Graphic of cartoon pando on skis and WWII Soldier who created it.

The “Pando Commando” logo is a part of 10th Mountain Division history and can be seen throughout Fort Drum today. Staff Sgt. Tatsumi Iwate, a second-generation Japanese American (Nisei) Soldier assigned to Camp Hale’s Publications Office, is credited with sketching the iconic logo. (Graphic by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)

Cartoon bear on skis left indelible mark on 10th Mountain Division Soldiers of WWII, 
set graphic artist on path to greater glory

Mike Strasser

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (June 5, 2024) – A cartoon panda bear on skis made its mimeographed debut to 10th Mountain Division Soldiers on an informational bulletin in January 1943, at Camp Hale, Colorado.

What became known as the Pando Commando is a part of 10th Mountain Division history that can be seen throughout Fort Drum today. The logo is displayed inside Hays Hall and in a new exhibit at the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum, not to mention the merchandise available at the Off the Beatin’ Path Gift Shop.

Staff Sgt. Tatsumi Iwate, a second-generation Japanese American (Nisei) Soldier assigned to Camp Hale’s Publications Office, is credited with sketching the iconic logo.

After the bombing at Pearl Harbor, Iwate knew it was his patriotic duty to serve his country, and he yearned to put his artistic talents to use for the Army. He reported for basic training on Feb. 20, 1941, at Camp Robinson, Arkansas. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed military commanders to relocate Japanese Americans to internment camps. Iwate’s family left their home in Lomita, California, and was sent to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas.

Iwate would experience similar discrimination in his Army career. After basic training, he was assigned to the Detached Enlisted Man’s List (DEML) at Camp Crowder, Missouri. This unit was composed of service members who were not assigned to a specific branch or military occupational specialty. Most Nisei Soldiers were given menial tasks.

In a letter home, Iwate wrote that his training consisted of sweeping and mopping floors, scrubbing down the barracks walls, guard duty, and KP (kitchen patrol). He would draw in his spare time, hoping his sketches might get him an assignment with the Recruiting Service.

In June 1942, Iwate left for Camp Carson, Colorado, seeking better opportunities at the new Army camp. The first issue of the Camp Carson Mountaineer was published, and Iwate didn’t think highly of it. He wrote: “The right thing to wrap up the fish with.” Noting the “shabby” layout, he thought he could offer a redesign to convince the Mountaineer staff of his talent.

Instead, Iwate was placed on labor details. His correspondence indicated he was relegated to cleaning out horse stalls. “Join the Army, and be a hay worker,” he wrote. “To illustrate, sometimes the hay barn is clean out of hay and they know these cute animals got to eat. So, what do they do? 4 or 5 freight cars full of hay come in. Very frequently on Sundays!”

His unit relocated to Camp Hale, Colorado, but Iwate knew he would not be joining the ski troops, for which the facilities in Pando Valley were built to train. He wrote:

“For the duration, American Japanese soldiers would be traveling from camp to camp like an unexperienced houseboy looking for work.”

He noted there were plenty of mules to look after at Camp Hale, but he had hopes that the camp commander – “looks like a regular guy,” he wrote – would approve his request to be an artist. He spent time on KP and guard duty, and he used his free time to design cartoon posters to amuse the troops.    

It appeared his talents would not go to waste at Camp Hale.

“Mighty is the power of my drawing pencil for that’s what got me out of greasy Mess into a seat in the Office of Publication,” he wrote.

It would only be part-time work, but it was fulfilling. In addition to tracing pictures onto waxed sheets to be mimeographed for the weekly newspaper, Iwate also was responsible for the layout and illustrations for the daily information bulletin and the movie theater program.

He drew a cartoon of a ski trooper bearing a full ruck for the masthead of the Camp Hale Ski-zette, published weekly in the Office of Public Relations. The newspaper was still in its infancy, and amounted to four mimeographed pages, but Iwate’s humorous illustrations were showcased.

The Pando Commando logo would replace the ski trooper on the masthead, but Iwate was not around to see it.

On Feb. 1, 1943, the 442nd Infantry Regiment – the only Japanese American infantry regiment in the Army – was activated, and Iwate joined its ranks at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. He was there for less than a week when he was reassigned to Station Complement Separate Unit (SCSU) 1497 at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

The SCSU was essentially a maintenance unit for the upkeep of the camp, so “regular Army” Soldiers could focus on training for war. It was composed of service members whose loyalty to America were deemed suspect. Iwate was flagged for having traveled to Japan once when he was 7 to visit his ailing grandfather.

This was a severe blow to his morale. In a letter he wrote to Soldiers in Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 442nd Infantry, in May 1943, Iwate expressed his frustration about being sent to what seemed like an internment camp.

“I regard this action taken by the Army to be one of the most cowardly and shameful, without mentioning wasteful. We all swore true faith and allegiance to the United States of America, as we came into the Army and that’s still good as far as I’m concerned. I swore to help destroy our enemy were it Nazi or Japanese. That still holds true. And let me say that if the Army had as much faith in us as we have in the USA, there wasn’t any need to create SCSU or prison for American soldiers of un-American ancestry.”

He appealed his placement in the SCSU and eventually was transferred back to the 442nd Infantry, where he trained for combat until the unit departed for Europe.

In September 1944, the 442nd Infantry participated in the invasion of southern France and rescued the “Lost Battalion” in October. Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, of the Texas 36th Infantry Division, faced insurmountable odds when surrounded by German troops in France’s Vosges Mountains. They survived a seven-day siege with few supplies and ammunition until the 442nd repelled the enemy attack.

Iwate volunteered to lead a litter squad into a fierce firefight to evacuate wounded Soldiers. He was injured by a tree burst from enemy artillery fire and continued to aid others until the seriousness of his wound required immediate attention. He received the Silver Star and a Purple Heart for his actions under enemy fire.

The 442nd was recognized as the most decorated regiment in the U.S. Army after World War II, with Soldiers having received 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 371 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Stars, and more than 4,000 Purple Hearts.

After the war, Iwate worked as a graphic artist in San Francisco. He died April 13, 1998, at the age of 81 in Colma, California.