Professor recounts WWII service
June 3, 2004 9:00 p.m.
James Yamazaki has a lot of stories to tell.
Yamazaki, a professor at the UCLA David Geffen School of
Medicine, served as a combat surgeon in Europe during World War II.
He was captured by German forces and was a prisoner until the end
of the war. He studied the effects of the atomic bomb on victims
after the war. And he is currently working on a movie about victims
of the atomic bomb.
Many stories of WWII veterans like Yamazaki will be remembered
Sunday: June 6 marks the 60th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied
forces invaded Normandy, France, in one of the first significant
moves to end Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in Europe.
Though this day is historically significant for many people, for
Yamazaki it has a personal connection, as well.
Yamazaki did not take part in the D-Day invasion, but he was
sent to Europe shortly afterward, arriving in November 1944 as part
of a troop sent to relieve the original D-Day fighters.
He served as the battalion surgeon in the 106th Infantry
Division, a non-Asian corps. This was very rare during WWII because
most Asian soldiers were segregated in Asian-only troops.
“They needed doctors all right, and I had just finished
medical school,” Yamazaki said.
Prior to attending medical school at Marquette University in
Wisconsin, Yamazaki was an undergraduate pre-medicine student at
The war was not on the forefront of Yamazaki’s mind during
his UCLA years, when he was a self-proclaimed
“In 1937, the year I came to UCLA, I was taking a
political science course with Professor Steiner, and he told us not
to worry about the war,” Yamazaki said.
The next few years, though, saw a souring of relations between
Japan and the United States. After the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, many Japanese Americans were thrown into
internment camps by the U.S. government, which feared Japanese
Americans would prove disloyal.
Prompted by concerns over his family’s safety, Yamazaki
signed up for the Army right after enrolling in medical school,
where he was one of only two Asians in his class.
“I signed up so that I would have something to show where
my loyalties were,” Yamazaki said.
Immediately after completing a medical internship in St. Louis,
Yamazaki was drafted, and a few months later he was on his way to
Though arriving five months after the D-Day invasion,
Yamazaki’s division took part in some of the heaviest
fighting in the area.
“Within a week of us arriving there we were already
involved in battle, and it turned out to be the very biggest battle
of the allied forces during World War II,” Yamazaki said.
This battle, known as the Battle of the Bulge or the Ardennes
Offensive, lasted from December 16, 1944 to January 28, 1945. It
was the largest land battle the United States fought during WWII.
More than 1 million men took part in the fighting, including some
600,000 Germans, 500,000 Americans and 55,000 British soldiers.
The United States lost over 19,000 soldiers during the battle,
making it one of the heaviest death tolls for the country.
“Our outfit of 10,000 was on the front, and within the
first five days we had a casualty (count) of 7,000,” Yamazaki
“We really got clobbered.”
Though he was not wounded, Yamazaki and many members of his
division were captured by German troops four days after the battle
Yamazaki remained in captivity until April 1945.
“After we were captured, we were under the bombardment of
our own planes, surviving a couple of bombing raids,”
Yamazaki and his fellow prisoners journeyed more than 800 miles
through Germany, getting moved to various prisoner camps.
In spring of 1945, while he was being held prisoner in a camp in
Hammelburg, Germany, Yamazaki and many of his comrades were almost
freed by U.S. forces.
“We thought we were liberated, but they didn’t bring
enough men to free 5,000 prisoners, so most of the men had to
return to camp,” Yamazaki said.
He decided to try his chances at finding his own way back to
friendly territory, joining the crew of an Allied forces tank.
Yamazaki’s second attempt to escape, though, again proved
“It turned out that the prison camp was located right next
to a training camp for German soldiers,” he said with a touch
of irony in his voice.
“A couple of days later, we were recaptured.”
Yamazaki was transferred to another prison camp in Mousseberg,
“It was a huge camp, with (about) 50,000 prisoners from
everywhere, Australia, Europe, all kinds of places. I guess the
Germans had to put them somewhere,” Yamazaki said.
In April, with the end of the war looming, Allied forces invaded
the camp and liberated the prisoners, Yamazaki among them.
After his return to the United States, Yamazaki was recruited by
the National Academy of Sciences to travel to Japan in order to
study the effect of the atomic bomb on Japanese children.
He stayed in Nagasaki, the second city on which the United
States dropped an atomic bomb, until 1950. Yamazaki eventually
returned to the United States to become a part of the faculty at
the UCLA medical school, a lucky break according to him.
“Just before I went to Japan I visited a UCLA professor,
Dr. Stafford Warren, who was in Japan right after the
bombing,” Yamazaki said.
Though Yamazaki didn’t know so at the time, Warren was the
founding dean of the newly established UCLA medical school, and,
after a brief correspondence, Yamazaki joined the school’s
He has remained at the school since then and been involved in a
variety of projects. Most recently he helped to establish an
undergraduate course on nuclear weapons called “Nuclear
Weapons, a Critical Decision.”
He had also contributed to a book on Sept. 11, 2001, recently
released by the Asian American Studies Center.
“He has been a great friend to the center here for many
years while also being greatly active in the Japanese American
community,” said Mary Kao, publications coordinator at the
Yamazaki is also currently involved in a documentary film
project called “Children of the Atomic Bomb.”
“He really wants to push the unknown story about Japanese
Americans during War World II,” said Diane Tanaka, associate
director at the “Go for Broke” Educational Foundation,
which collects oral histories from World War II veterans.
Yamazaki has contributed his own experiences to the more than
460 interviews collected at the foundation.
Even though he will not be participating in any D-Day
commemoration Sunday, Yamazaki has strong memories tied to the
Some of these memories of the war years he remembers fondly,
such as when he met his wife while on the way to a military
training school in Philadelphia.
Others memories, such as those of lost friends, are much more
“One of my very good friends at the time was Hitoshi
Yonemura, another UCLA student. I knew him really well,”
“When I was doing my internship in 1944 at City Hospital
in Saint Louis, Hitoshi dropped by to say good-bye before shipping
out to Italy.”
Yonemura was killed during the Po Valley campaign in Italy.
“We used to study together. We had some of the same
classes,” Yamazaki said. “And I never saw him again
after this last visit.”