Bob Gillis and Koshi Ando were paratroopers together in the South Pacific during World War II.

Like many men tossed into combat units together, before the war, they came from two different worlds. But in the case of these two veterans, their personal histories were intertwined in a unique way, and met at an intersection named “Manzanar.”

This spring, the two comrades in arms were reunited in Lone Pine, during a trip that brought back more than memories of battlefield hardships and camaraderie. For Ando, the trip also brought back memories of his family’s internment in Manzanar.

The trip marked the first time Ando had come back to the Owens Valley and Manzanar since he enlisted in the Army, leaving his family in the camp.

Both men were raised in Southern California, and both earned spots in the 503rd Airborne Regimental Combat Team toward the end of the war. And both knew about Manzanar and the Owens Valley before they enlisted, although their memories were distinctly different.

As a youngster, Gillis and his family came to the Owens Valley to hunt and fish. During those trips, he drove past the Manzanar area, which was then simply ranch land.

After the war started, Ando and his family experienced Manzanar in a far less benign way. They, along with about 10,000 other Japanese Americans, were forcibly relocated from their homes and interned at the “war relocation center.”

As the war progressed, the U.S. government eventually allowed young men from the internment camps to volunteer for the Army.

Ando volunteered. Most Japanese Americans from the mainland were placed in the famed 442nd combat battalion and sent to fight in Europe.

 

"KOSHI ANDO"
_________________
Jon Klusmire

 

 

 

But Ando decided he wanted to be a paratrooper, so he volunteered again, this time for jump school and airborne training.

It was at jump school that Ando, then 23, and Gillis, 24, first met. “I knew him at jump school,” recalled Gillis. It was at jump school that Gillis said he learned that the trooper everyone called “Andy” had volunteered to serve his country after first being held at Manzanar, and where his family would remain until the end of the conflict.

But there wasn’t a whole lot of time to make friends while enduring airborne training. “It was pretty tough,” said Gillis, noting that the original class contained 600 volunteers, all of whom had already gone through basic training, and only 305 “graduated” to become  airborne paratroopers.

Gillis and Ando were among the 105 men from their training class assigned to duty with the 503rd in the South Pacific. The unit earned the nickname, “The Rock,” after it played a key role in recapturing Corregidor, located in the Philippines and one of the first islands the Japanese conquered at the start of the war.

From 1944-45, Gillis went on five “missions,” island-hopping across the Pacific toward Japan.

Gillis and Ando both took part in the assault on Negros Island.

For Ando and the five or six other Japanese Americans fighting with the 503rd, there were challenges on and off the battlefield. “Those guys are really to be honored” for how they handled themselves around the Filipino population of many of the islands in the area. The Filipinos, who had endured years of occupation by the Japanese Army, “hated the Japanese,” said Gillis. So it took a special bit of character to come to those same islands and face those feelings, even while wearing a U.S. Army uniform, as an American-born  soldier of Japanese descent.

“It was rough on them,” Gillis said.

But that didn’t affect how Ando and the others handled their combat duties. “From what I saw, they were all good soldiers,” said Gillis.

And Gillis offered the highest praise to Ando that an airborne soldier can offer another: “He was a good paratrooper, he sure was.”

During the fight on Negro Island, Gillis was wounded, and sent to recuperate in a stateside hospital. While getting ready to get back to his unit, he came to Lone Pine and lined up a job as custodian and maintenance man at the Lone Pine High School.

The war ended soon thereafter, though, and in 1946 Gillis and his wife, Kathryn, moved to Lone Pine.

But he and Ando continued to see each other over the years when they attended various reunions of their unit.

As years passed, time took its toll on members of the 503rd. “There aren’t too many of us left,” Gillis noted.

And that might be one reason why, finally, Ando, who lives in Santa Monica, decided to come back to the Owens Valley and Manzanar for the first time since he shipped out to join the Army.

When he came back, he was the guest of the Gillis’, and he was surrounded by Manzanar memories from the very start.

First off, Ando enjoyed evenings at the Gillis’ home, located in the Pangborn subdivision outside of Lone Pine. The house itself is unique, because Gillis built it himself out of wood from dismantled Manzanar buildings.

Then, Ando and his wife, Flo, spent the night in the home right next to Gillis’, which is a refurbished and modernized Manzanar barracks.

For all Ando knew, it could have been the same barrack he and his family lived in when they were internees at Manzanar.

Finally, Ando attended his first Manzanar Pilgrimage with his Flo, whose family had spent WW II at another of the nation’s 10 internment camps.

During his stay, a local high school student talked to the two veterans about their experiences. Ando told the young student, “I am proud of my service during the war, I am proud of my outfit, and I am still proud of the guys I served with.”

 

ANDO, KOSHI (88), veteran of WWII, 503rd Parachute RCT, peacefully passed away on June 9, 2009 in Santa Monica. He is survived by his wife, Florence Toshi Ando; son, Curt Ando; daughter, Nici (Jeff) Parker; sister, Machi Ando; sisters-in-law, Helen Okamoto of Garden Grove, CA and Frances (Ed) White of Ridgefield, WA; also survived by many nieces, nephews and other relatives. 

 

John Klusmire is a journalist for The Inyo Register, a newspaper servicing Bishop, California.

 

 

 

         

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