Japanese-American Nisei Soldiers Went to WWII While Their Families were Interned

  • The US began sending Japanese-Americans into internment camps shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack.
  • Over 120,000 people with Japanese ancestry were eventually moved to the remote camps.
  • The US Army also recruited soldiers at the camps and used them as translators in Pacific.

Two months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt issued the following: Executive Order 9066The law authorized the forced relocation of West Coast residents who were deemed a threat or national security concern, and eventually led to their internment.

Although the order did not identify a specific ethnic group of people, the US military began detaining Japanese Americans within weeks. More than 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry — two-thirds of them US citizens — were eventually relocated to camps in remote areas, where the majority lived under guard for the rest of the war.

The policy’s message was as racist as it was oppressive: Japanese immigrants, also known as “Issei”, and their American-born offspring (or “Nisei”) were “enemy aliens” who cannot be trusted.

Gila River War Relocation Center internment camp Arizona

The Gila River War Relocation Center is southeast of Pheonix. This is where more than 13,000 Japanese Americans were interned between 1942-1945.

Bruce Henderson

The US military knew that Japanese-speaking soldiers were essential to its ability to defeat Japan.

The Army’s Military Intelligence Service provided training for several thousand American soldiers of Japanese origin at stateside language schools, and then rushed them to the Pacific to act as interpreters, translators, or interrogators.

33,000 Nisei were part of the US military during World War II. Most of them served in Europe and North Africa where their all-Nisei units were known for their incredible fighting skills.

However, 4,000 Nisei served in the Pacific under top-secret circumstances. Some were already in service with the Army when they were selected for special training. Others volunteered from the interment camps’ barbed-wire compounds.

Jerome War Relocation Center internment camp

Japanese-American internees at Jerome War Relocation Center in Southeast Arkansas

Bruce Henderson

Nisei, who were attached to combat units and served as linguists, fought alongside US soldiers in major battles across Asia and the China-Burma–India theaters. They received praise and medals from generals but also experienced racism, vitriol, and even death.

These long forgotten Nisei soldiers are the subject Bruce Henderson’s latest book, “The New Book.”Bridge to the Sun: The Secret Role of the Japanese Americans Who Fought in the Pacific in World War II.” Henderson writes that they “fought two wars simultaneously: one was against their ancestral homeland and the other against racial prejudices at home.”

Henderson discovered the Nisei through his research his previous bookThis documentary documents the service of Jewish boys who fled Europe in order to join the US Army against the Nazis. Insider spoke to him about the wartime service of Nisei soldiers in the Pacific and why it is important that their experiences are shared nearly eight decades later.

Army Japanese-American Nisei soldiers

Japanese-American Nisei soldiers at US Army Military Intelligence Service Language School.

Bruce Henderson

Insider: What were some of the similarities between the Ritchie Boys – Jews who returned to fight Germany – and the Nisei in the Pacific?

Henderson: They were both trained secretly by [the Army’s Military Intelligence Service]for identical missions in different theaters. Each of them overcame prejudice to become great assets in the fight against our enemies.

Because they knew the language, the culture, the customs of our enemies better than anyone, they were able to gather valuable intelligence that not only helped win battles — and this is what really came out in my research — but that saved lives.

Because they were able, for example to convince Japanese civilians, to leave a cave, when they thought it might be more advantageous to burn themselves in the cave than to be captured and held by the Americans.

Harry Truman 442nd Regimental Combat Team Presidential Distinguished Unit

In July 1946, President Harry S. Truman presented the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation banner at the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Bettmann via Getty Images

Insider: What was it that compelled to write “Bridge to the Sun” to highlight the stories about six Nisei serving the Pacific?

Henderson: I have written about the war in Pacific, but I didn’t know that these military intelligence units were being sent over there. This was something that I didn’t know about. This was for me a true revelation.

I was interested in the dynamic. What did the GIs in Japan think about these 10-man Nisei teams that arrived? How were they treated? What were their thoughts? What would their treatment have been if they had been captured and held by the enemy? It was not unlike what the Jewish Ritchie Boys thought about if they were captured by the Nazis.

