Talk Story: Clinton Shiraishi

LIHUE — Clinton Shiraishi said he already has the date penned into his appointment book — Sept. 5, 3 p.m., Kauai Veterans Center.

“I plan on going,” Shiraishi, a jovial and soft-spoken resident at the Regency at Puakea retirement and assisted living community said.

That’s when the Unlikely Liberators exhibit, curated by military historian Eric Saul, will open with ceremonies at the Kauai Veterans Center in Lihue. From Sept. 6 through 27, the exhibit will be open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

It documents the encounters between the German concentration camp prisoners and Nisei soldiers serving in the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion.

In April 1945, about 15,000 prisoners from the sub-camps around Dachau were moved to the Dachu camp and sent on a death march toward the Austrian border. These prisoners were from the Jewish labor camps of Landsberg, Kaufering and Uting. The Germans intended to murder all living eyewitnesses and the march trekked through suburban towns in the Munich area.

Less than two weeks later, just 6,000 prisoners were alive. The rest died of starvation or failing health or were shot along the route.

Approaching Waakirchen, 37 miles south of Dachau, hundreds of prisoners were lying on the open ground, covered in freshly fallen snow.

On seeing an advance patrol of the U.S. Army, the 522 Field Artillery Battalion, the Germans started to flee.

The Unlikely Liberators exhibit uses original photographs and negatives held by veterans and families. Additionally, photographs were collected from museums and archives from all parts of the world, including personal photographs from Jewish survivors who were liberated.

Did you serve with the 522 Field Artillery Battalion?

I was with the 522 Field Artillery. We went all over, starting in Italy. They transported us to France and we fought over there in some of the most ferocious battles of World War II.

The Artillery Battalion is always back of the infantry — the infantry directly facing the enemy. We backed them with 105mm howitzers with a 17-mile range. Before we got to Florence, I was wounded when an enemy shell exploded above me and shrapnel sliced my thigh. My ears were ringing, and my hearing was impaired so I wear a hearing aid today.

After rescuing the Lost Battalion in October 1944, which was part of the 442nd RCT, we were in Southern France for four to six months to rest and wait for replacements because so many of our unit were killed or badly wounded. I remember Thanksgving dinner in Southern France. The cooks prepared a really good Thanksgiving dinner. Normally, we ate C-rations, or canned food. This was a real cooked meal.

How did you meet the Jewish survivors of Dachau?

In March 1945, we were separated from the combat team. The 442 was sent to Italy and the 522 was attached to another unit to cross the Franco-German border.

The German soldiers were retreating and we were chasing them — mile after miles, town after town. Our unit was the first to come across this particular camp.

When we came to the camp, the German guards has run away and Shojiyo Kajioka blasted open the lock. Some of us went inside the camp and saw the prisoners. There was still snow on the ground. It was very cold, and yet we saw some prisoners lying on the ground. Several who were standing could hardly walk — they were skin and bones, had sunken-in eyes. They looked horrible.

Some of the good ones walked outside the camp to get food. We knew they were very hungry and started feeding them, letting them drink from our canteens. I don’t know what happened to them because we were there for only a short period.

When we walked into the camp, there were large buildings like warehouses. Inside, there were platforms where dead people were piled up. In the back of the building, there was a large oven where the Germans would burn the dead people. A few of the prisoners could speak English, but most cannot talk. But we looked at them and knew they were very very happy.

How did you end up with the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion?

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese planes flew over Honolulu and bombed Pearl Harbor. At that time, many of the non-Japanese looked on us with suspicion and wondered if we would join the Japanese army if they landed on Oahu.

The president of the United States became convinced that Nisei should show loyalty to their country, and the 442nd RCT was formed. About 10,000 Nisei joined, but only about 3,000 were selected. I volunteered to serve with the 442. Originally, I was assigned to Co. E infantry rifle company. Then, a few weeks later, I was ordered to report to the 522 Field Artillery Battalion.

After spending a few weeks with the 522, I returned to Co. E to visit friends who asked, “Eh Clint, what happened to you?” I told them, “I was moved to the 522 because they need smart guys.”

What happened after Dachau?

In April 1945, the Germans surrendered. Even after that, I was kept in Germany as part of the Army of Occupation. As new recruits came in, the older veterans were sent to rest areas and transported from Germany to France. Eventually, we caught a ship across the Atlantic Ocean, rode a train to California before getting on another ship to Hawaii.

I joined in March 1943, and after two-and-a-half years, ended in France. I remember coming home — riding the ship to Honolulu, being in camp, and honorably discharged. I came home on Dec. 24 — the day before Christmas.

How did you start up your law practice?

I was the son of immigrant sugar plantation workers on Maui.

After graduating Maui High School in 1940, I was a good student, but my parents could not send me to college.

When the war started, I joined the Army and used the GI Bill to continue my education. I lived in Chicago, Illinois, for seven years to go to college and the John Marshall Law School, graduating in 1953.

When I graduated, I got married to Fumiko who was a student in Chicago when I started law school. Fumiko had finished school and was planning to return to Kauai. I said, “If she leaves, I might never see her, again,” so I asked her to marry me.

Following law school, I passed the bar and started practicing by myself starting in 1954. Business started flourishing so I asked two young lawyers — Dennis Yamada and Calvin Murashige — to become partners. We became very successful, and in 1979 my son Sherman graduated from John Marshall and returned home to join the practice.

I retired in 1997 but I still come in every day. My first two partners are retired and now Sherman and his daughter are doing very well.

I was privileged to be appointed as a district court judge where I served for six years.

I was a successful politician, first being elected to the House of Representatives in 1958 when Hawaii was still a territory.

In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state, and in 1962 I was elected state senator. Following that term in 1966, I was 46 years old and still at the prime of political life.

But I didn’t enjoy serving in the Legislature because every Monday I would catch the plane and stay in a hotel for the week. On Friday afternoon, I would catch a plane to come home and be with family. The law practice was thriving and I had to work over the weekends. I decided to retire from politics to spend time with the growing children.

I started Kauai Realty in 1960 where I was the principle broker. I’m still the president.

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