As we honor the fallen for Memorial Day, the American Heritage Center would like to shine a spotlight on a small but mighty group, the Japanese American soldiers of World War II. Known collectively as Nisei, a term originating in the Japanese language for “second generation,” they were American-born children of Japanese immigrants. It is estimated that there were nearly 33,000 Nisei in the American military over the course of World War II. While some were drafted, many of them were volunteers. Most Nisei soldiers were from Hawaii, but thousands were also from the mainland.
The service of the mainland Nisei in defense of the United States was particularly remarkable as their families had been made to move from their homes on the West Coast to internment camps by the War Relocation Authority. While they faced internment and discrimination at home, many of the Nisei soldiers took on the most dangerous missions overseas, eager to prove their loyalty to the United States. By 1945 the War Relocation Authority had compiled a newsletter documenting the many heroic accomplishments of the Nisei.
Nisei involvement in the war dated back to the very beginning. Two Nisei National Guard members in Hawaii are credited with capturing the first Japanese prisoner of World War II in 1941. A one-man Japanese submarine had stranded itself on a coral reef off the island of Oahu. The National Guardsmen swam out into the Pacific and secured the surrender of the Japanese submariner. Nisei distinguished themselves first on the battlefields of Europe and, eventually, in the South Pacific. Often it was the Nisei soldiers who were sent to persuade the Japanese to surrender. Nisei translated captured documents and acted as interpreters when questioning the captured Japanese.
Japanese American families made enormous sacrifices despite the fact that they were often interned. Of particular note is the family of Ginzo Nakada, originally of Azusa, California, and interned at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, near Cody, Wyoming. A surely record breaking nine of the Nakada boys enlisted in the United States Army, serving in as far away as Australia and France.
While family members waited behind barbed wire in the mainland U.S., Nisei soldiers distinguished themselves serving their country. How strange and discouraging it must have been for those Nisei soldiers who returned from overseas to visit their families – families held captive in places like the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona and the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.
Nearly 800 Nisei servicemen were killed in action over the course of World War II. Among the fallen was Frank T. Hachiya who was fatally wounded on Leyte in the Philippines. He had been an interpreter on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff but had volunteered to cross a valley under enemy fire to scout an enemy position. A Japanese sniper unloaded a barrage of bullets into his abdomen. Hachiya returned fire, killing the sniper, and then walked back to be treated by medics. Unfortunately, his wounds were too serious, and doctors were unable to save him.
Another Nisei soldier, Technical Sergeant Yukitaka “Terry” Mizutari was killed while commanding a group of men during a Japanese counterattack. He was posthumously awarded both a Silver Star and a Purple Heart by his commanding general. Mizutari was not alone in receiving accolades. The Nisei soldiers of World War II were among the most decorated in military history. The Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated all Nisei fighting force, was awarded so many Purple Hearts, they were nicknamed the “Purple Heart Battalion.” Their motto was “Go for Broke” and on the battlefield they gave it their all.
Despite their many contributions to the war effort, the Nisei soldiers on leave faced hostility back in the mainland U.S. (In contrast, the Nisei returning home to Hawaii faced less discrimination – there were no internment camps for Japanese Americans in Hawaii during World War II.) In Denver, a barber attacked a Nisei soldier who wanted a haircut. And in Hood River, Oregon, the American Legion post voted to strike the names of 16 fallen Nisei soldiers from their county memorial roll. The Nisei soldiers did have support in some corners, particularly in the press. Editors from papers as varied as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Washington Post pointed out the exceptional service of the Nisei, noting they “have made a magnificent record in this war. Their fellow Americans ought to hear about it – if only to assure their families better treatment here at home.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Nisei soldiers of World War II, consider a visit to the American Heritage Center or to our on-line collection of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center Records to further explore the wartime contributions of these often unsung heroes.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.