Post written by Gavin Do, Associate Archivist at Go For Broke National Education Center
Battlefields, combat, and wars are so often depicted and dramatized in media. Countless television shows and movies portray the bravery, tragedy, pain, and heroism commonly associated with soldiers’ war experiences. Since these works of art are mostly meant to simultaneously entertain and educate us, there is ultimately always that lack of complete authenticity when compared to a primary source.
With this post, I want to display a photograph from Go For Broke National Education Center’s archives and explain the context of the photo to help highlight the often overlooked sacrifice of the Army Medic.
Hiroshi Sugiyama was a Technician Fifth Grade in the medic detachment of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Because of laws and agreements put into place by the Geneva Convention, medical personnel were to be treated as non-combatants by the enemy. That is, they were not to be targeted or fired upon intentionally during combat, and they were to be given due opportunity to treat and remove wounded soldiers from the battlefield. Medical personnel were even easily recognizable by the Red Cross insignia they wore on their armbands and/or helmet for their protection. This did not make medics immune from battlefield danger, however, as some enemy troops (especially snipers) would recognize the Red Cross and specifically target medical personnel to cripple troop morale and eliminate the possibility of any life-saving medical services during combat. Despite this fact, medics would still routinely rush into the field to aid the wounded, putting themselves in grave danger in the process.
At the end of March 1945, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was sent to Italy to break through the Gothic Line in the Apennine Mountains. As a part of this campaign, 3rd Battalion’s K Company engaged German forces in order to capture the town of Tendola. As American troops were advancing, they came under fire from German machine guns, machine pistols, and snipers. During the American withdrawal, a rifleman was hit and was unable to move. Disregarding his own safety, Hiroshi Sugiyama rushed to the side of the wounded soldier and began administering treatment. While he was tending to the soldier, an enemy sniper disregarded Sugiyama’s Red Cross emblem and fired, killing him instantly. Technician Fifth Grade Hiroshi Sugiyama died on April 22, 1945, a week before German troops in Italy would surrender. This information was included in the Bronze Star decoration that Sugiyama was awarded posthumously. One of the last lines of the commendation reads:
“Technician Fifth Grade Sugiyama’s unselfish devotion to duty reflects highest credit on the United States Army.”
Considering that Hiroshi Sugiyama volunteered for the Army from Topaz Concentration Camp in Utah, that sentence is a vast understatement.
The featured photo of this post comes from Go For Broke’s photograph collection from Hiroshi Sugiyama’s family. This specific photograph portrays Hiroshi Sugiyama’s funeral at Golden Gate National Cemetery near Sugiyama’s home of San Francisco. While the identity of the gentleman receiving the condolence flag is not completely clear, it is very likely that it is Sergeant Shinobu P. Sugiyama, a fellow member of the 442nd’s K Company and (more significantly) Hiroshi’s brother. What is clear, however, is the pain and grief on this gentleman’s face.
Much of the wartime propaganda produced by the U.S. Government focused on demonizing the enemy through skewed photographic representations. Americans naturally associated Japanese Americans with the portrayals of Japanese soldiers and lashed out at their fellow citizens. Looking at this photograph, however, no one would be able to accurately say that it portrays anything except the quintessential values of Americanism.
In closing, it is important to reflect on the legacy of the Nisei soldier and how it was built. While many returned from the war and continued fighting prejudice in order to build successful careers and lives, others were not afforded the same opportunity. Some, like Medic Hiroshi Sugiyama, laid down their lives to fulfill their duty of saving others. As someone who has made it their career to preserve stories and legacies, a single photo such as this one can make a huge impact and say more than words could ever do. Saving items such as this photo are why archives are so important and crucial moving forward.