Hellion for Hire: SGT ROCK and Veterans
SGT. ROCK: THE LOST BATTALION #2 (OF 6) cover
A FAREWELL TO ARMS
By Billy Tucci
For the past few weeks, I’ve procrastinated the writing of this column. To be honest, I just don’t know how to begin explaining the fourteen or so life-consuming months spent writing and drawing my dream project, “Sgt. Rock – The Lost Battalion.” A series that has brought me more professional and personal surprises, honors and highs than I could ever have imagined, so much so that I find it hard to explain in words. But alas, I am a writer, so here goes my shot at expressing such sentiments and passion for the adventure of a lifetime.
Besides, it’s Veterans Day 2009, the hard cover collected version is coming out, so I better just “suck it up” and do it!
In one of my earlier columns I wrote that some might say, “it’s just a comic book”, and to be honest, “The Lost Battalion” really did start out as just that -- a simple, straightforward war story told through the eyes of the manliest four-color hero ever conceived. But it quickly turned into something more, something, well… special to all those involved. For me, it started with my research. Being a student of World War II history, I pride myself on my “knowledge” of June 6, 1944 -- D-Day and the invasion of France, but nothing prepared me for the “spirituality” of Normandy that awaited me. Armed with camera, computer and copies of actual D-Day news reports and articles, I was soon overwhelmed as every town, hedgerow, sand dune and gravestone holds unbelievable sanctity. It was here, in the ancient town of Ste.-Mere-Eglise that I wrote the D-Day scene. Hoping to first capture the spirit of the actual correspondence of the news reports (today wildly criticized as “cheerleading journalism) I too was soon swept away with emotion and “saw” just what a monumental achievement the liberation truly was to its grateful inhabitants.
If Normandy is the most spiritual place I’ve encountered, then the Vosges Mountains must be the most magical.
At times both beautiful and terrifying, this dense, frigid “black forest” set the scene for the “battle of the lost battalion” during the last week of October 1944. Within it lies the story of 275 cut-off, starving and battered soldiers of the 141st Infantry Regiment (36th Infantry Division) enacting one of the greatest “last stands” in modern military history -- the holding off of an overwhelming enemy force for seven days before being relieved by the Japanese American or Nisei infantrymen of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. What I wasn’t aware of, however, was the unsung heroics of the ground crews and pilots of the 405th Fighter Squadron -- whose volunteers flew suicide missions of mercy to re-supply the besieged “T-Patchers” and ensure their survival. Because of the mission’s urgency, these were the only pilots in the entire US 9th Air Force allowed to get airborne that week, as the rest were grounded due to “un-flyable” weather.
Another vital, yet incredulous (and dare I say suicidal) aspect involving the heroes of the “Lost Battalion” was the heinous mistreatment and overall disdain endured by the Nisei – and not only by the enemy, but their own countrymen. To most Americans, they were nothing more than “Japs”, expendable tools for the meat-grinder who eventually, and perhaps begrudgingly won respect and admiration for their selfless valor and horrific casualties. The result being thousands of medals for heroism and hundreds of white Christian crosses marking the final resting place for fallen Buddhist souls – even though many of their own families were still interned behind barbed wire back home.
While crafting the book, I realized that I was nothing more than an emissary - a messenger to somehow share a true story with readers who otherwise might never had heard of the Lost Battalion. Again, the more research I did, the more personal the story became as I delved into actual 141st Daily Staff Journals, battle maps and soldier diaries. But a special note of thanks must also be given to the detailed writings of my great friend and historian Michael Higgins (son of Lost Battalion hero and commanding officer, Captain Martin J. Higgins). Michael is not only a 141st /442nd historian but also a champion of the 405th FS. I had no idea of their existence and the fact that had it not been for those P47 pilots, there might not have been a Lost Battalion for the Nisei to save. I spoke with Mr. Higgins (and continue to) almost daily and it was a great joy to me to recently present him with some soil from Le trapin des saules and a recovered piece from one of the belly tanks that delivered not only food, and ammunition, but hope to his father’s beleaguered men. Another crucial element to this book was the assistance of author Franz Steidl and his amazing book, “Lost Battalions: Going for Broke in the Vosges, Autumn 1944.” Thank you Mr. Steidl for all your time and generosity while answering any and all of my questions regarding the battle, and the men on both sides who endured it.
