A ‘Journey’ worth remembering

journey of heroesToday’s profile: Journey of Heroes
Author: Stacey Hayashi
Illustrator: Damon Wong
Publisher: Self-published
Availability: In print & readily available at www.442comicbook.com and various retailers (refer to this list posted on Facebook)

If you grew up in Hawaii, chances are about 100% that one of things imprinted upon you in school is the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent internment of Japanese-Americans following the attack. And naturally, one of the things you also hear in conjunction with that is about the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Infantry Regiment; how they were composed of all nisei (second-generation Japanese), many of whom were from Hawaii; and how they are among the most decorated units for their size and length of service.

But something that’s not often taught in schools — at least, not in my memory, and I will say that I’ve been out of high school for many years now — is what happened in the time between the Pearl Harbor attack and the creation of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team and the days leading up to their entrance into actual combat. It’s usually only around the anniversary of “the day that will live in infamy,” Dec. 7, when we hold gatherings around the state to honor those who sacrificed themselves, that we hear the tales from the few remaining survivors about the horrors they experienced in the war. And even then, the stories can be few, with many veterans often reluctant to speak of those times.

The slim graphic novel “Journey of Heroes,” written by Stacey T. Hayashi and illustrated by Damon Wong, attempts to fill in that gap. And a fine endeavor it is. (It also made me finally understand why the unit is called the “100th/442nd.”)

According to a note from the author, Hayashi wanted to tell the story about the nisei units, so she met with hundreds of veterans and gathered their reminiscences with the intent of making them into a movie. Unfortunately, the difficulties of producing a film stood in the way of that project. Fortunately, this 30-page book grew out of it instead.
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“Journey of Heroes” is told in the first person from the perspective of an unnamed nisei soldier. (The stories, however, are based on the experiences of veteran Goro Sumida, a dear friend of Hayashi’s who died last October.) It starts off in November 1944 just after the famous Vosges assault in which the 100th/442nd had been ordered to rescue a Texas unit that had become trapped behind enemy lines — the so-called “Lost Battalion.” The nisei units managed to save the Texans after several days of fighting, suffering heavy casualties in the process. And as the remaining men are standing at attention waiting to be recognized for their bravery, the narrator describes what happened up until that point and what will happen in years beyond, switching seamlessly from past to present to future while maintaining a “flashback” mode. It sounds strange as described here, but the device works well.

It’s “only” 30 pages, which sounds awfully short for a graphic novel. And in one way it is, but in another way, it’s interminably long as you read through the history of the 100th and 442nd, the details that most people don’t often get the chance to hear about, of the pain and humiliation and struggle and the differences — even with each other — that they had to overcome.
Some 10,000 Japanese-Americans in Hawaii eagerly volunteered for 1,500 available spots in the military
Damon uses the “chibi” — Japanese for “small,” with the connotation of “cute” — drawing style, one that’s often used in Japanese manga. I initially had qualms about it, wondering how such an approach could effectively portray the grueling intensity of war, racism and more. However, I found that the “cuteness” of the people doesn’t detract from the emotion that the simply worded narration evokes. Even the use of pidgin English is well placed, serving to show the contrast between the carefree island days and the grimness of war. Married with this are realistic, stylized backgrounds and elements taken straight from history, such as the well-known photograph of the sinking of the USS Arizona; the famous front page of the extra edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin declaring war on Dec. 7, 1941; the gates to ‘Iolani Palace as the nisei soldiers are given a huge farewell send-off; and even smaller features such as flags, office windows and bunk beds. It all contributes to a tremendous reading experience, and I must admit I didn’t expect to be moved as I much as I was when I read the book.

Even now, after having read “Journey of Heroes” multiple times, I still choke up as I can only try to imagine the hell it was. It is intense and emotional in a rather simple way, which easily reaches out and touches the reader. We can’t help but share in their pain and feel great respect for the men who came out of it all and did not let the war and racism break them as they continued on with their lives.
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About half of the book is devoted to the soldiers’ battles and the Vosges assault, but what made the most impression on me is the recounting of the time before their deployment to the war zone in Italy. This is the part of their story that we never hear about and that contributes even more to our admiration for them. We are finally taken behind the scenes, beyond the well-publicized heroism, and we see what they went through to even get to the point at which they went to war. We read about the family struggles, about the deep-seated prejudice that went both ways, forcing some Japanese-Americans on the mainland to sneak out so they could start their military careers, sometimes against their loved ones’ wishes. We see the culture clashes when the Hawaii men meet up with mainlanders, the tension and conflicts within the units caused by different upbringings. We watch as the Hawaii and mainland soldiers are finally made to realize that it doesn’t matter where they come from — they are all Americans, they are all fighting the same war, and the enemy is not each other.

One thing that stood out at me in the entire manga was something so tiny it was easy to overlook. When discussing the values that Japanese held, the concept of “not bringing shame to the family name” was brought up. It may very well have been this ideal that led the nisei to “go for broke” and achieve more than anyone likely thought they ever would. But also, perhaps it is some kind of “shame,” perhaps it is the trauma, that keeps many veterans from speaking — both of which are understandable, and I know that I would never be able to truly comprehend what they went through that keeps them silent. We are fortunate that so many already are willing to open up and share the experiences that led to the creation of “Journey of Heroes.” I hope more veterans of the proud 100th/442nd can overcome those sentiments and share their stories for the next generation and many more beyond.

The only “gripe” I have is that this graphic novel is such a small, thin volume that it could easily be passed over on the bookshelf — it doesn’t even have its name on the very narrow spine. It would be a shame if this very worthy book were lost due to mere slimness of size. I wish Hayashi much luck in raising the support and getting the help she needs to get more books out to students. Her original goal was to split the first print run of 10,000 copies in half, with 5,000 being distributed to students and libraries and another 5,000 being sold to recoup production costs. While that strategy’s been a success — so much so that a second printing’s become a possibility — production logistics are a bit of a concern, as this comment on the book’s Facebook page would indicate.

From the once-happy-go-lucky times of prewar Hawaii, to the internment of Japanese-Americans, through the difficulties of finally becoming a true unit, to the Vosges rescue, to the liberation of a Jewish death camp, to the homecoming back in the islands after the war, and beyond — this graphic novel truly takes us on the “Journey of Heroes.”

If you want to learn more about “Journey of Heroes” and are a Star-Advertiser subscriber, please check out Gary Chun’s profile from the March 17 issue.