Japanese American service in World War II
During the early years of World War II, Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated from their homes in the Pacific Coast states because military leaders and public opinion combined to fan unproven fears of sabotage. As the war progressed, many of the young Nisei, Japanese immigrants' children who were born with American citizenship, volunteered or were drafted to serve in the United States military. Japanese Americans served in all the branches of the United States Armed Forces, including the United States Merchant Marines.
The 442nd Infantry Regiment became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. Other Japanese American units also included the 100th Infantry Battalion, Varsity Victory Volunteers, and the Military Intelligence Service.
Servicemen in the U.S. Army
The majority of Japanese Americans serving in the American Armed Forces during World War II enlisted in the army.
100th Infantry Battalion
The 100th Infantry Battalion was engaged in heavy action during the war taking part in multiple campaigns. The 100th was made up of Nisei who were originally members of the Hawaii National Guard. Sent to the mainland as the Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion on June 5, 1942, the 1,432 original members of the 100th were stationed first at Camp McCoy and later at Camp Shelby for combat training. Meanwhile, an earlier decision to demote Nisei soldiers to 4-C class was reversed and the Army in 1943 issued a call for Japanese American volunteers. Most of the initial recruits came from Hawaii, as those on the mainland were reluctant to volunteer while they and their families remained in camp. The 2,686 accepted Hawaiians (out of 10,000 volunteers) and about 1,000 mainlanders were sent to Camp Shelby, where they joined the 100th. The Battalion shipped out in August 1943, landing in North Africa before fighting in Italy, eventually participating in the liberation of Rome. Their exemplary military record, and the patriotic activities of the Varsity Victory Volunteers, paved the way for the creation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
442nd Regimental Combat Team
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was an all-Nisei U.S. Army regiment which served in Europe during World War II. Japanese Americans already in training at the start of the war had been removed from active duty shortly after Pearl Harbor, and the Army stopped accepting new Nisei recruits in early 1942. However, Japanese American leaders like Mike Masaoka and War Department officials like John J. McCloy soon began to push the Roosevelt administration to allow Nisei to serve in combat. A military board was convened in June 1942 to address the issue, but their final report opposed forming a Nisei unit, citing "the universal distrust in which they [Japanese Americans] are held." Despite resistance from military and War Relocation Authority leaders, the President eventually sided with the War Department, and on February 1, 1943, Roosevelt announced the creation of a segregated battalion composed of Nisei soldiers and commanded by white officers. While the first group of volunteers fought in Europe as part of the 100th Infantry Battalion, additional recruits and draftees began combat training at Camp Shelby. The 1st Battalion of the 442nd soon after began sending replacement troops to join the 100th, which suffered an extremely high casualty rate, and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions shipped out on May 1, 1944, joining the 100th in Italy the next month. These men arrived in Europe after the 100th Infantry Battalion had already established its reputation as a fighting unit, and in time, the 442nd became, for its size and length of service, the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.
522nd Field Artillery Battalion
The all-Nisei 522nd Field Artillery Battalion was organized as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team; but towards the end of the war, the 522nd became a roving battalion, shifting to whatever command most needed the unit. The 522nd had the distinction of liberating survivors of the Dachau concentration camp system, from the Nazis on April 29, 1945. Nisei scouts west of Munich near the small Bavarian town of Lager Lechfeld encountered some barracks encircled by barbed wire. Technician Fourth Grade Ichiro Imamura described it in his diary:
- "I watched as one of the scouts used his carbine to shoot off the chain that held the prison gates shut .... They weren’t dead, as he had first thought. When the gates swung open, we got our first good look at the prisoners. Many of them were Jews. They were wearing striped prison suits and round caps. It was cold and the snow was two feet deep in some places. There were no German guards. The prisoners struggled to their feet .... They shuffled weakly out of the compound. They were like skeletons - all skin and bones ...."
Holocaust historians have clarified the Nisei 522nd liberated about 3,000 prisoners at Kaufering IV Hurlach. Hurlach was one of 169 subordinate slave labor camps of Dachau. Dachau, like Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück, was surrounded by hundreds of sub-camps. Only three days later, the survivors of a death march southwards from Dachau towards the Austrian border were found by troops of the 522nd near the village of Waakirchen, and cared for them until dedicated medical personnel took over.
Pierre Moulin in his recent book 'Dachau, Holocaust and US Samurais' writes that the first Nisei arrived at Dachau's gate not on April 29, the date of the liberation of the camp, but on April 28, 1945.
