Japanese Americans in military during World War II
Much decorated for their valor and often cited as being part of the most decorated unit in World War II for its size and length of service, Japanese Americans served in the U.S. armed forces in disproportionate numbers, despite having their loyalties questioned after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Though they mostly served in the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team and its predecessor, the 100th Infantry Battalion , others served as translators and interpreters in the Military Intelligence Service . Because of the unique role they played during and after the war, Japanese American war veterans continue to play an influential role in the community.
Before the War
As was the case with many minority groups, Japanese Americans viewed military service as an avenue to upward mobility. As historian Brenda Moore writes, "racial and ethnic minorities were afforded no more rights than noncitizens; many served in the armed services with the expectation of attaining the citizenship rights denied them..."  Large scale Japanese migration to Hawai'i began in 1885 and to the continental U.S. soon after. Japanese migrants soon found themselves the target of an anti-Japanese movement that saw a variety of legal restrictions promulgated against them. One of the most vexing was the denial of naturalization rights, eliminating one of the standard avenues by which immigrants had been able to protect their rights. As early as the Spanish American War, some Japanese immigrants volunteered for military service as an avenue to gaining citizenship.
America's entrance into World War I saw the first large-scale military service by Japanese Americans. Making up over one-third of the population of Hawaii by this time, Japanese Americans were among the first to enlist. Some 838 resident Japanese were drafted in Hawai'i, necessitating an all-Japanese unit, Company D of the National Guard. Many Issei signed up with the hope that their service would lead to their being granted U.S. citizenship, a hope that would mainly be dashed. 
With war clouds on the horizon and tensions with Japan escalating, the U.S. reinstituted the draft in November of 1940 and also recognized the need to begin training Americans in the Japanese language to serve as translators and interpreters in the event of war. Both of these developments affected Japanese Americans. By 1940, many Nisei were of legal age, and many were drafted, with some 5,000 having been inducted into the U.S. Army by the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Many of them were from Hawai'i, where Nisei made up a substantial portion of the Hawaii National Guard's 298th and 299th Regiments. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, some 600 Japanese Americans were training at Schofield Barracks in central O'ahu. Meanwhile, the Military Intelligence Service Language School opened in San Francisco in November of 1941 with a class of sixty students—fifty-eight of whom were Japanese American—taught by four Nisei instructors.
World War II
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, two groups of Japanese Americans in Hawai'i played important roles in early defense efforts. Members of the Hawaii National Guard were called on to guard against possible enemy invasion in the chaotic hours after the attack. As fears of a Japanese attack rose in the early months of 1942, Hawai'i's military governor Delos Emmons worried what might happen if Japanese troops invaded wearing American uniforms and decided to form the Nisei members of the Hawaii National Guard into a battalion to be sent to the mainland. The Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion was formed in near secrecy and 1,432 men shipped out on for San Francisco on June 5 as the Battle of Midway raged. After landing in San Francisco, they traveled by train to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, where they would train for the next six months, becoming the original members of the 100th Infantry Battalion.
The other group was the Hawaii Territorial Guard, formed by the governor shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The core of this group was made up of members of ROTC units, many from the University of Hawai'i. Half of them were Japanese American. Issued World War I vintage rifles, they were dispatched to guard key points around the island. But after a month of service, the Nisei members of the group were suddenly released from duty on January 19, 1942, on orders from Washington, D.C. Encouraged by local YMCA director Hung Wai Ching , 169 of the dismissed Nisei signed a petition directed to Emmons offering their volunteer labor towards the war effort. On February 23, 1942, Emmons gave his blessing to the formation of the Varsity Victory Volunteers , an all-Nisei labor battalion. 
For those serving on the mainland, individual commanders were given the option of discharging Japanese American soldiers or assigning them to "harmless duties." Some 600 Nisei were given honorable discharges and others were given less than honorable discharges, while most Japanese American soldiers already in the army were sent to Camp Robinson in Arkansas, where their guns were taken away, and they were made to perform menial tasks such as collecting garbage. In the meantime, Selective Service stopped accepting Nisei in early 1942 on the grounds that they were "not acceptable to the armed forces because of nationality or ancestry." 
While the 100th Infantry Battalion continued to train at Camp McCoy, a debate about whether to allow Nisei to serve in the military was taking place. A group called the Board of Military Utilization of U.S. Citizens of Japanese Ancestry that was made up of five colonels and War Relocation Authority director Dillon Myer was formed in June of 1942 to explore that question, and three months later, issued a report against the formation of a Japanese American unit "because of the universal distrust in which they are held."  But a month later, Elmer Davis of the Office of War Information wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt calling for a Nisei fighting unit as a propaganda weapon to counter Japanese claims of American racism. Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy , one of the architects of the mass incarceration, also supported the idea, and the War Department came to support the idea. On February 1, 1943, President Roosevelt announced the formation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese American unit, albeit with white officers. 
