Despite their wrongful incarceration, many Nisei (2nd gen. citizens) volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service & Women's Army Corps. I couldn't include all of these in #WeAreNotFree, but I did want to talk a bit about the 442nd here...
If you haven’t read the first or second parts of this series, you can catch up below:
I) the mass eviction
II) the temporary detention centers and incarceration camps
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the vast majority of Japanese Americans, including those who were US citizens, were classified as “enemy aliens,” a designation which denied them, among other things, the right to enlist in the armed services. The classification remained in place until early 1943, when the federal government declared it unlawful to deny any citizen the right to defend their country. This announcement coincided with a call for volunteers for an all-Japanese segregated fighting unit, which would, in theory, visibly and unequivocally demonstrate to the rest of the country the loyalty of the Japanese Americans they had incarcerated in camps.
Critics were skeptical. Many feared that a segregated unit would be treated as disposable, and they were quick to point out the hypocrisy of asking Japanese Americans to fight for a nation that had not only stripped them of their civil rights but also continued to hold their friends and families prisoner. Nonetheless, almost 3,000 volunteers from Hawaii and an additional 1,500 from the mainland chose to enlist.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was activated in February 1943 and trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. In May 1944, they were deployed to Europe, where they met up with the 100th Infantry Battalion, composed primarily of Japanese American servicemen from Hawaii. Over the course of the next year, the 442nd fought in major campaigns in both Italy and France, including the rescue of the “Lost Battalion,” when 275 soldiers of the 141st Regiment, 36th Division, were trapped behind enemy lines in the Vosges Mountains. During the rescue, the 442nd suffered an estimated 800 casualties, at times fighting with less than half their normal strength, but after five long days of battle, they succeeded in breaking through enemy lines to the beleaguered soldiers of the 141st.
The 442nd RCT later went on to become the most decorated unit of its size in American history. With an impressive 7 Distinguished Unit Citations, 21 Medals of Honor, more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 Silver Stars, and more than 4,000 Bronze Stars, it has become indisputable proof of not only the loyalty but also the skill and bravery of the Japanese American volunteers. As President Harry Truman said during a review of the 442nd in July 1946, almost a year after the end of World War II, “You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home and you won.”
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Illustration by Yoshi Yoshitani.