In the weeks following Pearl Harbor, an aerial attack by Japan on American soil, a different type of conflict ensued. The United States government began to question the loyalty of Japanese Americans across the country. There were concerns as to whether or not the Japanese Americans would side with Japan against the United States. On January 19, 1942, all of the Japanese American soldiers were discharged and their draft status was changed to 4C, which means “enemy alien”. Following this change in military status, all of the Japanese Americans residing in the mainland were placed in internment camps. However, the Japanese Americans living in Hawaii, the “islanders”, were not placed in internment camps and allowed to continue residing in their own homes. The internment camps were considered by the government to be a safety precaution against these individuals. More interesting than the response of the U.S. Government was the response of the Japanese Americans to the actions invoked against them. Many Japanese Americans chose to respond with loyalty to the United States, even though they were being denied the basic right of freedom.
During that time, there were many Japanese Americans living in Hawaii. Much like other citizens of Hawaii, they responded to the Pearl Harbor emergency by trying to aid the individuals that were hurt during the attack. After the Japanese American soldiers were discharged, a group of Japanese American students in Hawaii formed the “Varsity Victory Volunteers” out of loyalty to the United States in an attempt to aid the war effort. This was a group that was called upon to dig ditches, build barracks, quarry rocks, and surface roads. It was during a trip to the Hawaiian islands that Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy was exposed to the efforts of this group. He was very impressed by the hard work and dedication shown by these individuals, and thus on January 28, 1943, the War Department announced that a combat team comprised only of Japanese Americans was to be formed. The War Department called for 1,500 volunteers from Hawaii, but received 10,000 volunteers. On the mainland 3,000 were called upon, while 1,182 actually enlisted. These volunteers formed the first all Japanese-American combat team, known as the 442nd Combat Regiment.
When first brought together, the islanders did not get along with the mainlanders. This was due to a difference in feelings about being involved in the war: the islanders were glad to finally be involved in the war, and the mainlanders were less enthusiastic because their families were still being held in the internment camps. There were frequent arguments and fights between the two groups. Due to these seemingly irreconcilable differences, the high command seriously considered disbanding the unit. However, instead of disbanding the unit the high command sent some of the islanders on a tour of an internment camp. As these soldiers traveled through, at first they thought it was just a small Japanese village. They were quickly corrected at the sight of barbed wire fences, guard towers armed with machine guns pointed at residents, and the barracks that were not large enough to hold the families forced inside. The islanders finally understood what the mainlanders had been going through all this time. This understanding shattered the barrier between the two groups and the soldiers became a unified force. The regiment became the most decorated unit both for its size and length of service in the entire history of the U.S. military. Upon coming together, they adopted the slogan, “Go for Broke!”. This was originally a phrase used in gambling, and it meant that they intended to leave everything on the line for the freedom of their country.
The bravery of the regiment was tremendous , but so were the sacrifices they made in service to their country. The 100th Battalion, a subunit of the 442nd, suffered so many casualties in the European theater that it became known throughout the military as the “Purple Heart Battalion”. The constant suffering these men faced while fighting could have broken many other units. The chaplain of the 442nd, Hiro Higuchi, kept a journal chronicling the struggles the members of the regiment faced while fighting in Europe.
Throughout this hardship, the 442nd regiment continued to stand united. There were many opportunities to fall apart, turn on one another, and give up. At first, they were told they could not go to war for the United States. Then, once gaining active military status, the men did not get along well. When the men finally came together, there were thousands of casualties. These men were driven by their loyalty to the United States, and believed in the basic right of human freedom, even though it was being denied to them. The 442nd showed perseverance in the face of adversity, conquered all of these hardships, and went on to effectively aid the war efforts of the U.S. during World War II.
As you explore the documents on this website consider the following questions:
How would you feel if you were asked to fight for a country that didn’t protect your rights? How would you respond?
Would being seen as suspicious by your government make you want to fight against them or fight to prove them wrong?