While the 100th Battalion continued its training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi and the Military Intelligence Service Language School began to send trained linguists to the battlefields of the Pacific, the call went out for volunteers for the 442nd. The initial goal was for 3,000 volunteers from the continental U.S. and 1,500 from Hawai'i. It soon became apparent that those quotas were reversed: embittered by their confinement in American concentration camps, barely 1,000 volunteered from behind barbed wire. But in Hawai'i, where there was no mass incarceration, more than 10,000 Nisei stepped forward. Of these, 2,686 were accepted. They were sent off at a memorable farewell ceremony on March 28, 1943, at 'Iolani Palace attended by a crowd of some 15,000 people. The new recruits were sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi for basic training.
At Camp Shelby, the mainland kotonks and the Hawaii-born Buddhaheads fought over misperceptions and misunderstandings but eventually bonded after a trip to one of the nearby incarceration camps in Arkansas. In August, 1943, the 100th shipped out, landing in North Africa and plunging into battle in Salerno, Italy, where the first casualties were suffered. The 100th were involved in campaigns at Cassino and the Anzio Campaign leading to the Allied capture of Rome. In June of 1944, the 442nd arrived in Europe, and the battle tested 100th became its first battalion.
Despite the sterling war record the 100th and later the 442nd were compiling in Europe, the navy, marine corps, and air force refused to take Japanese Americans for the most part, though there a few individual exceptions. The most famous of these was Ben Kuroki , a Nisei from Nebraska who became a celebrated Army Air Corps tail gunner in both Europe and the Pacific.
In addition to the well publicized exploits of Kuroki and the 100th and 442nd, there were others. In the Pacific, the Nisei linguists of the Military Intelligence Service endured great risk—from the enemy as well as from friendly fire—to perform vital translation and interpretation tasks. On the home front, groups like the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion performed vital construction tasks. By the middle of 1943, Nisei women has been deemed eligible for the Women's Army Corps , and Nisei women were inducted beginning in November. There were also a handful of Nisei in the Counter Intelligence Corps, most famously Richard Sakakida .
A number of the prewar inductees—collectively known as military resisters —became frustrated at the discriminatory treatment they faced in the army while their families were sent to American concentration camps. While most of the prewar inductees eventually joined the 442nd, a significant number refused combat training—with some even attempting to renounce their U.S. citizenship—ending up either as laborers in the 1800th Engineer General Service Battalion or in prison. 
The 442nd took part in the Rome-Arno Campaign in July 1944, action at Bruyeres-Biffontaine, and most famously, in the rescue of the Lost Battalion in October 1944. In March of 1945, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion was detached from the 442nd, becoming a roving battalion. In the spring of 1945, the 522nd took part in the liberation of one of the subordinate slave labor camps of Dachau, while the 442nd was engaged in the Gothic Line and Po Valley Campaign. As the war came to an end, Nisei in the MIS took part in the surrender of Japan and in the subsequent occupation.
By the end of the war, the 442nd (including the 100th prior to becoming part of the it) received 9,486 Purple Hearts, 8 Presidential Unit Citations, 559 Silver Stars, and 52 Distinguished Service Crosses among many other decorations. In the immediate aftermath of the war, only one member of 442nd received the Medal of Honor , America's highest military honor. However a review in the 1990s resulted in 20 additional Medals of Honors being awarded in 2000. Among the decorations received by the MIS are a Presidential Unit Citation, 5 Silver Stars, and 3 Distinguished Service Crosses. 
An estimated 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the military during and immediately after World War II, about 18,000 in the 442nd and 6,000 as part of the MIS.  Approximately eight hundred Japanese Americans were killed in action during World War II.
Formed in part for their propaganda value, the exploits of the 442nd and 100th received great publicity during the war that continued into the postwar era. In addition to being the subject of numerous books and articles, their story was told in the 1951 feature film Go for Broke , starring Van Johnson with several Nisei veterans playing supporting roles. Veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get college educations and many took on leadership roles in the community, helping to turn back discriminatory legislation in the continental U.S. and leading a political "revolution" in Hawai'i, where a group of Nisei veterans including Daniel Inouye , Spark Matsunaga , and George Ariyoshi went on to hold the highest political offices in the new state in the 1960s and 70s. As historian Franklin Odo wrote about the members of the Varsity Victory Volunteers—but that applies to Nisei veterans in general—"Most of the others did extremely well in their work and lives. And while they did not actively seek to create a ' model minority ,' their achievements, as well as the roles assigned to them in the postwar era, became integral to that new racial construction, first in Hawai'i and later in the nation."
