Ten weeks after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The mandate resulted in more than 110,000 Japanese Americans being evacuated from the West Coast and placed into internment camps. The groundless idea that Americans of Japanese descent were a military threat likely to conspire with Japan to plot further attacks against the United States prompted the move. In the wake of virulent racism and xenophobia, many Japanese Americans felt powerless. However, a few, such as Fred Korematsu, ignored the call to report to an internment camp. Some Japanese-American internees, known as the No-No Boys, demonstrated their outrage against the U.S. government for depriving them of their civil rights by declining to enlist in the military once the government decided to make Japanese Americans re-eligible for the draft. Other Japanese-American men had the exact opposite response and chose to prove their loyalty to the U.S. by enlisting in the military. These men ultimately became highly decorated World War II heroes, as other soldiers of color had.
Patriots Before Interment
A full month before the Pearl Harbor attack, second-generation Japanese-Americans (known as Nisei) illustrated their patriotism by participating in the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS). Launched on Nov. 1, 1941, the school gave enrollees exhaustive Japanese language instruction. According to Densho, a website about the Japanese-American experience during World War II, Nisei made up 85 percent of MISLS grads. A staggering 6,000 Nisei MIS grads traveled to Asia during the war to translate Japanese battle plans and related documents for the U.S. military. They also questioned prisoners of war and impersonated Japanese military personnel to get a Japanese military company to surrender. World War II would certainly have turned out differently without the Niseis’ help.
An All-Nisei Battalion
In contemporary America, it’s difficult to imagine a time when the military was segregated or that an American racial group could be considered “enemy aliens” simply because of their racial ancestry. But during World War II, Japanese Americans experienced both turns of events. The federal government initially barred Nisei from military service due to their racial heritage but eventually decided to allow them to serve in an all-Nisei battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the creation of which President Roosevelt shared publicly on Feb. 1, 1943. The Densho website attributes the formation of this battalion to criticism the U.S. faced in Japan and elsewhere for its treatment of Japanese Americans. An all-Nisei unit would therefore serve as a public relations boon. To populate the regiment, the federal government made Japanese Americans, including those in internment camps, eligible for the draft once more in January 1944. More than 23,000 Japanese-American internees qualified for the draft.
Although the 442nd regiment was designed to be all-Nisei, it wasn’t the first such regiment. The 100th Infantry Battalion, made up of two infantry regiments from the Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion, included nearly all Nisei soldiers. Unlike Japanese Americans along the West Coast, Nisei and Issei in Hawaii were not placed in internment camps. One of the most notable accomplishments of the 100th battalion is that they helped the Allied Forces take Rome. But these war heroes paid a grave price for their heroism. The battalion’s number dropped from 1,300 to just 400 by mid-1944. Depleted in numbers, the 100th battalion joined the 442nd regiment in June of that year.
Military historians remember the 442nd regiment for its bravery. The regiment liberated three French cities from Nazi control and initiated the Rescue of the Lost Battalion in October 1944. The latter mission involved saving the 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment after Nazi soldiers cornered its 275 members in France. To save the Lost Battalion, the 442nd regiment had to traverse a dangerous landscape and face the Nazi troops. After four days, the all-Nisei regiment saved the Lost Battalion, but lost up to 800 members in the process.
“It was done by shedding a lot of blood,” recalled Lawson Sakai, who served in the 442nd, during a 2011 Seattle Post-Intelligencer interview. “As far as I know, we didn't give up an inch of ground. We were always attacking and the Germans were always on the higher ground.”
That’s quadruple the amount of lives the military ordered the 442 regiment to save. This incongruity fueled criticism that the U.S. government valued the lives of white men more than their Nisei counterparts. It’s impossible to say if the sacrifice was worth it, but the Nisei who survived World War II undoubtedly felt proud of what they’d endured in battle because they helped to change the public’s image of Japanese Americans. Because the 442nd emerged as the most decorated regiment (accounting for size and time of service) in American history, they helped to prove that Japanese Americans were so loyal to the U.S. that they were willing to put their lives on the line to defend their country.
“You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice, and you have won,” President Harry Truman told the Japanese-American soldiers in 1946.
Collectively, the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team received seven Presidential Unit Citations, 21 Medals of Honor, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 22 Legion of Merit Medals, 15 Soldier’s Medals, and more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, according to the White House. On Oct. 5, 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to the 100th battalion and 442nd regiment to honor their service during World War II.