Japanese Americans in WWII

Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II by Daniel James Brown (Viking, 2021) offers a deeply moving account of the stark challenges faced by Japanese Americans during WWII and the heroic service rendered by the army’s segregated 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team in the European Theater. These second-generation (Nisei) Japanese Americans marched into daunting missions with such determination and courage that “Go for Broke” became their motto. The 442nd RGT was the most decorated unit of its size in military history, but postwar discrimination denied the award of honors until decades later.

In early 1942, the U. S. government established the West Coast exclusion zone and forced the removal of over one hundred thousand Japanese Americans to ten hastily constructed “relocation centers,” or concentration camps, farther inland. The Territory of Hawaii did not incarcerate its Japanese American residents, though workers of Japanese ethnicity were fired from all military construction work and classified as enemy aliens by local draft boards. Over a thousand Nisei in the Hawaii National Guard were removed from duty but not discharged: they formed into the 100th Infantry Battalion later trained and sent into battle. By early 1943 the U. S. needed every able-bodied man for service. Nisei civilians in Hawaii, in mainland internment camps, and living outside the exclusion zone were now eligible to volunteer or would be drafted into segregated units for service outside the Pacific theater.

Unlike any other Americans, the camp men and their families were required to sign “loyalty questionnaires” in 1943 including two items that posed a dilemma for many. Question 27 asked if the person would serve in combat wherever ordered, and Question 28 required the person to swear unqualified allegiance to the U. S. and to “forswear any allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization.” To thousands festering in the government’s concentration camps, this was a slap in the face – particularly the elder Issei who were ineligible for U. S. citizenship. Many struggled over the loyalty questionnaires and those who refused to sign (“no-no”) were castigated as disloyal. The scope of opposition prompted authorities to turn one of the camps, Tule Lake in Northern California, into a high-security segregation center where they sent more than 12,000 no-no’s for the duration of the war. [As I wrote in Building for War (p. 282-84) Morrison-Knudsen Company, the Idaho contractor that ran the Wake Island project that had just fallen to Japanese invasion, won contracts to build both the Tule Lake and Minidoka (Idaho) WRA camps in early 1942.]

Many Japanese Americans did sign on and sign up for military service in 1943. Hundreds of Nisei took their leave of families and the concentration camps while others from outside the exclusion zone joined up, all headed for Camp Shelby in Mississippi to train for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Thousands of Hawaiian Nisei volunteered for service; 2,700 were shipped out to join the 442nd at Camp Shelby. In Facing the Mountain, the author personalizes the account with the experiences of a half-dozen young men and their families, following them through the war. Brown describes the sometimes-comical cultural conflicts at Camp Shelby between the “Kotonks” (mainlanders) and “Buddaheads” (islanders), but as training intensified, they came to accept each other and work together as a united front.

Fully trained in early 1944, the 442nd , including a detachment chosen for the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, headed to the war in Europe. They fought their way up Italy and into France, suffering horrific casualties. While the battles are vividly drawn throughout, the author focuses on one particular mission in late October 1944 when the 442nd was ordered into the Voges Mountains in France to rescue the trapped survivors of “the lost battalion” of Texan soldiers surrounded by German fire. All other efforts had met failure, but the “Go for Broke” 442nd persevered at great risk, with heavy losses, and succeeded in the rescue. While the Nisei units were separated in the surge of early 1945, the 442nd RCT, the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the 522nd Artillery Battalion fought valiantly to the Allied victory in the European theater.

One Nisei soldier was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1946, but postwar discrimination blocked many heroes from their rightfully deserved honors. After decades of lobbying in Congress, the Medal of Honor was finally awarded in 2000 to twenty other members of the regiment (including then-Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii). In addition, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, hundreds of Silver Stars, and thousands of Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts were awarded, many posthumously. One Japanese American man who was sent to federal prison during the war for fiercely defending his civil rights as an American, refusing incarceration in the camps and military service, saw his conviction vacated in 1987. In 2012 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 formally apologized for the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans in the camps and paid each eligible survivor $20,000.

While much of this website is dedicated to the victims of Japanese brutality in World War II, I urge readers to explore this other side of the story and highly recommend Facing the Mountain to open that door.