By Rob McIlvaine
Editor’s note: Japanese-American veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team received Bronze Stars Nov. 1 and Congressional Gold Medals Nov. 2 for their contributions during World War II. This veteran tells his story:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Dec. 7, 1941, 5,000 Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) had been drafted to serve in the U.S. Army.
With Executive Order 9066 in hand, though, Military Governor Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt decided to discharge all those Japanese Americans on the west coast and send them home. He was also responsible for forcing more than 115,000 persons of Japanese ancestry into relocation camps.
“The legacy (of what occurred over the following years of World War II) is very important in terms of present day,” said Terry Shima, executive director of the Japanese American Veterans Association since 2004.
Shima joined the 442nd Infantry Regiment in 1945 in Italy, where he was assigned to public relations and when the unit returned in July 1946, he continued to handle public relations for the veterans association in New York, in Washington, D.C., and in Honolulu. Following two years in the Army, he worked for the Foreign Service for 30 years.
“In Hawaii, on the other hand, there were 1,432 Japanese Americans in the Hawaii Territory National Guard. And Lt. Gen. Delos C. Emmons, the military governor, faced more immediate danger or threat of a land attack by Japan.
“What he did, very smartly, was to send the 1,142 Nisei to Wisconsin, to get them out of the way,” Shima said.
Subsequently, they were sent to the Italian front, as the 100th Infantry Battalion.
“Army senior leaders then decided to form a larger unit because a battalion-size (unit) did not achieve, I believe, their objective. They wanted a brigade-size, so they formed the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a volunteer unit,” Shima said.
About 1,500 volunteered from the internment camps and 2,500 volunteered from Hawaii. They trained in Camp Shelby, Miss., and were shipped to Italy, where the 442nd and the 100th merged.
The 442nd was Europe, he said, and the Military Intelligence Service was in the Pacific. The MIS performed as important a job, relatively speaking, as the 442nd.
“On top of all of this would be the legacy,” Shima said. “What does this all mean to the Japanese Americans of the present day? The story is unbelievable. As General George C. Marshall (chief of Staff of the Army, secretary of State and the third Secretary of Defense) said “all of the European commanders had asked for the 442nd to be on their team,” indicating the quality of combat strength that the Japanese Americans provided.”
On the Pacific side, 60 Japanese Americans were already in training with the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service, but when war broke out and many of their families were incarcerated, not one of them decided to quit.
ON 442nd LEGACY
“The Japanese Americans fought against people of their own racial ancestry with everything that they had. They were accused by Japanese officers who were prisoners, as traitors of Japan,” Shima said.
On the July 15, 1946, President Harry Truman reviewed the 442nd and confirmed their loyalty.
“You fought the enemy abroad and you fought prejudice at home and you won,” he said.
“That, to me, is a signal that the highest authority of the land has confirmed their loyalty because the reason that the Nisei fought with such intensity was for only one reason, and that was to prove their loyalty, because they were accused of being saboteurs and collaborators of the enemy,” Shima said.
The highest rank of a Japanese American during World War II, he said, was a major and there were only four.
“But in the Vietnam War, you would find them in every branch of service in the most sensitive war-planning positions, in the cockpits of fighters and bombers as pilots and navigators. During World War II, we had five Nisei serving as gunners in bombers. They were proud of their service,” he said.
In Vietnam, he said, 35 served in the cockpits of fighters and bombers as pilots and navigators, and five became guests at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp.
After Vietnam, he said, 43 Japanese Americans would be promoted to generals and admirals, while another 60 Asian-Pacific Americans would reach flag rank. All this is a result of what the Tuskegee Airmen and the 442nd helped produce, he said.
“On the civilian side, there would be equally impressive reforms,” he said. “One was repeal of discriminatory laws, especially along the west coast states. And in 1952 alien Japanese could apply for U.S. citizenship … a great accomplishment.”
In August of 1988, the Civil Liberties Act was passed and President Ronald Reagan offered the nation’s formal apology for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
“And of course, more recently, the U.S. Senate selected from amongst their group a Japanese American to serve as president pro tempore of the United States Senate,” Shima said, adding that’s a position that puts him, constitutionally, third in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives.
“Only 70 years ago, this same Japanese American (Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii) was given draft classification 4-C, which stood for enemy alien, unfit for military duty. So, what I’m saying is that we have come a long way,” Shima said.
“This is an American story and it speaks to the greatness of this nation.”