Japanese American History
Japanese Americans in the Military
Japanese Americans have served in America’s military for over one hundred years. During the Spanish American War, Issei were among the 268 men killed aboard the U.S.S. Maine. Nisei Nobutero Harry Sumida also served. As one of the first Japanese Americans born in the United States, Nobutero enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1891 and was assigned to the U.S.S. Indiana as a gunner. He was honorably discharged after sustaining shrapnel wounds in Cuba. At the age of 72 and a veteran of war, Nobutero was taken to Manzanar concentration camp in 1942 because he was Japanese American.
Japanese American involvement in the military, however, is most noted for the heroism of Nisei soldiers during World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese American soldiers were reclassified as “4-C, enemy aliens ineligible for the military.” In most cases, they had their weapons taken from them, separated from their units, and given only menial tasks.
In Hawai‘i, Nisei serving in the integrated infantry regiments of the Hawaii National Guard were removed from their units in June 1942. To fight for their right to serve their country, 1,432 Japanese American soldiers formed the segregated “Hawaii Provisional Battalion,” which soon became the 100th Infantry Battalion and later the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
In addition, after living in a concentration camp for almost two years, Japanese Americans were subjected to the draft in January 1944. 2,300 men enlisted in the Army from the concentration camps, even though their freedoms and liberty as protected by the U.S. Constitution had been violated.
Despite early problems between the soldiers from Hawaii and the Mainland, they became a tight group whose motto “Go for Broke” symbolized their at-all-cost fight for freedom and liberty. They suffered heavy casualties in some of the toughest campaigns of the war. Their distinguished record includes battles at Cassino, Italy; Bruyeres in the Vosges Mountains of France, and the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” in which there suffered 800 Nisei casualties in order to save 211 lives. The 442 RCT is also responsible for a surprise attack on Nazi mountainside positions in Italy, breaking through the Nazi Gothic Line in one day.
For their heroic accomplishments, in 223 days of combat, the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team became one of the most decorated units in United States military history. Among the many awards and decorations received by the men of the 442 RCT are 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Star Medals, over 4,000 Bronze Stars, 9,486 Purple Heart Medals, and 7 Presidential Unit Citations.
In 1945, American-born Sadao Munemori posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his service “above and beyond the call of duty.” His mother, Nawa Munemori, received word of her son’s death while living behind barbed wire in Manzanar concentration camp.
The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest and most rarely awarded decoration conferred by the United States upon any individual. Decades after the war, it was found that discrimination and bias had affected the awarding process. In 2000 President Bill Clinton upgraded 22 Asian American World War II veterans to the Medal of Honor. Twenty of the men upgraded had served in the segregated all-Japanese American unit—the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Although classified information at the time, there were also roughly 6,000 Japanese American men who served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) and were deployed to all areas around the Pacific Theater, including Japan. These men translated key enemy documents, interrogated Japanese prisoners of war, and convinced enemy soldiers to surrender. They were sent to Allied units including the British forces and to guerilla forces that operated behind enemy lines. Many of these men stationed in Japan played an important role in U.S. occupation of Japan for many years after the war. Because of the secret nature of their work, their role in the war was not made known until many of the military intelligence documents were declassified in 1972.
Due to the sacrifices of the segregated units, the Navajo Code Talkers, the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Tuskegee Airmen, the 1st/2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment, and others during the war, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 that desegregated the American military in 1948.
In integrated units, Japanese Americans continue to serve in America’s armed forces. Hiroshi H. Miyamura served in the segregated unit, the 100th/442ndRegimental Combat Team, during World War II. Upon returning home, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve in his hometown of Gallup, New Mexico. In 1950 he was sent to South Korea where he served as a corporal of the integrated 7th Infantry Regiment. In 1953, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Eisenhower. In 1965, Sergeant First Class Rodney Yano and Cpl. Terry Kawamura were both awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for heroic actions during the Vietnam War.
To learn more about the heroism of the 100th, 442nd, and MIS linguists, please see the materials below. You can also explore the Discover Nikkei website for veterans’ resources including Military Intelligence Service Veterans essays, general information, and a Japanese American Military Experience Database.