Servicemen in the Army Air Forces
Japanese Americans were generally forbidden to fight a combat role in the Pacific theatre; although no such limitations were placed on Americans of German or Italian ancestry who fought against the Axis powers. Up to this point, the United States government has only been able to find records of five Japanese Americans who were members of the Army Air Forces during World War II, one of them being Kenje Ogata. There was at least one Nisei, U.S. Army Air Forces Technical Sergeant Ben Kuroki, who participated initially in 35 missions as a dorsal turret gunner over Europe, followed by 28 bombing missions over mainland Japan and other locations in the Pacific Theater.
Military Intelligence Service
Approximately 6,000 Japanese Americans served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). The first class received their training at the Presidio in San Francisco, but in June 1942 the MIS Language School was moved to Camp Savage, Minnesota, which offered larger facilities, removed the complications of training Japanese American students in an area they were technically prohibited from entering, and had less anti-Japanese prejudice. In August 1944, the language school was moved again to Fort Snelling. Most of the MIS Language School graduates were attached to the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) as linguists and in other non-combatant roles, interpreting captured enemy documents and interrogating prisoners of war. (At the end of the war, MIS linguists had translated 18,000 enemy documents, created 16,000 propaganda leaflets and interrogated over 10,000 Japanese POWs.) However, MIS servicemen were present at every major battle against Japanese forces, and those who served in combat faced extremely dangerous and difficult conditions, sometimes coming under friendly fire from U.S. soldiers unable to distinguish them from the Japanese and often encountering former friends on the battlefield.
Japanese American MIS linguists translated Japanese documents known as the "Z Plan", which contained Japan's counterattack strategy in the Central Pacific. This information led to Allied victories at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, in which the Japanese lost most of their aircraft carrier planes, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. An MIS radio operator intercepted a message describing Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's flight plans, which led to P-38 Lightning fighter planes shooting down his plane over the Solomon Islands.
Women's Army Corps
Like their male counterparts, Nisei women were at first prohibited from serving in the U.S. military; this changed in November 1943, and 142 young women volunteered to join the WAC. Because their number was relatively small, the Nisei WACs were not restricted to a segregated corps, but instead were spread out and served alongside other ethnic groups. The idea of female auxiliary service was still new at this time (the Women's Army Corps was only nine months old when it opened its ranks to Nisei volunteers), and these women were most often assigned to clerical duties or other "women's work." Additionally, WACs were often portrayed in media and propaganda as highly sexualized and were encouraged by male supervisors to play into this role. The Nisei WACs faced another difficulty in that they were expected to translate Japanese military documents; even those who were fluent in Japanese struggled to understand the military language, and eventually some were sent to the Military Intelligence Language School for training.
The nation's highest award for combat valor, the Medal of Honor, was conferred upon one Nisei during the war, Sadao Munemori, after he sacrificed his life to save his fellow soldiers. Twenty-one members of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team received Distinguished Service Crosses during or immediately after their World War II service, but in the 1990s, after a study revealed that racial discrimination had caused them to be overlooked, their awards were upgraded to Medals of Honor. On October 5, 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, as well as the 6,000 Japanese Americans who served in the Military Intelligence Service during the war.
- List of Japanese American Servicemen and Servicewomen in World War II
- Lost Battalion (World War II)
- Day of Remembrance (Japanese Americans)
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In fact, the brutal death marches south had already begun on April 24. Jewish prisoners from the outer Dachau camps were marched to Dachau, and then 70 miles south. Many of the Jewish marchers weighed less than 80 pounds. Shivering in their tattered striped uniforms, the "skeletons" marched 10 to 15 hours a day, passing more than a dozen Bavarian towns. If they stopped or fell behind, the SS guards shot them and left their corpses along the road. Thousands died from exposure, exhaustion, and starvation. On May 2, the death march was outside Waakirchen, Germany, near the Austrian border, when the 522nd came across the marchers. That day, soldiers from the 522nd were patrolling near Waakirchen. The Nisei saw an open field with several hundred "lumps in the snow." When the soldiers looked closer they realized the "lumps" were people. Some were shot. Some were dead from exposure. Hundreds were alive. But barely. The 522nd discovered hundreds of prisoners with black and white prison garb, shaven heads, sunken eyes, and hollowed cheeks. Some roamed aimlessly around the countryside. Some were too weak to move. All were severely malnourished. One soldier gave a starving Jewish prisoner a candy bar, but his system couldn't handle solid food. Then the Americans were told not to give food to the prisoners because it could do them more harm than good. For the next three days, the Nisei helped the prisoners to shelter and tended to their needs as best as they could. They carried the survivors into warm houses and barns. The soldiers gave them blankets, water and tiny bits of food to ease them back from starvation. The soldiers left Waakirchen on May 4, still deeply disturbed by the harrowing scenes of the Jewish prisoners.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to US National Archives series: Central Photographic File of the War Relocation Authority, compiled 1942 - 1945.|
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