Looking back on the life of LSU football alumnus, veteran Joe Nagata
For the late Joe Nagata, a 1951 agriculture graduate, the year 1944 was like no other. Before his 21st birthday, Nagata played a strategic role in LSU's first bowl victory, and he fought with the most highly decorated unit in American military history, the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Nagata fought in World War II with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
After the war, Nagata completed his education at LSU and returned to Eunice, La., as a teacher and coach at Eunice High School.
Jen Nagata displays her late husband's medals, which were awarded for his three campaigns with the 442nd Regimental Combat team, including the Po Valley campaign.
Eunice recently celebrated Nagata by naming a high school football jamboree in his honor – the Joe Nagata Memorial Jamboree.
On Jan. 1, 1944 – the height of World War II – Tiger coach Bernie Moore inserted Nagata, a Japanese-American, at fullback in the Orange Bowl game against Texas A&M. Nagata was not a proto-typical fullback. He was a slender, 165-pound wingback. It was his ball-handling skills and footwork that Moore wanted in the lineup rather than a fullback whose strength was blocking and power running.
It was a surprising move by the LSU staff. Steve Van Buren, who would later be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was LSU's primary weapon. In the third game of the regular season, Texas A&M focused its defense on stopping Van Buren, and A&M won, 28-13.
World War II shut down many college programs, so the Orange Bowl scheduled a rematch between the Aggies and LSU's 5-3 Tigers. Van Buren, one of the nation's most productive running backs, was the drawing card.
Moore hoped that tweaking the Tiger offense might puzzle A&M the second time around. Nagata took direct snaps from center in LSU's version of the "Notre Dame box." He stepped forward, pivoted left or right, and handed off to Van Buren. This action froze the A&M linebackers for an instant, allowing Van Buren to capitalize on his explosive speed. This ploy, as well as Nagata's occasional bursts up the middle on the spinner series, provided the necessary distraction. Van Buren gained 160 of LSU's 181 yards rushing. The Tigers won, 19-14, a satisfying victory for Moore and his collection of 4-Fs.
The Orange Bowl trip was one of the highlights of Nagata's LSU years. Just getting back to Baton Rouge was a challenge for the team. War-time troop movements kept the Tigers from returning by train, so Baton Rouge banker Lewis Gottleib solved the problem by purchasing 18 used cars to transport the players. He later sold the cars at his automobile agency.
Nagata enjoyed telling of the eventful ride home.
"We ran out of gas rationing stamps and couldn't buy gas," Nagata once told this writer. "At every gas station we came to, we had to beg the station manager to sell us one gallon of gas, then go across the street and beg another station to sell us a gallon of gas. We did that repeatedly. It took us a lot longer to get home."
"Our car broke down at one point," Nagata said. "It took a couple of days to get it fixed. But we enjoyed swimming in the Gulf of Mexico while we were waiting."
The Reality of War
The inconvenience of war as a civilian soon transformed into the reality of war as a combatant for Nagata.
The Nisei, Japanese-Americans, were allowed to enlist in the Army and be assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. By the fall of 1944, Nagata was fighting in the mountains of northern Italy with the 442nd, trying to dislodge the Germans from Italy's "Gothic Line," a series of mountainous fortresses defended by 2,300 machine-gun nests and preventing the Allies from entering the Po River Valley, where the Allied superiority in tanks would be exploited.
In 20 months and in seven major campaigns in Italy, France, and Central Europe, the 442nd was awarded 18,143 individual metals – including 9,486 Purple Hearts – for an outfit with a maximum strength of 4,500 men.
"I was no hero," Nagata told Marty Mulé of the Times-Picayune. "They kept telling us to take the high ground, and the high ground always had a lot of Germans."
Let the record show that Nagata was awarded the Bronze Star and the Infantry Combat Medal, two decorations always associated with combat. He was involved in three campaigns with the 442nd Regimental Combat team, including the Po Valley campaign, and awarded eight medals in his tour of duty.
Back to School and Football
After the war, he completed his education at LSU and returned to Eunice, La., to build an enduring reputation as a teacher and coach at Eunice High School and St. Edmund High School.
