprisoned considerably longer.

He passed some of them dying alongside the road.

"I still see their hands sticking out of the snow," said Kanaya quietly. "I think knowing the same thing could happen to me gave me incentive to keep going."

Kanaya was never more aware that he was the only Nisei among the thousands of POWs than the day he marched near some Russian prisoners.

Feeling their eyes on him, he stared back. The reason why suddenly flashed before him; they were all Asian.

"I found out later they were Mongolian soldiers who were fighting for Russia and captured the winter before," said Kanaya. "I can only guess they thought I must have escaped from their group somehow."

Kanaya’s Nisei heritage proved advantageous when he encountered French POWs.

A French soldier suddenly came running up to Kanaya and offered whiskey. He didn’t usually drink but Kanaya gratefully accepted the gesture that day.

"I got a mouth full and it burned all the way down. I’m not sure why he picked me out for a swig of his precious whiskey other than I looked different from everybody else," he said.

Kanaya reached Hammelburg, Germany by late March. By the journey’s end, almost a thousand POWs had left the column, leaving only 400.

The son-in-law of General George S. Patton just happened to be in Kanaya’s group that had marched all the way from Poland; something Kanaya thought might be a blessing when Patton ordered a raid to free him.

The rescue attempt failed when U.S. forces were surrounded and ambushed by the Germans.

Believing it was worth a chance, Kanaya had hitched a ride on a half track. But with a furious battle all around him, he knew it was hopeless. He had no choice but to surrender with the prisoners that were left.

Kanaya’s final POW camp was in Nuremburg. A rumor was circulating that prisoners were being taken to the Alps in a few days to be bargained for a negotiated surrender.

Feeling he’d been a POW long enough, Kanaya decided now was the time for a serious escape attempt.

Knowing he couldn’t pass for German like his fellow prisoners, Kanaya’s intention was to break out alone.

The opportunity came when Allied forces strafed the POWs during the march to the mountains. Forced to scatter along the roadside, Kanaya took advantage of the chaos. A shallow depression in the forest provided a hiding place until dark.

The strategy was to backtrack across the country, hiding by day and traveling at night. After reaching the Nuremburg POW camp area, he decided to stay nearby until American forces arrived.

Fresh water from a stream close to a patch of trees for thick cover made the plan perfect. All he had to do was wait and stay out of sight.

From his hiding place, Kanaya watched the bombing of Nuremburg that he thought would never end. "All I could hear was people screaming and running away," said Kanaya.

The escape plan ended when he became ill from drinking chlorinated water and eating from rusty cans. Deciding the easiest way was to just be captured again, Kanaya headed for the open road when morning came.

But instead of enemy soldiers, there were only bedraggled refugees walking by who didn’t even glance his way.

"They were like zombies," said Kanaya. "So, I just walked to the camp and asked to be let back in. In a few days, I was grouped with some American pilots who had been shot down."

A few days later, orders were suddenly issued that all able-bodied Americans were to leave first thing in the morning.

Sensing danger, a Serbian doctor Kanaya had been assisting declared him ill and that he couldn’t be moved. The deception fooled a German doctor who felt Kanaya’s brow as he lay in a hospital bed.

"To this day, no one knows what happened to those Americans the Germans took out of the camp," said Kanaya. "We were liberated by the 45th Division the next day."

After a stay at Camp Lucky Strike, Kanaya heard the announcement that any POW could return home the next day if he didn’t mind sleeping in shifts. Kanaya didn’t mind.

"Sleeping arrangements didn’t concern me at all," grinned Kanaya. "I just wanted to go home."

Kanaya became a career Army officer and also served during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. But he declares it was World War II that taught him the basics of soldiering and combat.

"I learned to focus on the mission---what had to be done--- and I did it," said Kanaya.

"I’m not sure why, but I never felt my life was in danger. I had people killed in front of me, even saw their whole heads blown off, and I know it could have been me. I just focused on my duties. Maybe that’s why combat and combat support duties in three different wars didn’t bother me."

Reprinted with permission. 

Winner of the MG Keith L. Ware Journalism award.  Category I:  Story Series. 

Civilian Winner: Renita Foster, IMCOM–NERO, The Monmouth Message, Fort Monmouth Public Affairs