Japanese American WWII soldiers faced Nazis at war and racism at home in US

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Fred Shiosaki, the American-born son of Japanese immigrants, was determined to join the military almost immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. 

When he turned 18 the following summer, Shiosaki took a bus to Spokane, Wash., to sign up with the Selective Service. But when he told the young officer behind the desk he wanted to enlist, Shiosaki was met with a blank-face stare. 

“You can’t sign up,” the officer told him. “You’re an enemy alien.” 

Because Shiosaki lived in a small, mostly white community, he’d “missed one essential piece of news about Japanese Americans and the service,” writes Daniel James Brown in his new book “Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II” (Viking). 

Just a month after the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacked Pearl Harbor, the War Department decreed that Japanese Americans were ineligible to serve in the US military — and draft boards were instructed to classify them as 4-C, or “enemy aliens.” 

Shiosaki didn’t take the rejection lightly. “No I’m not,” he insisted. “I was born in America. I’m a citizen.” 

The officer just shrugged. “Well, the War Department says you’re an enemy alien, so you’re an enemy alien.” 

It was a devastating blow for Shiosaki, in a year that had already brought constant reminders that he and his family had become outsiders in their own country. 

Slurs like “nip” and “yellow vermin” were becoming increasingly common in radio broadcasts and newspaper stories, and even among their own neighbors. Restaurants started displaying signs with messages like “This restaurant poisons both rats and japs.” 

Though his father had operated a laundry in Hillyard for more than three decades, it was suddenly losing customers who no longer wanted to do business with anybody who had Japanese roots. 

Shiosaki was just one of thousands of Nisei — second-generation American sons of Japanese immigrants — made to feel less than American because of the color of their skin. They had grown up “like other American boys,” Brown writes. “Playing baseball and football and going to Saturday afternoon matinees. They performed in marching bands on the Fourth of July, went to county fairs, ate burgers and fries, messed around under the hoods of cars, and listened to swing tunes on the radio.” 

But when it came to fighting for their country, these young men were turned away and scorned, their loyalty to the only country they’d ever known called into question. 

That changed in early 1943, when President Franklin Roosevelt activated the 442nd Regiment Combat Team: made up almost entirely of Nisei soldiers — more than two-thirds coming from Hawaii alone — who would finally get to demonstrate their unwavering American patriotism. 

More than 18,000 Japanese American soldiers enlisted, and by the war’s end theirs was the most decorated unit of its size in the United States Army: 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and seven Presidential Unit Citations. 

That would be a remarkable act of heroism for any infantry brigade, but it was especially impressive for young men serving a country that painted them as villains — where their own friends and family were relocated to internment camps, living in barracks behind barbed wire and treated like traitors and criminals. 

This Memorial Day, the story of the fearless men of the 442nd Regiment feels especially relevant, with Asian Americans once again under attack. 

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, reports that there’s been an 164 percent increase in reported anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide in the first half of 2021, compared with last year. And in a recent survey from Pew Research Center, 81 percent of Asian-American adults say that violence against them is on the rise. 

Hatred of Asian Americans has never made sense, but it was especially confounding during the war effort of the 1940s. 

When Raymond Matsuda, who served with the 442nd, returned to his hometown in Parker, Ariz., during the summer of 1944, he decided to get a haircut before visiting friends in a nearby internment camp. He hobbled into a local barbershop on crutches, having been shot in the knee during combat and, eager to impress his pals, was dressed in full uniform and emblazoned with several Army ribbons and badges, including a Purple Heart. 

“He did not see, or chose to ignore, a sign on one of the doors [reading] ‘Japs keep out, you rats,’ ” writes Brown. “The proprietor took one look at Matsuda, strode over to him, cussing, and shoved him right back out through the doors and into the street, crutches and all.” 

When it was pointed out to the owner that he’d kicked out both an American citizen and a wounded US Army soldier, the owner just snarled, “They all look alike to me.” 

Katsugo “Kats” Miho, a handsome University of Hawaii freshman called “a Japanese Cary Grant” by female classmates, was one of the many young Nisei determined to join the military and fight for his country after the attack on Pearl Harbor. When that option wasn’t available, he and his fellow ROTC cadets signed up for the Hawaii Territorial Guard, tasked with guarding Honolulu’s power plants, pumping stations and fuel depots against a Japanese invasion. 

What Miho didn’t know was that, while he was keeping a watchful eye on American shores, his father — who ran a small hotel on Maui and was born in Japan just south of Hiroshima — was being dragged from his home by federal agents and taken to Oklahoma to live in a camp with other Japanese Americans. 

Miho didn’t keep his job in the Territorial Guard for long. He and his peers were discharged when “some of the brass visiting from the mainland had been upset to see young men with Japanese faces carrying guns,” Brown writes. 

It was a crushing moment, one that Ted Tsukiyama, another member of the Guard, says was more traumatic for him than any experience he had in the war itself. 

“If a bomb had exploded in our midst, it couldn’t have been more devastating,” he recalled. 

It was the sudden realization that he was not trusted — and not even seen as truly American. 

‘The War Department says you’re an enemy alien, so you’re an enemy alien.’

