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. Three of these veterans tell their 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.
During World War II, 6,000 Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) served in the Military Intelligence Service, performing secret intelligence work against the Japanese military. Their work dispelled any doubt that as Americans the Nisei were willing to fight an enemy with whom they shared a similar ancestral background.
“It was in November when the recruiters from MIS came (to Gila River, Ariz, Internment Camp) and they tested my language. I guess I passed because they asked me if I wanted to volunteer for the Army and I said I sure would but I should get my parents’ approval. I ran back and twisted their arm and got their approval,” said Ichikawa, who’s now 92 years old.
Ichikawa had recently graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in accounting when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
“I trained as an accountant, but in California nobody was hiring a Japanese-American accountant, so I decided to be a fruit farmer with my father. He had years and years of experience, so we found a very good lease, but this farm did not have any equipment, so we had to borrow money and invest in a tractor and truck, spray wagon, and we started pruning the trees,” he said.
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, his parents, who were Japanese citizens, assumed they would be interned.
“I didn’t even give it a thought because I was an American. Why should I be interned? So I went merrily on my way and then in the following year around April or May, I learned that I would have to go too, so I had to get rid of the farm.
“I was mad . I was very disappointed, it hurt me quite a bit because here I was a college graduate, I was a loyal American, I had never been to Japan, and for them to treat me like an enemy-alien was devastating,” Ichikawa said.
He considers his generation to be the greatest generation of Japanese Americans.
“We were initially labeled enemy-aliens and many of us volunteered to fight for the U.S. Army and we offered our lives to prove we are loyal American citizens,” he said.
During World War II, he said, about 800 Japanese Americans gave their lives to prove they were loyal Americans.
“We have turned whatever discrimination people had against us, by our service in the Army, so at the end of World War II, there was no more discrimination. Today, our kids have no problem finding any job they want. Like my son, Bryan, he’s a pretty high official in his company. Those things did not happen in my generation, so it was our service that erased discrimination for not only us, but all Asian Americans,” he said.
Ichikawa was discharged in 1947 as a second lieutenant with the infantry, but was recalled during the Korean War.
“When the Korean War started, they were recalling all inactive infantry officers, so my name was in there, but I told them I’m not an infantry officer, I’m an intelligence officer. I know nothing about infantry. They said to do as the Army ordered.”
Ichikawa did as the Army ordered, but said he still felt discriminated against.
While serving, though, he worked with some members of the CIA and was asked to join.
“When I joined the CIA, they treated me like anybody else. Early in the game they gave me jobs that were supervisory. I felt very comfortable with their organization, so I was able to get good promotions,” he said, and continued to serve in a variety of assignments up through Vietnam.
“In 1975 when Vietnam fell, and I was evacuated from the embassy rooftop, I went and got on an aircraft carrier and saw the tremendous 7th Fleet in the Pacific,” he recalled. “We lost about 50,000 Americans who died for Vietnam and for the United States to give up when we had that huge Navy just sitting outside of Vietnam while communists were coming down from the north, and for us to do nothing … ”
“The Marines were lined up, ready to shoot the enemy, but they were never given the go-ahead to do so,” he said. “They were itching to do something. They saw the enemy out in the open, streaming toward Saigon and we just didn’t do anything.”
As a result, he said, the Vietnamese suffered a lot, some couldn’t evacuate, and many stayed behind and spent years in jail.
“I was so disgusted that I came back and found out I could retire without losing anything, so I did. I was mad at the U.S. government at that time,” he said. “But I’m retired now, there’s no reason to me mad.”