pocketful of miracles
by Douglas Messerli
Susamu Ito “Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images” at the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles. I attended the show with Deborah Meadows on August 4, 2015. The piece below is also greatly indebted to an interview with Ito and commentary by Carolina A. Miranda, Los Angeles Times, July 16, 2015.
After visiting the photography show, “Before They Were Heroes,” at the Japanese American National Museum of the photography of Susumu Ito, it is difficult for me to know upon which aspects of the life and career of this phenomenal figure to first focus.
His life began in Stockton where he and his Japanese immigrant family lived as sharecroppers, planting and harvest various crops such as celery, asparagus and corn. Like many a young child, Ito played the role of a slightly mischievous boy during his elementary school education, one day turning up to the classroom with his pockets stuffed with grasshoppers. You can see the boy still in the photos of him as a young soldier, the bemused smile, the glint in the eye of that suggests an intense joy in living.
By high school, however, the young boy had become a good student and was accepted to attend the University of California, Berkeley. But his parents, rightfully worried that his being Japanese might get in the way of his education, demanded that he seek out a more practical career. Without any bitterness—a sensibility that seems to dominate the many trials of his life—Ito states, according to the Los Angeles Times piece by Carolina Miranda, “I was a good mechanic, so I focused on that.”
In 1940 Ito was drafted into the army, becoming a motor sergeant in Riverside, California. He found the job utterly boring: “You’re just taking care of trucks and cars and assigning drivers.” After Pearl Harbor, however, his gun was taken from him and his future looked bleak. His family, like thousands of other Japanese-Americans was interred into the internment camp at Rowher, Arkansas, built in an isolated swamp surrounded by woods where the fathers and sons were assigned to work.
When a special, segregated Japanese combat unit was established, Ito quickly volunteered, becoming a forward observer. That unit, now called the “Lost Batallion,” for its being surrounded by the Germans in Vosages, was later decorated for its bravery.
With his group Ito departed from Newport News, Virginia to the Adriatic Coast in Italy before being deployed for eight European campaigns, including liberating a substation of Dachau Concentration camp.
Throughout his travels Ito carried another illegal object in his pocket, a small Agfa Memo, 34-millimeter camera, with great zoom capabilities. As Ito wryly comments today, “I like to break rules.” Fortunately, the camera was never confiscated, and the results of his remarkable eye and his ability to capture the dramatic and sometimes everyday events going on about are the subject of this stunning new show.
Ito took pictures as he moved forward, sending the negatives back to his family in Rowher where they were collected into a vast archive consisting of thousands of images which he later donated to the museum. “I had stacks of them in boxes and albums cluttering up the place,” Miranda quotes Ito, “I’m glad to give to a museum instead.” The museum has since digitized many of the images and this show consists of digitized transfers onto wooden blocks which permit the viewers to pick them up and observe them up close or to, as I did, rearrange them on shelves in order to re-photograph the images (and accordingly many of the photos presented here have been slightly cropped). One might wish, moreover, to see some of these works presented as high quality framed photographs, although some of the negatives are displayed for viewing under glass.
Some of the photos represent the equivalent of soldier tourist pictures, battalion members, including Ito, represented in what might almost have been snap shots against the backgrounds of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Colosseum of Rome, etc. The soldiers group and mug for the camera, clowning around as they bath or simply stand together in fraternal comradeship. Yet even some of these simple face-on images, there are brilliant examples of Ito’s visual strategies, as in the photograph of the photographer sitting on a lawn before the Eiffel tower which, given the long perspective, makes the monument appear to be a mere toy instead of the towering monument to the city of light.
At other moments, however, Ito caught high dramatic moments of the actual battles, the US troops shuffling off through the dust into battle, Germans running across the fields in fear of being captured or shot, eerie military processions that seem like part of a neorealist war movie by Roberto Rossellini or even a more surreal death-like processions of Ingmar Bergman.
Whole cities are show in their destruction, great sites shelled into decay. Throughout all of these remarkable reminders is the image of Ito himself, with his brilliantly alive eyes framed by the round circles of his eyeglasses.
Europeans, Ito reported, were often surprised to see Japanese soldiers in American uniform. Miranda quotes the artists: "Sometimes when Germans were captured," he recalls with a belly laugh, "we'd tell them, 'Don't you know that Japan is fighting with the U.S. Army now?"
What is perhaps most amazing is how through the vicissitudes of war these photographs even survived. Ito reports to having loaded the cartridges of film under blankets, and when stationed for any period in a town would get them developed before sending them on to his parents.
In hindsight it seems even more remarkable that Ito and the members of this Japanese battalion continued to battle on with such equanimity while knowing that their own parents were suffering in isolation in American internment camps. On a visit to his parents, before being stationed overseas, the photographer snapped several photos of the his parents sitting before their military-like barracks, reiterating the museum’s many other photographs of what life was like in these “prisons.” Ito simply comments "They had a positive attitude about it," he says of the way his family dealt with internment. "They saw it as something they would just have to endure for the course of the war."
When asked by the reporter what he felt about his family being locked away in Rowher, while he battled on the front, Ito responded in enormous understatement, “It was ironic.”
At the Dachau sub-camp he became friends with a liberated Lithuanian Jew, Larry Lubetski, who had been interned at Dachau. The two became lifelong friends, a testimony to which is featured in the show.
At War’s end, Ito moved to Cleveland where his family had settled after their release, and, finally, the returned solder was able, due to the G. I. Bill, to attend college at Cornell.
Almost as amazing as the first half of his life, was the fact that, attracted to biology, Ito became a noted cell biologist, becoming a professor and researcher at Harvard Medical School, where he specialized in the gastrointestinal system, proving, with William Silen, that the mucosal lining of the stomach could repair itself far more rapidly than ever before thought, a discovery that surely must have had implications for gastrointestinal problems such as Barrett’s Syndrome and other ailments due to Acid Reflux—a condition from which I suffered and was cured by doctors ablating the surface of the esophagus which, as Ito and Silen might have predicted, was quickly restored to its original condition. So, in some strange way, I might toast my own health to the young photographer with pockets full of such miraculous things.
Los Angeles, August 5, 2015