November 9, 2017

"Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry."

"Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry." FDR, 3 February 1943

George Suyama
Photo Courtesy of Carl Williams
Montana native George Washington Suyama was last seen October 22, 1944, as he was shot from a tank by a German shooter.   The tank was one of several on the road to liberate Bruyeres, France from German occupation.  Sergeant Suyama was a member of Company A, 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment.  The 100th Battalion and 442nd were segregated units manned by hundreds of first generation Japanese fighting for the USA  in the European Theater.  They fought for the United States while many of their families were interned in the United States.  A year and a day after his disappearance, the U.S. Government contacted George’s  siblings of his “Missing in Action” status. [1] Sergeant Suyama died a long way from home.

George Suyama was born in Great Falls, MT, 7 October 1918, the second child of Harry and Tamy Suyama.  The family was among a group of Japanese who lived near, and worked for the Great Northern Railway.   By 1930, the Suyama family included five children.  They had moved north of Havre to establish a truck farm.[2]  Mr. and Mrs. Suyama’s produce soon earned a reputation of quality, and the family was active in the local Methodist church. They encouraged their children to attend school and all excelled in their education.  Sadly, both parents passed away while the two younger children were still in school. [3] It appears the older siblinlgs, Marda, George, and Tana, supported the family. By 1940 the Suyama children, all Nisei, or first generation Japanese Americans, were hard at work. Betty, the youngest, lodged with the Green family while finishing Havre High School. Frank and George labored at a mine in Fergus County, while 23-year-old Mary lived and worked in Helena for Montana’s ex-governor John Erickson and his wife Grace. [4]  After graduating from Havre High School with a 4.0 average, Tana headed east.  By 1942 she would meet and marry Dr. George Marumoto in Minneapolis. [5]

George Suyama with coworkers and neighbors at Mill Site near Brooks, MT circa 1940
Photo courtesy of  Carl Williams
In December 1941, George Washington Suyama was once again living near the railroad with other workers of Japanese descent, this time in Helena.  His enlistment card recorded his employer as Ogata Gardens.   He traveled to Missoula to enlist in the Army two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack. [6] Due to his Japanese ethnicity, he was denied combat duty and stationed in Arkansas. However, with the formation of the 442nd Infantry, Sergeant Suyama saw the opportunity to prove the “lie to the wrong headedness and racism that led to internment.” [7]   By October 1944, he was serving as a replacement for the 100th Battalion Combat Unit as it fearlessly fought its way through France.  For his service and sacrifice, the U.S. Army recognized Sergeant George Washington Suyama for,

 . . . heroic achievement on 22 October 1944. Directed to establish contact with elements of their battalion entrapped in the vicinity of Biffontaine, France, Sergeant Suyama and his comrades started for their objective mounted on five light tanks. Encountering a hail of fire from well dug-in enemy positions on the road, Sergeant Suyama and the rest of the platoon fearlessly resisted with their individual weapons and the machine guns emplaced on the tanks, neutralized a considerable portion of the concentrated fire and enabled the tanks to reach friendly forces. By his heroic disregard for personal safety, Sergeant Suyama contributed immeasurably to the subsequent attainment of the objective and reflects honor on the United States Army.” HEADQUARTERS SIXTH ARMY GROUP, U.S. ARMY, GENERAL ORDERS NUMBER 15, 30 December, 1944. [8]

Sergeant Suyama was ultimately awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, Distinguished Unit Badge, Combat Infantry Badge, American Campaign Medal, and more.  For its size, the 442nd was the most decorated unit in the history of U.S. warfare. [9]

With the naming of their oldest son George Washington, Harry and Tamy  Suyama professed their appreciation and commitment to this county.  With his actions and sacrifice so far from the fields of central Montana, Sergeant Suyama not only reinforced his parents’ love of the United States, he succeeded in proving that despite the grotesquely unfair treatment that Americans of Japanese descent were subjected, patriotism is not a matter of ethnicity.

[1] Neil Nakadate, Looking After Minidoka: An American Memoir, Indiana University Press, 2013, p. 195
[2] See 1920, 1930 & 1940 U.S. Census for Harry Suyama family. 
[3] “Mrs. Harry Suyama Taken By Death,” The Havre Daily News, 23 August 1938.
[4] 1940 U.S. Census, Suyama, George, Frank, Betty & Mary
[5] Nakadate,  p. 124-126,  194-96
[6] Suyama, George Enlistment card, RS 223, Montana Adjutant General’s Office Records, Polks Helena City Directory 1941-42, p, 204, 1940 U.S. Census for Rinzi Ogata. 
[7] Nakadate, p. 195
[8] Carl Williams, Hill 555 Project, Report to Donors, 31 October, 2017, Biography Sgt. George Washington Suyama,   Russ Pickett, “Sgt. George W. Suymana,” Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial, Lorraine, France, Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/56375835  Accessed 7 September 2017.
[9] Ibid. 

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