Nisei veterans formed a variety of clubs and organizations after the war that served social, community service, and political functions. In recent decades, sons and daughter organizations have also formed to continue the legacy of the veterans as their numbers have declined.
For More Information
100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Education Center. http://www.100thbattalion.org/ .
Americans of Japanese Ancestry World War II Memorial Alliance. http://www.ajawarvets.org/mainmenu.cfm?stg=home .
Asahina, Robert. Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad . New York: Gotham, 2006.
Castelnuovo, Shirley. Soldiers of Conscience: Japanese American Military Resisters in World War II. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2008.
Chang, Thelma. I Can Never Forget: Men of the 100th /442nd . Honolulu: Sigi Productions, Inc., 1992.
Duus, Masayo. Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and the 442nd . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.
Go For Broke National Education Center. http://www.goforbroke.org/ .
Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board. Japanese Eyes…American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii's World War II Nisei Soldiers . Honolulu: Tendai Educational Foundation, 1998.
The Hawaii Nisei Story: Americans of Japanese Ancestry During World War II. http://nisei.hawaii.edu/page/home .
Japanese American Veterans Association. http://www.javadc.org/main.htm .
Japanese American Veterans Collection at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. http://libweb.hawaii.edu/libdept/archives/mss/aja/index.htm .
Matsuo, Dorothy. Boyhood to War: History and Anecdotes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team . Honolulu: Mutual Pub., 1992.
Moore, Brenda L. Serving Our Country: Japanese American Women in the Military during World War II . Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Murphy, Thomas D. Ambassadors in Arms: The Story of Hawaii's 100th Battalion . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1954.
Odo, Franklin S. No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawaii during World War II . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.
Shirey, Orville C. Americans: The Story of the 442nd Combat Team . Washington, D.C.: Infantry Journal Press, 1946.
Tanaka, Chester. Go for Broke: A Pictorial History of the Japanese American 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team . Richmond, CA: Go for Broke, Inc., 1981. Novato, CA : Presidio Press, 1997.
Tsukano, John. Bridge of Love . Honolulu: Hawaii Hosts, Inc., 1985.
- Brenda L. Moore, Serving Our Country: Japanese American Women in the Military during World War II (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 1.
- Franklin Odo and Kazuko Sinoto, A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawaii, 1885-1924 (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1985), 208–09. Most requests for citizenship by Issei war veterans were turned down on the basis of the 1870 revision of the Act of March 26, 1790 that limited naturalization rights to "free white person(s)" and "persons of African nativity or descent." But one judge in Hawai'i, Horace Vaughan, granted 400 Issei veterans citizenship. This decision was later overturned. In 1935, the Nye-Lee Bill granted U.S. citizenship to many Issei war veterans. See Frank F. Chuman, The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese Americans (Del Mar, Calif.: Publisher's Inc., 1976) and Harry Maxwell Naka, "The Naturalization of Japanese War Veterans of the World War Forces" (M.A. thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 1939). Despite this rollercoaster ride, Japanese Americans certainly fared better than African Americans. A year after more 50,000 African Americans had served in Europe in World War I, seventy African American men were lynched in the U.S., ten of whom were soldiers in uniform. See Moore, Serving Our Country , 2.
- James C. McNaughton, "Japanese Americans and the U.S. Army," Army History 59 (summer–fall 2003), 11.
- Franklin S. Odo, No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawaii during World War II (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003).
- Shirley Castelnuovo, Soldiers of Conscience: Japanese American Military Resisters in World War II (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2008), 13; McNaughton, "Japanese Americans and the U.S. Army," 11.
- Masayo Duus, Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and the 442nd (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), 56.
- Roosevelt's oft-quoted statement on the occasion of this announcement included the word: "No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship, regardless of his ancestry. The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry." Duus, Unlikely Liberators , 58.
- Castelnuovo, Soldiers of Conscience .
- Figures taken from the Go For Broke National Education Center website, http://www.goforbroke.org/history/history_historical.asp .
- Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1982; foreword by Tetsuden Kashima, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 253–54.
Last updated Oct. 16, 2020, 4:54 p.m..