Thursday, August 30, 2007

Peanuts, POWs--and Japanese guards??

Yesterday I received a letter from a gentleman in Honolulu, Hawaii who was a member of Company L in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII. Most history buffs know that the 442nd was a unit of Japanese Americans formed in February 1943 from among second generation Japanese-American citizens in Hawaii and Japanese volunteers from the internment camps set up inland from the west coast in 1942. These men became a cohesive military unit that fought valiantly for their country, the USA, in North Africa and Europe and were honored with a White House ceremony after the war.

It is probably not so widely known that one of the first assignments for Company L of this combat unit created an unusual juxtaposition for WWII. In August 1943, after completing basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, members of the 442nd were ordered over to Camp Aliceville in Alabama to guard German POWs being sent down to Dothan for the annual peanut harvest.

It must have seemed ironic and amusing to local residents to see crews of ten German POWs, guarded by three Japanese Americans, headed out to the peanut fields each morning that fall.

The gentleman from Honolulu graciously shared some of his memories of that experience:

1. He watched the Germans, many of whom had been members of Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps, digging up the peanut plants and stacking them on 7 to 8 foot poles so the peanuts could dry before picking.

2. He remembers that the German POWs were kept in fenced-in compounds at night after their work. They would come to the fence each evening after dinner and sing songs to their Japanese guards who had gathered on the other side of the fence. One song they sang had a chorus (probably a yodel) that he remembered as sounding like, "Hi Lai Lai de Hi Lai Lai."

3. When Company L of the 442nd created their company song entitled "Go for Broke," they used the chorus they'd heard the German POWs singing as part of their song. Down through the years, this song--including the "German" chorus--has been sung by veterans at various functions. (If anyone is interested, I have a copy of this combat team company song.)

4. He also remembers another song the German POWs sang to their Japanese guards in a teasing sort of way. He says it was actually the "Ice Cold Coca-Cola" jingle, but very funny pronounced in German accents. Coca-Cola was a regular part of the soft drink diet in POW camps across the country.

War creates many strange juxtapositions. Wonder what would happen if the generals from one side could share music with the generals on the other side.

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