And speaking of generosity, how could I ever forget Vosgien historians, Hervé Claudon and Gerome Villain? Over the course of several months, Hervé and Gerome not only served as indispensable experts on the region, the battle, and the men themselves, but accepted me into their homes as family while guiding me through every inch of the vast battlefield. Words still cannot convey my emotions upon first seeing Les renards cuisinent. Literally translating to “the foxes are cooking”, it is how the French locals refer to the eerie fog banks that rise from the Vosges Mountains and what greeted the forging Americans back in 1944. This first-person perspective and connection to the battleground (still untouched) will never leave me and I will forever be grateful to my Vosgien “brothers” for it – I cannot wait to return!
Then there are the veterans themselves! To Lt. Erwin Blonder, then a young forward artillery officer who protected the one chance the battalion had for survival, the SCR-300 Radio, with his life and armed with nothing more than a .45. I am indebted to Mr. Blonder for all his endless time and recollection on just what it was like to be trapped and surrounded on that murderous hill. How can anyone not be moved to tears upon hearing his final transmission, “Patrol from 442nd here. Tell them we love them!” after first seeing the grimy “Little Iron Men” of Item Company.
Not in my wildest dreams did I ever feel that the Nisei would accept a “haole” like myself into their fold. But they did, with open arms, much gifts and unforgettable conversation. I must thank my dear friends and heroes, Jimmy Yamashita, Terry Shima, George Sakato, Lawson Sakai, Virgil (Nishimura)Westdale, David Katagiri and the many others who have accompanied me on the “Sgt. Rock’s Tour of Heroes” store and convention signings (on their own accord) in support of the books. I have tried to weave in fictional characters based on real heroes for the sake of education and yet to preserve their personal privacy and honor. For example, there really was a “Mutt” and “Barney” who served in Item Company. Matsui “Mutt” Sakumoto, who, being the first man to reach the Lost Battalion asked the now-legendary question, “Do you guys need any cigarettes?” and Medal of Honor recipient, Barney Hajiro, who, BAR in hand, led a banzai charge that broke the German lines and paved the way to the Lost Battalion. Barney was terribly wounded in the engagement but thankfully survived the war and quietly lives (as does Matsui) in Hawaii today. Speaking of Hawaii, I must also give a very heartfelt thanks to Mr. Ted Tsukiyama for all dakind in regards to pidgin!
As it were, working on this book has been the honor of my lifetime and I am still in shock of being asked to speak at the Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans Association reunion in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. But nothing will ever compare to the sight of 400 booksellers rising to their feet and giving a thunderous standing ovation to 442nd veterans Dr. Kenneth Inada and Colonel Arthur Nishimoto during last year’s Diamond Retailer summit in Las Vegas – this without question being the highlight moment of my career. None of this would have been possible had it not been for Susan Shoho Uyemura of the Japanese American Living Legacy. Susan’s tireless work and introductions to so many veterans and their families can never be repaid.
One thing I didn’t have to research however, was Sgt. Rock himself. This series is truly a
personal homage to my comic book idols and Sgt. Rock creators Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert. I’m the proud owner of hundreds of issues of Our Army At War and Sgt. Rock and have studied, dissected and devoured each and every one of them over and over. Now, I’m believe I can write Batman, The Flash and even Superman from a first person perspective, but Rock always reminded me of my own senior Non Commissioned Officers when I first joined the army. To me they were TRUE superheroes -- mythic, god-like paratroopers sporting Ranger and Special Forces tabs on their shoulders and Combat Infantrymen badges over their hearts. It was hard to put yourself on the same level with these men who were more father figures than anything else. They never boasted or bragged of their experiences or accomplishments but rather spoke of the friends they lost – their heroes. So it was in the footsteps of these men, and Mr. Kanigher and Mr. Kubert that I approached Rock – not as a peer, but a dutiful follower.
