This American Story
When the world discovered that Japan was to blame for the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, misguided outrage was directed against Americans of Japanese heritage. These Americans, mainly from west coast states, were forced into ten main incarceration centers, also called “internment camps.” Pictured above is a photo of the Manzanar camp near Lone Pine, California. These centers were a type of concentration camp surrounded by barbed wire and sentry towers with loaded machine guns pointing inside the fence.
Overall, about 120,000 people were forced from their homes by President Franklin D. Roosevelt under his Executive Order 9066, enacted on February 19, 1942. Two-thirds of the incarcerees were American citizens, born and raised in the U.S.
Watch a documentary about these soldiers in the video above, called “Witness: American Heroes,” ABC-TV, 2011.
Despite such harsh treatment, over 33,000 would serve in the U.S. Army during this period. They mainly served in segregated units made up of Japanese Americans. These soldiers are often referred to as the “Nisei,” [a Japanese word pronounced “KNEE-say”] which means Americans born to parents who were from Japan.
Prior to the outbreak of the war, an estimated 5,000 Japanese Americans were already enlisted in the US Army and in the National Guard. Most were in the Hawaii National Guard. After Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7th, 1941, members of the Hawaii National Guard were assembled to prepare against a possible land invasion by Japan’s military. Fearing that Nisei could be mistaken for Japanese invaders, over 1,400 Nisei of the National Guard were sent to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin in June 1942. They would form the Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion, later to be renamed the 100th Infantry Battalion. Japanese Americans who were still in Hawaii in the Hawaii Territorial Guard formed the Varsity Victory Volunteers, a Nisei labor battalion.
In February 1943, President Roosevelt announced the formation of the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT). All the while, the 100th Battalion continued to train, and were eventually sent into battle ahead of the new 442nd recruits. The 100th would serve in North Africa, and then in Italy fighting in Salerno and in the Cassino and Anzio campaigns. In June 1944, the newly-trained members of the 442nd would join the battle-tested 100th. Many of these new soldiers from the 442nd enlisted directly from the “internment camps.”
The combined record of the 100th/442nd is now legendary. They became the most highly-decorated unit of the war, and the most highly-decorated for its size and length of service in American military history. These men fought for the U.S. and its allies across southern and central Europe in many key battles.
Their Rescue of the Lost Battalion is legendary. In October 1944, members of the Texas 36th Infantry Division became trapped by over 6000 Germans. The terrain was the thick forest of the Vosges Mountains of France. The weather was bitterly cold that fall. German forces were told to repel any Allied attempts to rescue them at all costs. After weeks of liberating towns across France such as Biffontaine and Bruyeres, the Nisei soldiers were sent in to help the 36th. They took heavy casualties to free the 211 surviving soldiers of the 36th. The image above shows the remaining men of the 100th/442nd assembled following the rescue. The 100th/442nd would earn a Presidential Unit Citation for their actions to save the men of the 36th. The Nisei veterans would be named “Honorary Texans” in 1963 by Texas Governor John Connally.
The Nisei troops also broke through the German “Gothic Line” in Italy, which had repelled repeated assaults for months by Allied Forces. Members of the 100/442nd RCT took just one day to do this using a daring frontal assault under the cover of night straight up a key mountain where German forces were entrenched. The Nisei from the 100th led the drive against the Germans at Monte Cassino. The Nisei also helped to liberate and care for Holocaust victims from the Dachau. They would help the Jewish survivors, ironically, while their own families and friends were behind barbed wire back in the U.S. due to their heritage.
Japanese Americans also served with great distinction in the Pacific Theater in the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS). The MIS saw over 4,000 Nisei serve in its ranks. They are credited with shortening the war in the Pacific by at least two years, and saving countless lives through their use of the Japanese language to support Allied war efforts. They served as key members of “Merrill’s Marauders,” infiltrating Japanese controlled areas in Southeast Asia. The image above shows Brigadier General Frank Merrill with two Nisei soldiers. They translated documents that were intercepted from the Japanese, revealing dates and times of attacks. The MIS soldiers served as interrogators of Japanese prisoners of war, and helped ease tensions between Japanese and American occupiers following Japan’s surrender. MIS translators were critical during the surrender of Japan, serving as official language and cultural translators, which aided in the rebuilding process during America’s occupation of Japan.
The Nisei of the MIS are considered the founders of today’s US Armed Forces Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California. Anticipating possible US entry into a war with Japan, the US Army secretly began training military linguists using the Japanese language in November 1941. Fifty-eight Nisei formed the first class of the MIS in San Francisco, California. Four Nisei instructors headed that class. An early photo of the MIS training in San Francisco’s Crissy Field is shown above.
Nisei who served in Merrill’s Marauders were part of the 75th Infantry Regiment, from which the 75th Ranger Regiment is descended. Nisei MIS military linguists Roy H. Matsumoto, Henry Gosho, and Grant Hirabayashi were inducted into the US Army Ranger Hall of Fame for their valor while serving in Merrill’s Marauders.
Among over 18,000 awards, the Japanese American soldiers of World War II earned 21 Medals of Honor, 9 Presidential Unit Citations, and at least 5,000 Purple Hearts (some estimate over 9,000) for their sacrifices in Europe and the Pacific.
These soldiers were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in November 2011. This Medal is the highest civilian honor of our nation.
The Japanese American soldiers of World War II have been singled out by a number of our nation’s presidents for their outstanding service and immense sacrifices, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and even George W. Bush (See Famous Quotations page).
Japanese American women enlisted in the US Army as well. They served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), freeing up men who were working clerical jobs so they could serve on the front lines. The WAC mainly trained as switchboard operators, mechanics, bakers, clerks, drivers, stenographers, translators, and seamstresses. Above is an image of one of the Nisei WAC recruits. Nisei women also served in the Army’s Nurse Corps.
Watch this short video from May 2009 that features a reunion of two Nisei WAC:
The record of the Nisei servicemen and servicewomen of the war, and their testimony before Congress, were key in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law, admitting wartime bias against Japanese Americans, and setting an example for wartime protections of Americans in the future.
What does “Go For Broke” mean?
“Go For Broke” is the motto of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team. This phrase means “Go for your goal with all of your effort, and all you have.” Our campaign uses this motto as inspiration to keep going despite all of the hurdles we face. The photo above shows veterans of the 100th/442nd and MIS gathered for a ceremony.
Help us “Go For Broke” for this national stamp today! Thank you!
For more detailed information on their inspiring story, below are a few suggested websites to visit. Most of the historical information on this site comes from the following historical sources: