Hervé and Sylvie Claudon Share Gratitude for the Japanese-American Soldiers Who Liberated Their Town During World War II

Jack Nakamura HI.JPG

Hervé and Sylvie Claudon visit with Jack Nakamura, a veteran of the 100th Infantry Battalion (later part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team), who helped liberate their town of Bruyères, France during World War II

The story of the 442nd is so special. They all fought incredibly hard. As President Truman told the men “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice—and you have won.”

By the fall of 1944 the people of Bruyères, France knew that the Allied advance through occupied Europe must soon make its way to their doorstep, which at 50 miles from the Rhine was one of the last defenses between the Allied forces and Germany. Hitler had ordered the low mountainous region defended at all costs, and it was expected that the fighting would be savage and relentless. What must have surprised the townspeople, when the inevitable clash did come, was that the faces of their liberators appeared to be Japanese.

The people of Bruyères and the surrounding countryside were fortunate, for these unlikely liberators were the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. For their actions during World War II the 442nd would become the most decorated in American military history for its size and duration. The unit was also remarkable for being composed entirely of Japanese-Americans, which was especially significant given the adversity under which the unit was formed.

442nd Regimental Combat Team soldiers moving into action in a hilly sector of Bruyères, France. 24 Oct 1944. Courtesy of the Seattle Nisei Veterans Committee and the U.S. Army

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans faced incredible suspicion and prejudice that bled into outright hatred and abuse. In February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the eventual internment of over 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry residing in America, nearly two-thirds of whom were American citizens. Japanese-Americans of draft age were classified as enemy aliens and forbidden to serve their country. In 1943 President Roosevelt reversed his decision and called for a segregated unit composed entirely of volunteers of Japanese ancestry. The young men who proudly answered this call to serve their country, many of whom had been interned themselves, would eventually form the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In Hawaii, where the U.S. Army hoped to reach a quota of 1,500 volunteers, there were over 10,000 volunteers.

Hervé and Sylvie Claudon, a married couple from the town of Bruyères, have dedicated much of their adult lives to documenting and sharing the stories of courage, kinship, and kindness that were borne when that unexpected mix of peoples - Japanese-American, French, and German - converged in the countryside of the Vosges in 1944. I sat down to speak with them about the gratitude they and the people of Bruyères still nurture for the "Hawaiians" - the name the French gave to the Japanese-American soldiers who liberated their town during those bloody weeks of fighting.

Japanese-American Soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team advance past an abandoned German half-track in Bruyères, France on October 24, 1944.

Grateful People: How did you first become interested in the story of the 442nd in Vosges?

Hervé: Since we were children, people in our town were always talking about the War in the Vosges since there was heavy fighting there. We understood it was very important for them, so we wanted to learn more.

What in particular made you want to devote so much time documenting and sharing the stories of the 442nd?

It's a way of thanking for us. The men of the 442nd liberated us 71 years ago. We're not ambassadors, but we want to show the American people that the French people of Bruyères area are all grateful to the 442nd. 

What are some ways you show have been able to show this gratitude?

Here's a recent example. Last year we met Barbara Berthiaume, a Japanese-American whose uncle Yohei Sagami was killed in action at the beginning of the battle. With help from another member of the 442nd, [Medal of Honor recipient] Joe Sakato, we located the place where Yohei Sagami was killed. Sylvie and I bought a plaque to honor him. We asked the local municipality for authorization to place the plaque where he died. When the municipality learned of the reason for the request they were very happy! They approved it and our mayor said "Later, we will do more." The municipality decided by unanimous vote to put up a big stone memorial in honor of the 442nd. All decided that, not only the mayor. It's not only one person. It's not only Sylvie and I. All the people are very grateful. 

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Barbara Berthiaume places a memorial plaque for her uncle, Yohei Sagami, who was killed in action in the Vosges on October 15, 1944.

What was the context for the 442nd coming to Vosges? 

The 442nd distinguished itself during heavy fighting in Italy in the summer of 1944. In September they were attached to the 36th Infantry Division. Their objective was to clear a passage through the Vosges, cross the Rhine River, and move into Germany. Bruyères was at the turn of the valley on the main way to Germany, and so the Germans concentrated a lot of their defense here. 

What was the fighting like?

Bruyères is surrounded by four mountains to the north, west, and east of town [designated Hill A, B, C, and D by the US Army]. Liberating Bruyères meant taking these hills. In addition, conditions were very bad. Icy winds and frost, soaking rain, and fog. It must have been especially hard for the men of the 442nd who came from much warmer climates [mostly Hawaii and the West Coast of the U.S.]

The battle began on October 15 when men of the 442nd's 100th Battalion attacked heavily guarded Hill A to the northwest. The Germans had reinforced the hills with minefields, machine gun nests, and tanks. German artillery barrages burst in the tall pines and showered wood splinters and steel down on the men below. By the end of the first day the men of the 442nd had advanced only 500 yards. After fighting off vicious counter-attacks and gaining ground the 442nd took Hills A and B. Intense street-fighting in town followed, which meant clearing the houses of German resistance one-by-one. Finally, the 442nd captured Hills C and D. By nightfall on October 18, the 442nd had successfully gained control and liberated the town of Bruyères after four years of Nazi occupation.

Members of the 442nd on the front lines in the Vosges Forest, October 1944.

The 442nd is the most decorated unit in American military history for its size and duration. Why do you think the 442nd ended up being such good troops?

I think in part because they wanted to prove their loyalty to the U.S., especially after having it questioned by their country and their internment. It's one of the reasons we are so grateful to our liberators. The story of the 442nd is so special. They all fought incredibly hard. As President Truman told the men "You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice--and you have won."

Can you share some particular acts of kindness that came about between the men of the 442nd and the people of Bruyères during the war?

