Japanese-Americans Were Vital to the WWII War Effort

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, many Americans were distrusting and fearful of Japanese-Americans living in the U.S. Fearmongering led to many of those Japanese-Americans being barred from military service, with their draft status changing from “draft eligible” to “enemy alien.” About 110,000 of them were even relocated to internment camps all along the U.S. West Coast.

World War II veterans who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion toured a C-17 Globemaster III at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Airmen from the Hawaii Air National Guard's 154th Wing hosted the tour. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Kristen M. Higgins

World War II veterans who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion toured a C-17 Globemaster III at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Airmen from the Hawaii Air National Guard’s 154th Wing hosted the tour. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Kristen M. Higgins

But many Japanese-Americans still wanted to fight for America, and despite many obstacles, they were eventually able to do so. Those brave soldiers – who weren’t widely appreciated at the time – are being honored during this week’s Pearl Harbor 75th anniversary commemorations in a ceremony called “Fighting Two Wars.”

Who Does This Event Honor?

Americans with Japanese ancestry were eventually able to overcome the mistrust and join four U.S. military units – the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which were segregated, as well as the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service.

Members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442d Regimental Combat Team, in bivouac prior to moving to the front in France, Oct. 7, 1944. Army photo

Members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442d Regimental Combat Team, in bivouac prior to moving to the front in France, Oct. 7, 1944. Army photo

How They Helped the War Effort

The 100th Infantry Battalion was the first all-Japanese-American fighting unit in U.S. military history. It was formed after Hawaii’s military governor, Army Lt. Gen. Delos Emmons, gathered several pre-war Japanese-American draftees and sent them to combat infantry training in the summer of 1942.

The battalion joined combat in North Africa in June 1943. A few months later, it was sent to Italy, where its soldiers saw fierce combat, earning the nickname “the Purple Heart Battalion” because of the high casualty rate.

They would eventually join up with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Two color guards and color bearers of the Japanese-American 442d Combat Team stand at attention while their citations are read. They are standing on ground in the Bruyeres area of France, where many of their comrades fell. Army photo

Two color guards and color bearers of the Japanese-American 442d Combat Team stand at attention while their citations are read. They are standing on ground in the Bruyeres area of France, where many of their comrades fell. Army photo

While anti-Japanese fears were rampant in 1942, Army Col. Moses Pettigrew and several other military leaders believed Japanese-Americans would be excellent combat soldiers, so they fought to start a Japanese-American combat unit. President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally approved its creation in February 1943.

The unit, which became the 442nd, fought in southern France and Germany after joining up with the 100th Infantry Battalion in Italy in June 1944. It was able to liberate Bruyeres and Biffontaine in southern France, rescue a U.S. battalion that had become cut off from its division, and help an African-American unit drive the Germans from northern Italy.

Because of the 442nd RCT’s success, the draft was reinstated in the internment camps back home, and several other battalions and companies were incorporated into it, including the 100th Infantry Battalion. Due to its size and length of service, the 442nd RCT became the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the U.S. More than 18,000 individual decorations for bravery, 9,500 Purple Hearts and nine Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded, while 21 men received the Medal of Honor.

Nisei linguists were second-generation Japanese Americans who often served behind enemy lines during World War II. They translated captured enemy documents, interrogated Japanese prisoners of war, intercepted communications, persuaded Japanese militia to surrender, collected information and sabotaged enemy operations. Courtesy photo

Nisei linguists were second-generation Japanese Americans who often served behind enemy lines during World War II. They translated captured enemy documents, interrogated Japanese prisoners of war, intercepted communications, persuaded Japanese militia to surrender, collected information and sabotaged enemy operations. Courtesy photo

“Anybody can shoot one rifle, but not everybody can speak Japanese.”

The Military Intelligence Service was comprised of more than 6,000 Japanese-Americans from Hawaii and the mainland, including several men from the 100th Infantry Battalion who were recruited into the MIS when it was first formed in late 1942.

Many of them worked as linguists in the Pacific theater to defeat the country from which their ancestors emigrated. They accompanied reconnaissance patrols, listened for information dropped by loud Japanese soldiers outside defensive perimeters, and they even interpreted enemy commands.

These men might be some of the most covert Japanese-Americans to take part in the war effort, largely because their work was classified for more than 30 years. But they were credited with saving thousands of lives, as well as helping bridge the two cultures during the post-war occupation of Japan.

Some Japanese-American men attached to the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion pack their bags. Photo courtesy of Elaine Kishinami, from WWII Army veteran Edward Kishinami’s photo collection

Some Japanese-American men attached to the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion pack their bags. Photo courtesy of Elaine Kishinami, from WWII Army veteran Edward Kishinami’s photo collection

The 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion, which included nearly 1,000 Japanese-Americans, was tasked with constructing major projects in Hawaii. Known as the “Chowhounds,” the 1399th was activated in April 1944.

Over the course of the rest of the war, its soldiers constructed more than 50 vital defense facilities on the island of Oahu, including jungle training villages, ammunition storage pits, the Flying Fortress airfield at Kahuku, and a million-gallon water tank that’s still in use today.

Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur tried to assign the 1399th to the Philippines twice, but the War Department refused to put them in direct conflict with the Japanese enemy, saying they were too important to Hawaii’s defense.

Following the war, the 1399th received many accolades for their contributions and excellent service. These men are considered the unsung heroes of the Japanese-Americans’ contributions to the war efforts.

The “Fighting Two Wars” tribute will take place Monday, Dec. 5 at 11 a.m. Hawaii time (4 p.m. Eastern Time). To watch it live, visit our special Pearl Harbor coverage page on defense.gov.

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