From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

November 2006 - World War II Volunteers

"And finally in desperation, I decided that maybe if I did volunteer it might help my dad get released a little earlier" (Tosh Yasutake)

The nisei veterans have been called everything from heroes to cultural icons to saviors of the Japanese American community. Stories of the rescue of the "Lost Battalion" and the breaking of the Gothic Line are so harrowing and so poignant that it is easy to see why they hold an iconic status in our community. Yet, if we go back to 1943 - in the weeks following an announcement by the U.S. Government that opened the military to Japanese Americans - we see a group of individuals forced to make very human decisions under the most difficult of circumstances. Why these men decided to volunteer for the army, and the issues surrounding this decision, is the subject of this month's feature article.

Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, approximately 5,000 Japanese Americans were serving in the military. When war broke out, many of these nisei, U.S. born children of Japanese immigrants (issei), were discharged or placed in non-combat positions. Meanwhile, those nisei who rushed to enlist were rejected by local induction boards. An order by the War Department on March 30, 1942, officially discontinued the induction of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. A few months later, the government announced that no persons of Japanese ancestry, regardless of citizenship, would be eligible for military service. This policy would remain intact for almost one year.

Spady Koyama, a nisei from Spokane, Washington, was one of the few Japanese Americans able to enlist in the chaotic months following Pearl Harbor. At the urging of his issei mother, Spady prevailed against numerous barriers, and was inducted into the U.S. Army in January 1942. Spady credits his mother for sparking his decision to enlist when she told him, "this is your country, no matter who says what."

In January of 1943, the War Department reversed course and announced the formation of a segregated Japanese American combat unit, which would later become the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. President Roosevelt, in a letter approving the activation of the combat unit, stated, "Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry." The government expected to recruit 3,000 nisei from the incarceration camps. Perhaps not surprisingly, only 1,200 volunteered.

Mas Watanabe was one of the 1,200 nisei who made the difficult decision to volunteer from behind barbed wire. Like many of his peers, Mas was aware of the irony of the government's call for an all-nisei combat team. Despite feelings of anger and alienation over the government's treatment of Japanese Americans, Mas volunteered for the army and spent the remainder of the war fighting with the 442nd in Europe.

Tosh Yasutake also volunteered for the army while incarcerated in Minidoka. Tosh's father, Jack, had been picked up by the FBI immediately following Pearl Harbor and was detained in Lordsburg internment camp when Tosh heard about the call for volunteers. With his father's future uncertain, Tosh made the decision he felt was the best for his family, despite personal reservations about fighting in a segregated unit.

The War Department's call for volunteers on the mainland elicited fewer responses than expected. In contrast, nearly 10,000 Japanese Americans volunteered for the army in Hawaii, where mass incarceration had not occurred. Senator Daniel Inouye, a Hawaiian of Japanese ancestry, enlisted immediately following the government's activation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. When Senator Inouye arrived on the mainland for basic training, he was shocked to discover the existence of incarceration camps. As more nisei soldiers from Hawaii learned of the camps, and in some cases, saw them firsthand, it forced them to reflect on their own decisions to volunteer.

In total, more than 33,000 Japanese American men and women served in the military during World War II. As Veterans Day approaches, it is important to celebrate them not only as legendary war heroes, but complex individuals who persevered during a dark time.

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