‘Facing the Mountain’; New book tells the story of WW2 veteran from Hillyard
SPOKANE, Wash. — Late in 2019, we heard about the coronavirus spreading in China and it seemed like the next thing we knew, the virus was knocking on our door. The first known case in the U.S. was in Washington.
We took precautions, went into lockdowns and masked up. Businesses and restaurants closed. The president called it the “China virus” and the “kung flu.” City streets emptied and as the virus spread, so did something else.
Over the past year, crimes against Asian Americans have sky rocketed, with many attacks happening in plain sight on city streets.
This isn’t the first time Asian Americans have walked lighter or talked quieter in their own cities. Even Americans who fought bravely for our freedom felt out of place in the same area they were born.
Hillyard, December 7, 1941—17-year-old Fred Shiosaki was running track at Rogers High School, living with his parents and siblings in the apartment above his parent’s laundromat and listening to the radio when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.
“And we heard this story about the Japs this and the Japs that,” said Shiosaki.
4 News Now interviewed Shiosaki in 2006, where he walked us through that day in 1941.
“I think I felt vulnerable. I didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Shiosaki.
He stayed home from school the next day. People stopped doing business at the laundromat. Then Japanese community leaders disappeared.
“FBI swooped down and picked [the leaders] up and they were gone. And they ended up in those, you know, that detention camp down in Arizona,” said Shiosaki.
Fred actually tried to sign up for the army. Men his age were getting drafted.
“And so I went down in August of… yeah, 1942, and signed up, and of course I turned out to be a 4-C, ineligible to be drafted—’enemy alien,’ or something of that sort,” said Shiosaki.
“So much of their lived experience seems so relevant to what’s happening in the country right now,” said author Daniel James Brown.
Brown wrote a book about Fred and several other Japanese American men who fought in World War II, called Facing the Mountain.
“[There were] phrases and tropes that were applied to Asian Americans, comparing them to insects and vermin and disease,” said Brown.
Brown sat down with Fred several years ago.
“Oh, Fred was—Fred’s a very spirited guy,” said Brown. “In fact, his father complained because he kept having to buy Fred new pairs of eyeglasses because he kept coming home with his eyeglasses broken.”
Fred graduated high school, and since he couldn’t go to war he went to college, down the street at Gonzaga University. That was the case until August of 1943.
“I think, thinking back, I just felt I had to be involved in it some way,” said Shiosaki.
The Army opened up a volunteer unit comprised of all Japanese soldiers—the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Fred signed up and shipped out to Europe to face some of the most intense battles of the war, just a year later.
“Until you experience it and survive it, you can’t describe what the hell goes on,” said Shiosaki.
The 442nd and Shiosaki’s group, K Company, fought in Italy, France and Germany.
“It’s on-the-job training, and it’s a matter of being quick or dead,” said Shiosaki.
In France, K Company would take part in the famous rescue of the “Lost Battalion”; a brutal week-long fight to free Americans, mostly Texans, trapped behind enemy lines.
“And just… artillery coming in, and rifle fire, small arms fire. And God, as I started up that slope, I see this kid I was friends with, with a bullet in his head. Jesus, I don’t know,” Shiosaki recalled.
As friends died around him, a mortar exploded in a tree above Fred’s head sending shrapnel into his side.
“And the medic patches it up, puts something on it—that’s it, so we keep going,” said Shiosaki.
When the shooting finally stopped, Fred said, the silence was deafening.
“My God, it’s done. I don’t know, there was just hardly anybody left,” said Shiosaki.
“Their company was something like 200 people and they came back down off that mountain and there were only 17 of them still walking,” said Brown.
They didn’t realize they’d won a battle that would be talked about across Europe. Movies would be made about their assault up ‘Suicide Hill.’
“No, there was no, ‘Hey, we’re gonna rescue these guys,’ kind of stuff. Nobody ever told us that. But then, you’re dumb, dumb infantrymen; what the hell,” said Shiosaki. “I don’t think we ever felt heroic about it. It was not ’til well afterwards that we realized what had happened up there.”
Fred went on to earn a Bronze Star and Purple Heart before the war ended. He said, when the war finally ended it wasn’t a surprise.
“The war is over, and God, you think, ‘Geez. Well, I made it, I think I made it,'” said Shiosaki.
Fred returned to Spokane, back to the apartment above the laundromat and went back to GU, this time as an American hero. He fought for freedom overseas and for freedom at home.
“The sacrifices of our parents and the sacrifices of the men in the 442nd were our way of earning that freedom. The right to be called an American, not a hyphenated American and I guess that’s my message to everybody; that you don’t—this stuff doesn’t get given to you, you earn it. Every generation earns it in some way or another,” said Shiosaki.
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