Sunday, February 19, 2017

Japanese American soldiers in World War II




Japanese American children pledging allegiance to the United States in 1942, shortly before the internment started

Japanese American soldiers served with great distinction in World War II

Most Americans today have heard the story of Japanese American internment in World War II (at least in outline form), which was unquestionably one of the sadder episodes in this country's history (at least in the last century). But most Americans have not heard of the story of the Japanese American soldiers in World War II, who served with great distinction in the war. This is a part of the story that our schools have not told as well, and so I thought I'd venture to offer some coverage of it on my blog here. (This necessarily involves some background about the story of Japanese internment, I should note here; but I intend to focus this post on the military contributions of the Japanese American soldiers.)


"Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry," under Executive Order 9066



Executive Order 9066: The creation of Japanese American internment camps

But first, some brief background: On February 19, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (less than three months after Pearl Harbor), which authorized the deportation of Japanese Americans to internment camps. Not all of those interned were American citizens, I should note here, as some were still citizens of Japan; but a significant number of them had been granted American citizenship already, and thus should have been offered the protection afforded to American citizens of another race (namely, the White race). Unfortunately, this did not happen; and the constitutionality of this executive order was later upheld by the Supreme Court decision Korematsu vs. United States, which effectively allowed the internment situation to go on. (Again, a sad story.)


Dust storm at an internment camp in California, 1942

Who was affected by Japanese American internment, and where did it happen?

It might help to clarify some things about the Japanese internment before I go on, such as the fact that it only affected those living on the West Coast of the continental United States, and did not affect those Japanese (American or otherwise) living anywhere else. Most significantly, it did not affect the ones living in Hawaii, whose numbers were then of considerable significance, and where it was feared that a popular uprising might make it impossible to enforce internment policies in Hawaii. I should clarify that as with German Americans and Italian Americans, there were some Japanese who really did spy for the enemy - most notably, in the events leading up to Pearl Harbor, where they passed on information about the location of the American fleet - but that most of the Japanese (the vast majority, in fact) were genuinely patriotic Americans, whose loyalties were to their adopted homeland; even after it mistreated them in the way that it did.


Baseball game at an internment camp in California, 1943

The government was reluctant to allow minorities to be armed and sent into combat

At this time, popular and unfounded fears about racial uprisings limited the extent to which the American military was willing to allow non-White individuals to be armed and sent into combat; but the Japanese Americans themselves (like those of other minority groups) protested that they should be allowed to fight against the forces of the Axis; and prove that they, too, were patriotic Americans - something that was genuinely true, I might add; and which was eventually recognized as such by the American government, when it authorized the formation of Japanese American divisions that were to be sent overseas. (Unfortunately, though, the internment continued on even during this time; and for some of them, going into combat was the only way that they had of getting out of it.)


442nd Regimental Combat Team of Japanese Americans in training - Mississippi, 1943

Many Japanese Americans wanted to fight in the Pacific, but they were sent to Europe instead

The Japanese Americans asked the government to be allowed to fight in the Pacific against Imperial Japan, since the Japanese-language abilities that many of them possessed could prove especially useful there, giving them invaluable insight into the actions of their mutual enemy, the Japanese military. A number of them, too, had family members in Hawaii who had been affected by the Pearl Harbor attack, and they were not happy (to put it mildly) with the Japanese government of that time. They were as ticked as any White Americans (and rightfully so) about the actions of Imperial Japan, and so asked to be allowed to fight against them in the Pacific; but it was not to be - the Army, unfortunately, did not trust them to fight against the country of their origin, and so sent the Japanese Americans to fight in the European theater instead. It was an unfortunate decision, given that a number of them would have been far more useful in the Pacific; but the Japanese Americans served with great distinction in their assigned theater, and managed to successfully show a number of White Americans that they really were genuinely patriotic to their adopted country - giving them a needed propaganda victory in the battle against the internment camps, albeit one whose effect was not realized until after the war.


Japanese American unit in the front lines - France, 1944

Their Japanese-language abilities ironically proved useful even in Europe ...

One of the ironies of their combat experience in Europe was that their Japanese-language abilities could prove useful even there, as some of them communicated over radios and phone lines in their native Japanese, which was a language unknown to the ordinary Germans that were facing them. Moreover, what few Japanese speakers the Germans did have were mostly involved in diplomacy with their distant allies, and they tended not to have any on hand in the European theater to decode these American communications, given that their enemies' use of this language was both unforeseen and somewhat rare (compared to the more common Allied languages of English, French, and Russian). Thus, their abilities really did prove useful (although not in the way expected); and so one wonders what they could have done in the Pacific, if they had only been allowed to use their abilities against Imperial Japan, the enemy that actually spoke this language every day.


"Go for Broke," a 1951 movie about the Japanese American soldiers

A famous depiction of the Japanese American combat experience in this war

One interesting corollary to this story might be the 1951 movie "Go for Broke!", which depicted the story of the Japanese American divisions only a few years after the war had ended. Given that there was still institutional racism in the United States at the time it was made, its portrayal of these soldiers as patriotic Americans is noteworthy for the time, as it challenged the racial stereotypes that continued to persist at that time about the Japanese. In contrast to the approach of modern movies, though, the movie's anti-racism message is given more subtly than a movie today would give; and when a White character asks another White character why Japanese Americans should be considered different from German Americans or Italian Americans, he doesn't push his point - he allows the point to percolate in the comrade's brain for a while as the comrade witnesses the bravery and heroism of the Japanese Americans he commands, letting the events of that combat drive his point home for him.


Ken Burns' "The War," a PBS series from 2007 (which interviews those involved)

A series which interviewed the actual eyewitnesses to these events

I might also note that the Ken Burns series "The War" covers the Japanese American experience in World War II very well, as it covers both the internment itself and the combat experience, by interviewing the ones who were involved. Their experiences are thus recorded for posterity in the powerful medium of television, allowing firsthand accounts to testify to what really happened in these events. In a few short years, no one that was alive then will ever again be able to speak to us about it; so the dogged determination to get them on the record now will become all the more important as the years go on.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Ken Burns' "The War" (PBS miniseries)

British miniseries "The World at War"

Franklin D. Roosevelt movie


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