However, the root of my fascination, and it got bigger as I did the research was that we are in a country where too often pre-judges based upon factors like race, religions, countries of origin, etc. And the wartime service of these Nisei in the Pacific — against their ancestral homeland, and certainly their parents’ homeland — is really dramatic and inspirational.

It is not well-known that the Pacific war was fought by Japanese-Americans. History has forgotten the story of these Japanese Americans.

Japanese-American Nisei Army soldiers

Japanese-American Nisei Soldiers take the US Army Oath.

Bruce Henderson

Insider: How did the US Army recruit these soldiers in the first place?

Henderson: There are many ways to do it.

The Army started the first Japanese language school a few months before Pearl Harbor. They had about 60 people in the class in San Francisco, and it was done because there was a small cadre of military intelligence officers who had served in Japan in the ’30s, and they knew how complicated the language was — particularly the reading and the writing, but also conversationally.

They realized that it would be difficult to have Japanese-speaking teams in the field if there were tensions in the Pacific. So they started a small school with Nisei from the Army.

Insider: How did Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor affect MIS’s approach and initiative?

HendersonThey realized that this expansion was necessary. They opened a new school in Minnesota. Because of anti-Japanese laws in Japan, it couldn’t be on the coast. Everyone had to be away from the coast and placed in these camps. This included soldiers.

But they couldn’t recruit the required number of people from the Army soldiers, so they started recruiting them at internment camp. We need you. We want you as a volunteer to the Army to train you in the war against Japan.

Anti-Japanese racist sign discrimination

Anti-Japanese sentiment was rampant in the US following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Bruce Henderson

Insider: I cannot imagine what it must have been like for these families to be asked to send sons to war to defend a country that had interned and uprooted them. What were the experiences of Nisei that you wrote about?

Henderson: [Young Nisei]The Americans were first and foremost. They wanted to be part of this war, but they had to ask their parents permission.

In all of the stories that I saw, it was that the parents, even though they still love Japan and had relatives back there and everything, they told their children, who were born in America: You are American … This is your homeland, and you should fight.

They got permission from their immigrant parents to join the war and their parents were proud.

Army Nisei soldiers Japanese language

At the language school of the US Army Military Intelligence Service, Nisei soldiers.

Bruce Henderson

Insider: Language was clearly an important part of these roles as interrogators, translators, and interpreters. What was training?

Henderson: The training was going to be a year-long program, and what actually came as a surprise for the Army was that not every Japanese-American spoke Japanese fluently … They were born and raised here.

But they found that the “Kibei” – Japanese-Americans who were sent to Japan to go to boarding school for some period of time and then returned to America – were the most valuable. They were fluent in the language and understood the culture, so they were especially recruited.

Because of the pressure to get these teams into units going to the Pacific, the original program was to last a year. It was cut to six months. It is impossible to go from knowing nothing to fluent Japanese in six months.

What they were learning mostly in the training were military terms, Japanese Army organization, how to interrogate a prison of war — what you can and can’t do — and our own military terms and movements and things like that. It was a short program.

Insider: What’s next?

HendersonThey [typically] formed these 10- or 12-man teams … and that team stuck together and went overseas and were attached to either a headquarters or a regiment or a division, or in some cases they were split up to spread out the language capability in the field.

MIS had trained 6,000 Japanese-language interrogators, translators and interpreters by the end the war.

Army Nisei soldier Okinawa

A US Army Nisei soldier provides water to a child in Okinawa.

Bruce Henderson

Insider: What are some of the experiences and contributions made by the Nisei that you highlighted?

Henderson: Of all the three things they were supposed to do, the most valuable was probably the interpretation of the written documents found on the battlefield.

Japanese soldiers were allowed to keep a daily journal. Our guys were told to not do this, and with good reason. The enemy can have your diary if you are captured.