Before Nagata went to war, Jen Brown, an eighth grader, made the trek to Tiger Stadium with her brother-in-law to see the pride of Eunice play for the Tigers. Little did she realize that No. 11 would one day become her husband. She met Nagata at a dance after he returned to LSU to complete his degree.
"He was tall, handsome and polite," she recalled. "I knew he was the one."
They were married in 1949. Nagata became an assistant football coach at Eunice High.
"I didn't know anything about football," Jen said. "But I soon learned that he was very devoted to his job, and apparently he was very good at it."
Although Jen was soon immersed in the activities of the Eunice Bobcats, there was little conversation about Nagata's participation in World War II.
"He didn't talk much about the war," she said. "But he did tell me that he was afraid. He said he fought with the bravest men he ever met. He said the Japanese-American soldiers from Hawaii were the toughest. Their parents were in camps, retained by the federal government. Joe said those men were determined to prove that they were true Americans and good soldiers."
In 23 seasons as head football coach at Eunice High and St. Edmund, Nagata's teams won 142 games, six district championships, made the state playoffs 11 times, and reached the state finals twice. He died in 2001.
Eunice recently celebrated his memory by naming a high school football jamboree in his honor – the Joe Nagata Memorial Jamboree.
His widow, Jen, the mother of three and the grandmother of five, is still playing golf at 84. She proudly shows visitors Nagata's medals, and stacks of his photographs as football player, soldier, and high school coach. Jen enjoys telling stories about Nagata's time as a high school football coach, and his relationship with his players and coaching rivals or his patriotism and how he passed along that patriotism to his team and his children.
Jen heard first-hand how the FBI came to Eunice after the attack on Pearl Harbor to investigate the Nagata family and their business, the Eunice Market, a small produce store.
"The FBI confiscated a short wave radio and about $385 and closed the store for three days during their investigation," she said. "But there was no bitterness by any member of the family. From what I have been told, the townspeople were more upset about the investigation than the Nagata family. Clearly, the Nagatas were no security risk. There were no racial remarks directed toward the family by people in Eunice. The citizens of the town stood up for them."
Nagata's senior season in high school, 1941, brought special honors to the young athlete. He was selected to the all-state football team and chosen to play in all-star games in Texas and Louisiana. All of this brought special pride to his family, and to the town of Eunice.
The FBI didn't realize that Joe Nagata of the Nagata family was a local football hero who was headed to LSU on football scholarship. The FBI was unaware of the priorities in Cajun Country – even after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan.
"Before I married Joe," Jen recalled, "some women in the Chatagnier community, where I went to school, asked my mother if she was going to allow her daughter to marry a Japanese. She replied, 'I know him. I think he is a fine man. God made him, and God made me. I don't see a problem.'"
Randy Vidrine played for Nagata at Eunice High, and came to appreciate the special qualities of the man. Beyond the practice field and the class room, they enjoyed friendly games of chess.
"Coach Nagata had an impact on thousands of students," Vidrine said, "especially those who played for him. He was always focused. Of all our coaches, Coach Nagata was the best. He could inspire you to play hard."
"Everyone that played for him knew that he respected us as individuals," Vidrine said. "He was tough. He was demanding. But you knew that he cared for you. I respected him even more when I found out he had fought with the 442nd Combat Team in World War II. I had an interest in military history and had read a lot about the 442. I believe his service with the 442 made him a stronger person."
After Vidrine's service in the 82nd Airborne in Viet Nam, the bond between the two became stronger. They were no longer coach and player, or opponents in chess. They were men who had known the horrors of war. They had both lost friends in combat, and seen men at their side killed by enemy gunfire.
"They train you to be a soldier," Vidrine said. "But in a war you become a warrior. Coach Nagata was a warrior. He rose to rank of staff sergeant and squad leader in a short period of time. That was certainly an indication of his performance in battle and his leadership ability."
"The 442 had more 'esprit d'corps' than any other unit," Vidrine said. "They wanted to prove that they were just as good as any other American, and just as good a soldier as anyone else. They fought with more ferocity."
Author Bud Johnson, director of the Andonie Sports Museum, is a former LSU Sports Information director and author of "The Perfect Season: LSU's Magic Year – 1958."