More than 21,000 men and women served in the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service during World War II. Photo courtesy of Cherry Tsutsumida Aguirre
By Cherry Tsutsumida Aguirre
To most Japanese Americans, November, the month of Veteran’s Day, holds a special meaning and gratitude for the courageous Nisei men and women who served in the United States Armed Services during World War II. This despite the poignant fact that while they were serving, many of their families were being incarcerated in “war relocation centers” without due process of law. Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 1, 1942, mandated this and also separated many fathers of these Nisei families for unspecified suspicions.
Only one day after World War II broke out in 1941, hundreds of Nisei draftees already in U.S. Army uniforms were discharged without explanation other than it was the convenience of the government. Of those retained in service, many were disarmed and transferred to menial assignments.
But in a time of war, pragmatism does prevail. A handful of Niseis with a working knowledge of the Japanese were hurriedly trained and flown to the Pacific fronts.
Their assignment was to translate captured documents, interrogate prisoners and decipher enemy battle orders and other critical data. Often they were so close to the front lines that they tapped and intercepted enemy orders.
However, the use of most Nisei skills was not the case in the beginning. But on June 12, 1942, 1,315 National Guardsmen were sent to Oakland and designated as the 100th Battalion with the addition of the University of Hawaii Varsity Victory Volunteers.
Sen. Spark Matsunaga once said, “So well did the 100th Battalion perform that the Army accelerated their plans for another unit of Japanese Americans to be designated at the 442nd.” It was composed of the 442nd Infantry, the 522 Field Artillery, 232nd Combat Engineer company and others.
Postwar records show that more than 800 Japanese American soldiers who served in the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service gave their lives in defense of this nation.
Their names are accurately engraved for posterity at the National Japanese American Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol building.
Pfc. Sadao Munemori, a young Nisei from California, was honored with America’s highest award for bravery, the Congressional Medal of Honor. About 40 years after the end of WWII, Ret. Maj. Gen. James Mukoyama led a committee to review the records of other servicemen with distinguished records in battle during WWII. Thus, 10 more Niseis were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Happily, of those who survived the war despite injuries, like Rudy Tokiwa (Sunnyvale, Calif.), many came back to become active members of their communities. Col. Harry Fukuhara (San Jose, Calif.), who recently passed away, traveled throughout the United States where he was needed to strengthen the Japanese American communities.
Many veterans, proud of their contributions to the war effort, organized local and national groups like the Japanese American Veterans Assn. (JAVA). The list of veterans underscores how geographically dispersed Japanese Americans had become. They are no longer concentrated in and around metropolitan areas on the West Coast.
Examples are Sam and Sumi Koide from Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.; Chikaji and Yoneko Tsurusaki from Oak Lawn, Ill.; Jimmie Kanaya from Gig Harbor, Wash.; and Joseph and Tamie Kimura from Cardiff by the Sea, Calif.
It is important to note that when I was working with Congress on various health and civil rights legislation, the Congressmen and Senators would say, “If you want to get into my office, send in a veteran.”Many Nisei veterans played important roles as legislative advocates for redress and civil rights, among them Sen. Daniel Inouye, also a Medal of Honor recipient.
The outstanding record of the Nisei servicemen during WWII has been written and made into movies. The loyalty of Japanese Americans during WWII was courageously written in blood by them.
As the possibilities of another foreign combat are again in the news, support and concern for those in the U.S. Armed Forces must remain in our thoughts. Unlike during World War II, those who are serving today are there not because they were drafted. They are there because as a personal decision, they are willing to do the most challenging and dangerous responsibilities required by this nation.
As this month commemorates their contributions, and those who served through WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, we should all take time to say, “Thanks!”
Cherry Tsutsumida Aguirre is a writer and the former executive director of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.