You’ll notice that much of Rock’s dialogue is actually taken from Mr. Kanigher’s original scripts – this is my attempt to capture Rock’s “spirit” and serve as a respectful acknowledgment of Mr. Kanigher’s genius. It also led to the creation of our narrator, war correspondent William Joseph Kilroy. Look closely at the depictions of him and you’ll see, well, me. I drew myself in as the narrator, a fictional witness to factual events that must be conveyed to the world. One who’s cartoons and quotes pay reverence to another hero of mine, Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist, Bill Mauldin. Named so for Mauldin’s most famous creations, the grizzled but lovable dogfaces “Willie and Joe”, Kilroy, (not that one but the other one) follows Easy Company and the 442nd throughout the book giving a humanistic perspective on a very inhumane war. Again, like, me, Willie is in awe of the soldiers – but over the course of a few months, he shifts from cheerleader to cynic to the point where his idealistic words and pictures can no longer betray the true misery and hypocrisy before him. You’ll also notice that most of Willie’s drawings bare some semblance to Mr. Kubert’s (as well as my other comic book idol, Russ Heath). This too is an attempt to show my utmost respect and admiration for “The Man of Rock!” I had the honor recently to share a podium with “Joe” (which he insisted I call him) regarding Sgt. Rock followed by some quality time together were I anxiously showed him the artwork of the issues. After carefully and quietly flipping through the pages, he remarked with a big smile and bigger handshake, “Wow, this is a real labor of love for you!” To which I replied, “well, it’s all your fault!” He got a big kick out of that, and I got a memory of a lifetime.
There are so many that deserve a special note of thanks and the acknowledgement that without them, this book would never have been possible. Starting of course with DC Comics’ Dan Didio and Paul Levitz. Both of whom had the courage to allow someone known primarily for drawing “girl books” the opportunity to tread on hallowed ground, and understand my need to take Rock in new direction, not for any reasons other than to maintain the integrity of the original as only Kubert and Kanigher can do. Without Dan and Paul there would be nothing at all. My sincerest thanks also go out to DC staffers Steve Rotterdam, Ian Sattler, and Bob Wayne. Words cannot describe my admiration for editors Michael Marts, Janelle Siegel, Bob Harras, colorist Brian Miller, Mark Sparacio and everyone else who labored and remained devoted to the project. Forgive me if I drove you all crazy with my quirky obsessions and understand I did it all because I cared so much.
Then there are my friends in the reenacting community. Specifically my “Easy Company” -- the men of the US 3rd Infantry Division “Battle Patrol” and my “Germans” – The 2nd Gebirgsjaeger 136th Regiment 1st Batallion 2nd Kompanie. Every one of them a historian, every one of them a willing model to run, “die” and thrash about in the rain and snow without regards to themselves or their priceless relics. Lastly, I must thank my beautiful and oh so long-suffering “war bride” Deborah for putting up with so much crap that it isn’t even funny.
As you can see, because of “Sgt. Rock – The Lost Battalion,” I have made many wonderful friends, walked the beaches of Normandy, and climbed the mountains of the Vosges Forest. I have seen the foxholes of Hill 679 and touched the white crosses at St. Laurent and Epinal. I have been honored to represent the United States of America during a memorial service in the French city of Bruyeres and left my dog tags in a tree in Ste.-Mere-Eglise. Through author Mark Bando, I have interviewed and hung out with Don Burgett, Jake McNiece, Jack Agnew, Robert Cone, Jack Wormer and many other members of the 506th PIR. Most important of all, I have befriended French partisans and the families and veterans of the 141st and 442nd infantry regiments who have generously given me their time and incomparable recounts of those murderous days of 1944.
The Nisei have a saying, Kodomo no tame ni ---- "for the sake of the children" it implies hard work and self-sacrifice so that the family, the children, may be safe from harm and secure in life. I believe it resonates so true here as all these men helped not only to change the world but save it as well.
So some may say, “It’s just a comic book”, and that perhaps, I’m being totally and pretentiously overblown in my sentiments. My only answer to such a statement is that, again this is indeed my dream project -- one that has reinvigorated my love of comics and afforded me such feelings of joy, anxiety and anticipation I haven’t felt since the debut of “Shi #1” all those years ago. Beyond that, it has also been a life changing experience that I’ll never forget and I pray to those whose personal thanks are not included here to understand that they are forever in my heart. I have learned so much about a horribly dark time in history and of those who rescued humanity from evil. I have tried to insert fictional characters into a real event and produce a story that is both entertainment and education, and I want you all to know that I never took it lightly.
As I wrote earlier the Sgt. Rock HC comes out soon – I received my copies on Friday, so even though the book’s slated to be in stores on November 25th, I think there’s a chance it’ll be out on Veteran’s Day – and I believe that would be quite fitting. I know for sure however that the United States Military Academy at West Point ordered about 125 copies and will have them available in the their campus bookstore on the 11th for sure!
And please remember, THANK A VETERAN!!!!
Ambassadeur, De La Region De Bruyeres, Vosges, France
Bayport, New York