I remember a story of a young boy - André George - whose father was a member of FFI [the French Forces of the Interior -- the name given to French resistance fighters in the later stages of World War II]. It became very dangerous. During the battle, he and his family decided to cross over into American lines to avoid more problems with the Germans. However, as soon as they crossed to the American side the German troops opened fire at them. A Nisei soldier tackled André to the ground and shielded him with his body to protect his life. It's the kind of story that shows the Nisei were such good soldiers. They would sacrifice their lives for young French kids they didn't know. They were very loyal. Very courageous.

Jean-Claude Villaumé - son of a member of the French Resistance in Bruyères - and his wife Claudine share their gratitude for the members of the 442nd who liberated their town.

How did the relationship between the people of Bruyères and the men of the 442nd continue after the war?

Already in 1947 Bruyères was one of the few places in France where a monument was dedicated to the men of the 442nd. The Nisei [second generation Japanese-American; the generation that fought in the war] visited the region of Vosges often in the years after the war. If the first story in the relationship was the liberation of the Vosges during the war, this has created a kind of second story. In 1961 the huge city of Honolulu became sister-cities with the small town of Bruyères. It's incredible. It's magic for us. When you go to Bruyères you see the Stars and Stripes flying in the town center because of this twinning. 

Can you share a story of friendship from after the war?

In 2013 Sylvie and I were leading a group from the Nisei Veterans Committee (NVC) on a tour of Bruyères. We stopped at Rue du 442eme Régiment Américain d'Infanterie - the street in town named after the 442nd Infantry Regiment. As we were taking photos of the street sign a very old man who was on his way to the market noticed all the people who were taking pictures and interested in the story of the 442. He looked at the people and noticed one Japanese-American man. The man was only about 60 - a Sansei [third-generation Japanese-American], not Nisei [the second generation that fought in the war]. Still, when this old French man saw him he said "You I recognize!" In his memory this Japanese-American man, who had a baby face and looked much younger than his years, was the picture he had kept of the men of the 442. He runs in and hugs the man and says "This is my friend." You see, all the locals are like that. 


Street sign named after the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Bruyères

Do you think this gratitude and link of friendship between the people of Bruyères and the men of the 442nd will remain even after the older people pass on?

Yes, I'm sure it will continue because the story is so famous here. Recently Sylvie and I met with the director of the high school of Bruyères. He isn't from the area, but he knew the story of the 442nd. He quickly agreed to organize new meetings with students and American visitors so we can talk about the stories and maintain the link between the 442nd and the locals.

If I may say, I am proud. In the early 2000s the memory of the 100/442 had been slowing down. Sylvie and I along with some friends decided to create a new breath of the remembrance. You know, our friend and 442nd veteran Joe Sakato just passed away yesterday. All this great generation is leaving. We have to find a second breath of this story with the next generation. I can say that in Bruyères the remembrance is still very powerful - maybe more now than at any other time. We are very optimistic for the next decades.

I'm sure the strength of the remembrance is due in no small part to the work of you and Sylvie.

We are just part of the chain, but each part is important. So we are doing our best and we are glad to do it.

Hervé shares a moment with 100th/442nd veteran Eddie Ikuma

Hervé meets Jimmy Yamashita, a veteran of the 442nd's I Company, who fought in the liberation of Bruyères and the rescue of the Texas Lost Battalion in Biffontaine.

What do you admire most about the men of the 442nd?

They were very brave, of course, but it is also their humility. When Medal of Honor recipients Barney Hajiro or Joe Sakato received their medals, each time they immediately said "This Medal of Honor is not mine. It belongs to all the men of the 442." When we toured the U.S. last month we had the opportunity to meet several of the veterans in their homes. They are so humble. So kind. So peaceful. In a way they are not "warriors." Not in their own hearts. 

What has this friendship meant to you personally?

After Sylvie and I returned from our tour of the U.S. to our home in France, the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris occurred. We have received an outpouring of personal messages and support from the U.S. Not only our friends there but others that we met only for a few minutes. It shows the link of friendship. For us it is exceptional. It is the best homage for us.

100th/442nd veteran Mits Honda (pictured with his family at their home in Hawaii) shares a wartime photo with Hervé

In documenting and sharing these stories of the 442nd in Bruyères, what is something that you are especially grateful for that has come out of this experience?

In a way, we are proud to do it. When you do something like this -- like you, what are you doing with gratitude -- you are doing things in the good way, if I may say. It is easy for people to say things are bad: "This is bad, this is bad..." When things are good, I think it is important to say them. We are sure that what we are doing - I think it is useful, but even if it is not - it is bringing happiness. Our world is so sad. To bring happiness, if we had to choose to do it all over again we would do it, of course.

How do you think the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is still relevant today?

I think the story of the 442nd is especially timely now for what they faced. In the mainland, nearly all the family of the 442nd were put in internment camps. They lost everything. But even with all these challenges, after the war they managed to transcend their circumstances and find a new breath. Even if you forget the War, it's an example of integration of those with different skin, different names. This is very important. There are many immigrants in France who face similar discrimination. They should fight! In this way, the Japanese-Americans are a good example. We would love that this would be useful. That the young generations we have in France, or maybe the U.S., can look to the example of the Nisei and say "They managed to overcome. Why not me?" I think it proves the topic is still relevant, perhaps now more than ever. Their story should stay alive.

Hervé and Sylvie offer a historical tour of the battle in Bruyères free of charge as a way of showing appreciation for the 442nd's liberation of their town. Please contact Hervé at herve.claudon@gmail.com for more information or to say hello.

Color Guard of the 442nd RCT stands at attention while citations are read following the fighting in Bruyères, France. 12 November 1944.