Military officer to Fred Shiosaki, an American citizen by birth, when he went to sign up with the Selective Service after Pearl Harbor

Some Asian Americans didn’t want to serve for that very reason. “Why should they lay their lives on the line for a country that had forced them and their parents into bleak concentration camps?” writes Brown. 

But despite those reservations, many didn’t hesitate when Roosevelt made Asian-American military recruitment official, announcing that “Every loyal American should be given the opportunity to serve this country.” 

Though the Army had called for just 1,500 Nisei volunteers from Hawaii, nearly 10,000 flooded the Selective Service offices. There were so many eager volunteers, many of the offices didn’t have enough typewriters to handle all the paperwork. 

For Miho, his decision to join was about honor. Though his older brother tried to talk him out of it, Miho insisted that he had no choice. It wasn’t a matter of personal choice, but “the Japanese ethics their father had taught them,” Brown writes. “Even though the enemy now was Japan itself.” 

Like many of their fellow Nisei recruits, they knew that their faces and last names suggested an affinity with the enemy. But, writes Brown, “they were determined to prove that they were as American as the next Joe and just as eager to fight.” 

When the villagers of Bruyères, a town in northeastern France, emerged from their homes to thank the American soldiers who’d liberated them from Nazi occupation in mid-October of 1944, they were initially confused. The Asian faces of the 442nd were not what they’d been expecting. 

They began exclaiming, “Chinois! Chinois!” 

The soldiers tried to explain. “No, no, Americans. Japanese Americans!” 

“The French looked at one another, clearly baffled, but nobody really cared,” writes Brown. 

“Young women, old men, children, utter strangers, ran to the men, embraced them, kissed them on both cheeks. Old men brought out bottles of wine and strings of sausages and offered them to their liberators, patting them on the back.” 

It took 10 brutal days of fighting for the 442nd to liberate Bruyères and the nearby town of Biffontaine, and the worst was still ahead. The 141st Regiment, a battalion of Texans, was surrounded by Germans in the Vosges mountains, and the only hope for survival was a rescue mission. 

The 442nd somehow pushed through against insurmountable odds, facing an onslaught of German tanks, grenades and machine guns to save their seemingly doomed fellow countrymen, initially dubbed — without much optimism — “the Lost Battalion.” 

Fred Shiosaki, who fought in the battle, recalled “shooting at anything that moved out in front of him, firing reflexively, on instinct,” writes Brown, who spoke extensively with Shiosaki and other 442nd survivors. (Shiosaki, one of the last living members of the 442nd, died on April 10 of this year.) 

“He was beyond thinking now, except for one overwhelming thought, an absolute conviction: He had to kill these bastards before they could kill him,” Brown writes. “Nothing else mattered.” 

The toll was both physical and mental. Shiosaki wasn’t killed, but he was hit with a jagged piece of steel shrapnel, which embedded in his abdomen. A fellow soldier crawled over, pulled the shrapnel out, and quickly bandaged the wound. Within seconds, Shiosaki was back in the fight. 

Just as traumatizing were the horrors the Nisei witnessed. Rudy Tokiwa, a 442nd vet who received the Bronze Star for his bravery during the war, was haunted by memories of shooting a German soldier only to discover later, while examining the body, that the man he’d killed was carrying photos of his children. 

“I wonder,” Tokiwa thought, “when I get out of this, if I do, whether I’ll be a human being.” 

The Germans were defeated and the Lost Battalion was saved, but it came at an enormous cost. The 442nd lost 800 men in a battle to rescue 211 Texans. 

Even the top brass didn’t fully comprehend the extent of the sacrifice. In mid-November of 1944, Gen. John E. Dahlquist, who commanded the division, ordered the entire 442nd to stand in formation for a recognition and award ceremony. When only 17 showed up, Dahlquist became irritated. 

“Colonel, I told you to have the whole regiment out here,” he barked. 

The Colonel turned to him and with a wavering voice croaked, “General, this is the regiment. This is all I have left.” 

“Dahlquist fell silent,” Brown writes. “Apparently, this was the first time he fully realized the magnitude of the price the Nisei had paid to rescue the Texans.” 

Though the Nisei soldiers of the 442nd didn’t risk it all for glory, they honor it in the oddest places. Just weeks after their historic battles, the survivors were at a movie theater in Nice, on the French Riviera, where newsreels were already featuring the rescue of the Lost Battalion. This was the first time they’d seen themselves portrayed as heroes. It was a bizarre experience, especially after so many years of being called “Japs” and watching their families dragged away to camps. 

The audience “burst into applause and then patted the men on the back and shook their hands as they filed out of the theaters,” Brown writes. “The Nisei were fast becoming celebrities in France.” 

But probably the most meaningful praise came from their fellow soldiers, the Texans who shouted out “Thank you!” and “We love you!” when they saw the Nisei marching toward them through the smoke. 

Martin Higgins, a first lieutenant for the 141st Regiment, said he felt chills run down his spine when he saw the 442nd approach. Though the Nisei were generally smaller than other American soldiers, with the legs of their pants bunched up around their ankles, “They looked like giants to us,” Higgins said. 

The best compliment, which Rudy Tokiwa overheard as he and his fellow Nisei military men greeted the Texans after the battle, was uttered by one of the surviving Lost Battalion soldiers. 

“Hey, kids,” he shouted, a cigarette danging from his mouth. “Some balls you got. We thought we was all dead and gone.”

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