These guys would also write in their journals details about the unit, such as whether they were hungry or how many were left and what their plans were. This was all coming off the field of war for these language teams, who were able to read and interpret it. They also got valuable information about enemy movements as well as order of battle.

Army Nisei soldiers interrogate Japanese prisoner of war

American Army Nisei soldiers interrogate a Japanese prisoner-of-war

Bruce Henderson

Insider: What do you think about translators and interrogators, too?

Henderson: Interrogators and translators were also very valuable. However, in many battles in the Pacific, the Japanese did not surrender, so their ability to interrogate prisoners on the field was limited.

They did manage to get hold of someone useful at times. One prisoner was a codeman, who knew the Japanese Army code, radio codes. They reported this to their superiors and he was immediately taken off the island. He was flown to Pearl Harbor by the code guys to see if they could help him in breaking any of the war codes.

Nisei soldier Kazuo Komoto Eleanor Roosevelt

Kazuo Kmoto and Eleanor Roosevelt in Fiji, August 1943.

Bruce Henderson

Insider: What stories standout when it comes to prejudices and discrimination these soldiers faced?

Henderson: Out of all the men I chose to write about there was only one who was still alive when I began my research. It was Kazuo Komoto. He was the first Japanese-American soldier to receive a Purple Heart during World War II. He sustained injuries in the Solomon Islands, and was eventually admitted to the hospital by Eleanor Roosevelt.

After he left the hospital, he boarded a bus to go to his family in Arizona, where they were attending a relocation camp. He… stops at this stop early and wants to give some fresh meat to his family. He knows that their diet is limited.

He is now in uniform and enters a small grocery store. He looks at the meat and then leaves. The butcher replies, “I don’t sell to any Japs.” Komoto claims, “I am not a Jap.” I’m an American.” The short and simple truth is that Komoto wasn’t going to leave without obtaining what he wanted.

Army Merrill's Marauders Nisei soldier

General Frank Merrill, commander, Merrill’s marauders, with Japanese soldiers.

Bruce Henderson

Insider: What do you think about discrimination in the Army?

HendersonI have a scene from the book where a 10-man Nisei team is onboard a troop ship with 2,000 other people. They’re kept out sight for a while, in their own space, their individual quarters, until finally there’s this rumor about Japanese prisoners of war aboard. Let’s go get ’em and throw ’em overboard. Someone decided to get these guys up and make them troops.

In that scene, and throughout, you can see an initial presentation of the elite team of language specialists that we will really need. They are vital to our mission and will help us as GIs to stay alive, do our jobs, and win our battles. They were regarded as extremely valuable.

Even a commanding general would sometimes say, “Sakamoto. You stick with me.” By the way, [Second Lt. Tom]Sakamoto was credited for saving the life of a general in one battle and even making the newspapers the newspaper that saved his life.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that every soldier was not capable of having his own thoughts or feelings. These men were attached to the Marines. They were at Iwo Jima. They were in Okinawa. They were in Burma. They were in Solomon Islands.

These men were present at every iconic battle in Pacific that was fought, and it was secret at that time and for many many decades after.

Army Nisei soldier Grant Hirabayashi

Grant Hirabayashi (right) with a group Korean women

Bruce Henderson

Insider: What can we learn about these soldiers’ experiences?

Henderson: Today, anti-immigrant sentiments still remain too common in this country. I really hope this book will be a testament to the courage and sacrifice of these young Niseimen. It will be a reminder of what patriotism truly means.

I found a quote from [one of the soldiers in the book]Grant Hirabayashi was a popular speaker after his retirement. He stated that Americanism does not depend on where one is from or what color their skin is. It is all about the spirit, conviction, and love of liberty. Grant believed that the true definition of patriotism was one who fulfilled his duty and fulfilled his responsibility.

His direct quote was “Our constitution is fragile.” We must be vigilant and protect our freedom and liberty. I don’t know what’s more important.

Katie Sanders is an American journalist. Her reporting has led her to prisons and JDate, JCIA, and the White House. Follow her at @KatieSSanders

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