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War Stories from Five Veterans
These veterans—each from a different war—stepped onto the battlefield to serve their country and were forever changed. By Drew Bratcher
Comments () | Published June 1, 2008

“This is Your Country”

After Pearl Harbor, Joe Ichiuji was sent to an internment camp, but he later helped rescue a US battalion pinned down in France. All Photographs by David Deal.

On December 8, 1941, Joe Ichiuji burned inside as he listened on a radio to President Roosevelt declare war on Japan for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The young soldier, stationed with the Army’s 41st Division at Fort Lewis near Seattle, hoped for the chance to fight for his country.

Ichiuji had been born and raised in the Northern California town of Salinas. His parents were Japanese immigrants who had come to America to start a new life. They’d opened a shoe shop and done well. California had become home.

Within weeks of Roosevelt’s speech, Ichiuji’s commanding officer handed him discharge papers and sent him packing. According to the War Department, all local Japanese-Americans were suspect in what it believed would be an attack on the West Coast.

Upon his arrival at the train station in Salinas, his parents, sister, and five brothers greeted him with more bad news: They’d been assigned to an internment camp in Arizona.

Months later, the Ichiujis arrived by train at Poston, the largest of ten American camps. Guards greeted them with machine guns and escorted them through a barbed-wire fence to their tiny room in the middle of the desert.

In 1943, the War Department—realizing that many able bodies that might aid in the war effort were languishing in the camps—decided to give Japanese-American men a loyalty test. Those who renounced the Japanese emperor and swore allegiance to the United States Army could join the 422nd Combat Team, a unit of Japanese-Americans. Ichiuji was among the first to sign up.

Before he left, his father looked him in the eye. “This is your country,” he said. “Do your best to defend it.”

Ichiuji, who now lives in Rockville, was assigned to the unit’s 522nd Battalion and fought in Italy and in northeast France near the Vosges Mountains, where a lost American battalion was surrounded by Germans. In a fusillade of bullets, Ichiuji’s unit broke through the lines and rescued 211 soldiers at the cost of some 800 casualties.

In the spring of 1945, the 522nd joined the invasion of Germany and discovered just how hellish things had been for Hitler’s enemies. In the bone-littered forests around Munich, Ichiuji’s battalion came upon Kaufering IV Hurlach, a satellite of the Dachau concentration camp. The soldiers found Jewish prisoners in striped uniforms crouched in the dirt carving strips of meat from the carcass of a dead animal.

Seeing the barbed wire and barracks, Ichiuji thought of his family, who would remain in the internment camp in Arizona until 1946.

He emptied his bags and gave the prisoners his rations.

Wounded in one of the first battles of the Korean War, Warren Wiedhahn went on to help liberate Seoul—and then collect the frozen dead after the American defeat at the Chosin Reservoir.

A Reason to Live 

One muggy morning in August 1950, as the sun peeked over the hills around the port of Pusan in South Korea, 20-year-old Warren Wiedhahn woke up his buddy. The two Marines had spent the night on a ridge across from enemy lines, watching the darkness for signs of danger. Finally, it was breakfast time. They stood up and headed over the hill.

From an early age, Wiedhahn had a hankering to fight. His father, who was in training in 1918 just as the First World War ended, said missing it was the biggest disappointment of his life.

So when Wiedhahn came of age in 1948, he dropped out of school and, his face still wet with his mother’s tears, enlisted. Two years later, he landed with the 1st Marine Brigade in Pusan—in a country he couldn’t pinpoint on a map before—in the first big battle of the Korean War.

The sun climbed the sky as he and his friend headed for camp. Wiedhahn wiped his brow—already it was hot as hell. The hiss of a mortar round cut the silence. After the blast, he lay motionless on his back, his blood-smeared face slashed from shrapnel.

At the rear, medics told him that his partner had been killed. “Charlie was his name,” says Wiedhahn, a Pennsylvania native who has lived in Annandale for the past 40 years. “I’ll never forget it.”

Back on the front lines four days later, Wiedhahn helped US forces advance at Pusan and took part in the Inchon landing and the subsequent liberation of Seoul.

Then one morning that winter, at an outpost in the Chosin Reservoir—where temperatures dropped to 32 below—Wiedhahn was startled by the strange sound of whistles, bugles, and bells. A moment later, the mountains erupted with a wave of 100,000 Chinese troops.

Wiedhahn collected the frozen dead, snapping their limbs to stack them like cordwood on a truck. The unexpected assault forced the Americans into a bloody withdrawal to the city of Hungnam on the coast, where they were evacuated in December 1950.

Wiedhahn went on to fight in Vietnam. He retired as a colonel in 1982, but the memory of Charlie stayed with him.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 06/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles