Photo Essay: Japanese American Military Service during WWII

Despite facing extreme race-based scrutiny and suspicion, Japanese Americans served in the U.S. military during WWII in disproportionate numbers—even as many of their families were stuck in government-run concentration camps. Most served in the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team and its predecessor, the 100th Infantry Battalion, but many others served as translators and interpreters in the Military Intelligence Service, and nearly 500 Nisei women served as nurses, Women’s Auxiliary Corps members, and MIS translators and teachers. This Veteran’s Day, we honor those who served by sharing some gems from collections recently added to the Densho archives.

Two Japanese American soldiers wearing khaki uniforms and standing side by side for a photo.
William “Bill” Miyagi and Taka Uyechi during a visit to Poston concentration camp in 1944. The Miyagi Family Collection contains photos and letters from William’s time with the 442nd. Courtesy of the Miyagi Family Collection, Densho.
Photo of a Japanese American soldier posing with a woman and child inside Poston concentration camp. The woman is standing on the right holding up the boy, and the soldier stands on the left with his arm draped over the woman's shoulder and a hand on the boy's back. Barracks are visible in the background.
Yosh Uyechi visiting Sonoko and Donald Miyagi in Poston during WWII. Courtesy of the Miyagi Family Collection, Densho.
Black and white photo of three Japanese American soldiers acting as Honor Guard during a military parade. The man in the middle holds up the American flag, and two others stand on either side holding rifles against their right leg. Behind them are other soldiers standing at attention.
Three soldiers acting as Honor Guard during a military parade, c. 1943-1944. Courtesy of the Matsui Family Collection, Densho.
Three soldiers striking a "Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil" pose outside barracks. They are sitting in a row, with the soldier in front covering his eyes, the soldier in the middle covering his mouth, and the soldier in the back plugging his ears.
Three soldiers strike a “Hear no, speak no, see no evil” pose outside of barracks during training. Courtesy of the Matsui Family Collection, Densho.
Black and white photo of a Japanese American woman standing in front of a Military Intelligence Service Language School building. She is wearing glasses and a coat, and holds several books in her arms.
Mitsue Matsui, who served as personal secretary to Military Intelligence Service Language School Director John Aiso, c. 1944. Courtesy of the Matsui Family Collection, Densho.
Five Japanese American soldiers pose for a photo while climbing Mt. Hakodate. They are wearing uniforms and smiling at the camera, standing on a snowy mountain slope.
Takashi Matsui was stationed in Japan with the U.S. military during the Allied occupation after the end of World War II. Here, a group of soldiers climb Mt. Hakodate, c. 1947. Courtesy of the Matsui Family Collection.
Photo of a Japanese American soldier sitting on a mule in a military camp in Myanmar. Other soldiers and trees are visible in the background.
A soldier riding a mule in Myanmar in 1943. Courtesy of William and Hana Ozaki, Densho.
Five soldiers posing around an army Jeep. Among them is a Japanese American soldier sitting on the front of the Jeep.
Five soldiers posing around a Jeep “somewhere in India” in June 1942. Courtesy of William and Hana Ozaki, Densho.
Scrapbook page of a photocopied news clipping. At the top of the page is a newspaper photo of a Japanese American couple wearing U.S. military uniforms. A woman in a WAC uniform is standing next to her husband, looking at the insignia on his sleeve. Below the photo is a news article with the headline "U.S. JAP AND WIFE GANG UP ON FOE, Sergeant and Wac Furnish Example of Patriotism."
Doris (Okada) Abe kept a scrapbook of news articles and clippings on Japanese American soldiers during WWII. This clipping shows a photo and short profile of a Nisei couple, Army Sergeant Yosh “Nickie” Nakagawara and Women’s Auxiliary Corps Private Cherry Nakagawara—though the article’s unfortunate description of the “U.S. Jap and Wife” doesn’t exactly do the Nakagawara’s justice. Courtesy of the Masao and Doris Abe Collection, Densho.
Black and white photo of a uniformed Nisei soldier and Japanese American woman holding hands. They stand in front of a tree trunk and a house is visible in the background. In the upper right corner is a handwritten note that reads, "To uncle & auntie."
A photo of an unnamed soldier and woman in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1944. Courtesy of the Okano Family Collection, Densho.
A page from a magazine with the header "ARMY APPETITES ARE BEST FED IN HISTORY" and five color photographs of army cooks preparing food and examples of meals served to soldiers during training. A soldier has written notes about the food in the margins in blue ink.
Yuriko Domoto Tsukada saved many of the letters sent to her during WWII—including this annotated copy of Life Magazine, in which her friend Yoshito Shibata wrote notes about daily life in the U.S. Army. Here, Shibata comments on the food. Courtesy of the Yuriko Domoto Tsukada Collection, Densho.
A Japanese American soldier posing for a photo in front of barracks in Camp Shelby during WWII. He is wearing an army uniform and stands with his arms behind his back.
George Sunada in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where he trained with the 442nd. Courtesy of the George Sunada Collection, Densho.
A copy of a Japanese American soldier's Honorable Discharge papers from the U.S. Army, dated October 5, 1945.
A copy of George Sunada’s Honorable Discharge papers from the U.S. Army in 1945. Courtesy of the George Sunada Collection, Densho.

To learn more, check out the Densho Encyclopedia articles on Japanese American military service during World War II, Japanese American women in the military, and the Military Intelligence Service, or visit the Go For Broke National Education Center.

Do you have objects from a veteran you’d like to add to the Densho Digital Repository?  Please fill out this form to get in touch with our collections team. Know someone whose story should be captured in an oral history? Fill out the narrator nomination form here!

[Three soldiers acting as Honor Guard during a military parade, c. 1943-1944. Courtesy of the Matsui Family Collection, Densho.]

Single Comment
    • 16/11/2020 at 21:58

    This is fascinating. I worked closely for six months in Sapporo, Hokkaido with Professor Russell Horiuchi, PhD, who had served as an intelligence translator and interrogator in the Pacific and later at US Forces Japan HQ during the first years of the Occupation. Like many US service members, including my father, he met his wife during his military service in the Occupation. Those marriages created a successful demand that American immigration laws banning immigration from Japan be reversed. That postwar phase of the Nikkei story needs to be better known, because it brought an infusion of thousands of first generation immigrants into the Japanese American community.
    Another postwar phase of the Nisei veteran story was the use by veterans of their GI Bill educational benefits to advance into fields of work that had previously been denied to Nisei, including law, medicine, engineering and science, and academia.

    A third continuing story is the Nisei veterans who pursued military careers, and the sons and daughters of veterans who used military service as a way to advance in American society, such as General Shinseki, US Army Chief of Staff. All of these narratives are part of the heritage of the 442 RCT and other WW II JA veterans. Are there statistics about the numbers of JAs involved in these developments? I was oersonally involved in some of these, including my 20 years service in the Air Force including two law degrees earned on JAG Corps scholarships and service in Japan.

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