Memorial Day [May 28] is a time when Americans pause to remember and appreciate the men and women of every racial and ethnic background who have fought and died in America's wars. Japanese American soldiers who fought in World War II had to wage especially difficult battles, against both the enemy abroad and racial discrimination at home.
On December 7th, 1941, Japanese warplanes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On December 8th, the United States declared war on Japan, Germany and their allies, and Americans in all walks of life mobilized for the long battles ahead.
Two months after the declaration of war, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. It provided the United States Army with the authority to round up Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and put them in so called "relocation camps" farther inland. It was justified as a security measure against possible spies and saboteurs.
Ultimately, over 110,000 West Coast Japanese Americans were interred, 70,000 of them U.S citizens.
Jimmy Konno was 16 years old when his family was ordered from its home in Seattle, Washington, to a relocation camp in Wyoming. He remembers that each of his family members was allowed one suitcase each and that the barracks were very cold.
"And then you had these guards around, armed guards and barbed wire fence and the food was terrible. I think we survived on peanut butter and bread most of the time. It was tough. I was very angry at the government."
It is ironic that the same Army responsible for herding Japanese American families into the camps also drafted their young men into the armed forces to fight for America. According to Jimmy Konno, most men in the camps were willing to join, in spite of their anger.
"Most of us felt, 'if this is our country, we have to fight for it.' You had to prove your loyalty," he says, then, with a strong emotion in his voice, quickly adds, "the '442'did prove that we were loyal. We stood together and we fought a war!"
Most Japanese-American soldiers who were in the Army on Hawaii were put into a segregated unit named the 100th Battalion, which was later absorbed into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team that included mainlanders. It took some time before the two groups achieved a sense of unity.
Culturally, the battalion was divided between Hawaiian "islanders" of Japanese descent, who saw Japanese American "mainlanders" as snobbish and weak - more "European than "Asian" -- and the "mainlanders," who regarded the islanders as backward and crude. But both groups knew the sting of racism, and a sense of shared identity began to form. That took them first to Italy, where they became known for their ferocity and their courage.
In his book Just Americans: The Story of the 100th Batallion/442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II, author Robert Asahina includes scores of heroic actions by unit members. One young soldier named Daniel Inouye, who would later become the U.S. Senator from Hawaii, was in Italy fighting alongside his comrades to take a hill occupied by German soldiers when he found he could no longer stand or walk. He did not know why.
"And later he found out he had been shot in the stomach, but he kept climbing up the hill. A machine gun nest was firing at him. He threw a grenade, knocked out that machine gun nest," recounts Asahina. "Another machine gun nest opened up on him. A German soldier stood up with a grenade launcher, launched a grenade straight at Inouye."
Inouye was carrying a live grenade in his right hand when the German grenade hit him, nearly severing his right arm. "[Inouye] grabbed the live grenade out of his right hand with his left hand," continues Asahina, "threw it into the machine gun nest, blew up that machine gun nest, fell to the ground, crawled up the ground, then got hit a third time by another rifleman before he was knocked out.'
Inouye's unit went on to capture the hill, says Asahina. "It was almost as if this kind of bravery were common in the '442,'" he notes.
Indeed, members of the "442" performed so many distinguished acts that the "442" became the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in the American Army. The unit garnered over 18,000 individual decorations for bravery, 9,500 Purple Hearts for casualties, and seven Presidential Distinguished Unit citations.
The "442" became world famous during the war when they rescued a beleaguered American battalion that had been trapped for eight days behind enemy lines in the mountains of France. "For four days and nights they fought their way through these very dense mountains," says Asahina, who has visited the site. "The canopy is so dense that when you are in there in the middle of the day, it's dark. And they were fighting there in the dark, climbing hills with the Germans firing down on them. It was one of the most heroic battles of the French campaign."
Many of the Japanese-American soldiers faced a different kind of combat when they returned home. The experience of a sergeant named Shig Doi, which is described in Just Americans, was not uncommon.
Doi's family had been sent to the camps from their family farm in California. When Doi returned from the war, he discovered the homestead had been riddled with bullets by so-called "Night Rider" vigilantes.
"There had even been an attempt to blow it up," says Asahina, adding that "many '442' veterans came home and found out that they were unwelcome, that their homes had been vandalized, that they had lost the property, that their neighbors had run off with things they had left with them, that their farms had been burned down."
Most of the veterans of the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team died before their achievements and their challenges were fully recognized. However, in a June 21st 2000 White House ceremony, President Bill Clinton awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to 20 of the Japanese-American soldiers, seven of whom were still alive to savor their long-delayed recognition.