Michelle Kunz is a student of photography at the Art Center College of Design, and one of my students. I have always admired her vision and her way of seeing beyond the surface qualities of what is mostly captured in photography. It is not about striking a pose, but of letting the viewer see not a mirror vision of herself but of allowing the subject be who they are; by looking away or looking directly at her and being comfortable to allow their spirit shine for her camera.
Michelle set out to document the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Los Angeles. It was an infantry regiment in the United States Army comprised of Americans of Japanese ancestry and the most decorated regiment of the Army during WWII. She wanted to record through her camera the lives of the men and their wives, through her own vision of who they are. As the project is still ongoing, I asked her about why this project is so important for someone of her generation.
This coming November 2nd, members of Congress will hold a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in the Capitol to honor Japanese American soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In total, about 14,000 men served, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts and an unprecedented eight Presidential Unit Citations. Of those 14,000 men, 4,363 were killed in action or wounded. The 442nd RCT and the 100th Battalion fought in 5 major battle campaigns, "Go For Broke" was their motto.
Why is it important to capture these stories?
The story of the heroic Nisei World War II Veterans is one that is relatively well known, but it's important not to forget what happened, how much they did for the country, and for Japanese Americans living in the United States at that time. People were instantly discriminated against because of their race, and it took an incredible amount of courage to go to war and fight for the country that was discriminating against them.
The soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Batallion, and the MIS proved their loyalty to the United States a hundred times over; the casualties of those groups were incredibly high but they didn't give up. It was that undying loyalty that helped to do away with the discrimination that Japanese Americans faced back home on a daily basis.
Now, these soldiers who were just boys when they went to war are getting older and many have already passed away. It's important to keep their story alive and to continue to recognize what they did for us. After the war, President Truman told the Nisei veterans that they fought two wars--the enemy overseas and prejudice at home--and they won.
The motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was "go for broke."
It's a gambling term that means risking everything on one great effort to win big. The soldiers of the 442nd needed to win big. They were Nisei - American-born sons of Japanese immigrants. They fought two wars: the Germans in Europe and the prejudice in America.
What were the experiences of the families/wives that they left behind?
I think the experience was probably slightly different for each family, especially considering that most Japanese in Hawaii were not forced into camps like those on the mainland. I'd imagine that, like any parent or spouse of a soldier, they were most concerned about the welfare of their husband or son. While there may have been pride that their soldier was fighting for the U.S., war is dangerous and they just wanted their loved ones to return home to them safely.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army changed the status of the Japanese in the Hawaiian ROTC to "enemy alien". Have the men of the 442 spoken about how they felt when they saw their country turn against them?
All of the men I spoke to were born in America and considered themselves 100% American. Thousands volunteered for the Army to prove their loyalty, and even those that were drafted out of the camps proved their allegiance in the way that they fought for the United States overseas. The casualties from the Japanese American units were staggering--and yet they became the most decorated unit of their size in military history. To this day, the men I've spoke with are incredibly proud of their service and their country--that's something that never changed. They constantly remind me how lucky I am to live in America and have the rights that I do.
There was a group of young men in the camps who refused to go to war as long as their civil liberties were not intact, but I think even this shows how incredibly American these men were. They were standing up for their inherent rights as U.S. citizens even if it meant disobeying orders.
To see the ongoing project please go here
All Images: © Michelle Kunz
Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog.
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