In April 1945, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, a detachment of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team “shot the locks off the gates and liberated Dachau.” According to Dachau testimonies, concentration camp prisoners feared that Germany’s ally, Japan, had arrived to assist in their torture when in reality, the men of the 442nd were Japanese American Nisei or second-generation soldiers fighting for the liberation of Europe from Nazism. One Dachau survivor asserted that her Japanese American liberator looked into her eyes with tears and proudly showed her his American uniform with the American flag. Only then did she realize that the men she assumed she should fear instead arrived for the liberation of the camp. Other members of this detachment went on to rescue thousands of concentration camp victims on death marches through the German countryside, as well as, subcamps of Dachau, an experience veteran Shiyo Doiwhi described as “hard to comprehend.” Military historian Walter Bradford noted the specificity within the historical moment of Japanese American soldiers liberating Dachau. He stated, “It is pretty ironic that their relatives were in camps in the U.S. while these people were freeing (a Nazi camp).”
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team holds a special position in military history as it consisted exclusively of Japanese American soldiers enlisted predominately from the many internment camps constructed in response to Pearl Harbor. For decades before Pearl Harbor, Japanese and Japanese Americans struggled to be accepted within American society. As European immigrants found themselves integrated into American society, Japanese immigrants faced a variety of hurdles. Anti-Asian sentiment codified first by the Chinese Exclusion Act, led to other anti-Asian legislation like the segregation of Asian American children in public schools across Western states, the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 limiting Japanese immigrant labor in the U.S., and ultimately Alien Land Laws which barred immigrants ineligible for citizenship from owning land. Amidst those barriers, first-generation Japanese immigrants, known as Issei, worked hard to make lives for themselves and their American-born children known as Nisei or second-generation. While Issei worked to establish the family financially, the Nisei cultivated an American identity. In the words of Ronald Takaki, “Everything they had learned at school about their country had taken ‘root,’ and they felt they were Americans.” He goes on the assert that their deep American identity did not impede their respect for their parents’ values and cultural heritage. Senator Daniel Inouye and 442nd veteran articulated this hybridity by recalling that his grandfather “made it a point to instill in me values, virtues and a bit of the culture and history of Japan…I learned about Jefferson when I was in the 9th grade, but I learned of Tokugawa…before I got into kindergarten." Like so many immigrants, Nisei Japanese Americans were culturally multifaceted, but their American-ness did not curb the scapegoating of Japanese and Japanese Americans months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Hiroshi Sugiyama was a medic who served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II. Sugiyama was killed in action in Italy in 1945 when he rushed out to administer medical treatment to a fellow soldier. See a few shots from his life and memorial.
Mass hysteria dominated West Coast politics after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In contrast, Anglo-American political leaders across the Hawaiian Islands insisted that the Japanese American community stood as essential to the Hawaiian economy and social structure. West Coast officials contrasted this assertion by quickly promoting the idea of the mass internment of Japanese Americans on the mainland. In January of 1942, the Los Angeles Times declared, “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.” Farming associations across the California Central Valley were clear that the mass internment of Japanese Americans would allow them to farm without competition. Though J. Edgar Hoover found no justification for the internment of Japanese Americans across the West Coast, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the measure into law through Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. By the end of March, Japanese American families across the West were given short notice to leave their homes carrying only “essential items.” This often resulted in the loss of thousands of dollars of property. Nelson Akagi testified that Executive Order 9066 cost his family a number of acres of land, their cars and 15,000 unsold citrus trees in their nursery. Japanese Americans were not prepared to be relocated to far-flung outposts across deserts, mountains and desolate plains with camp names like Manzanar, Topaz and Heart Mountain and some feared “they would put us on a ship to Japan.” In total, nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps for the duration of the war.
As Japanese American families and communities worked to settle themselves in their harsh new surroundings, many Japanese American young men desired to prove their loyalty to the United States of America by joining the military. For the first year of the war, Japanese American men in internment camps were not eligible to enlist as they were classified “enemy aliens, 4-C, by the U.S. War Department." Only after passionate lobbying and a clear need for troops did the military open its doors to Japanese American internees having sworn an oath of allegiance to the United States of America. Thirty-three thousand Japanese Americans served in uniform. The decision to join the war effort while in internment camps was a fraught one that many interned families debated. Makoto Hashimoto recalled requesting his father's blessing to join the military. Before giving it, his father asked for his reasoning, and his response was, “I think we will all benefit if our group does a good job in the war effort.” Many Japanese American men desired to prove their loyalty to the U.S. despite internment and discrimination, and over 5,000 Japanese Americans from across Hawaii and the mainland were assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Together they trained at Camp Shelby in Mississippi before leaving for Italy. Once in Italy, the Regiment relieved the battered 100th Battalion and worked its way slowly across Europe and into Germany. The 442nd fought house to house in Bruyeres, France, before taking the city, rescued the 36th Texas "Lost Battalion" surrounded by German troops with no exit for an entire week, and they penetrated Germany liberating Dachau and other satellite death camps. By the war’s end in May of 1945, the 442nd experienced 9,486 casualties, including over 800 killed or missing in action. The Regiment earned “21 Medals of Honor…Over 4,000 Purple Hearts, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 Silver Stars, and more than 4,000 Bronze Stars…for action during WWII. In 1946, President Harry Truman welcomed the regiment home personally and stated, “You fought not only the enemy, you fought prejudice — and you won.” But according to the veterans themselves, the war meant having a testimony of citizenship and fidelity for their families in the internment camp as predicted by Makoto Hashimoto. Fighting in WWII was the beginning of the ultimate battle to assert their American-ness and love of democracy and freedom.
The project to publish oral histories from the Go for Broke National Education Center in the USC Digital Library has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
Top Image: A photograph of an Army convoy, 1941 July 10| Go for Broke National Education Center Collection, USC Libraries