Thousands of Japanese American young men fought valiantly in World War II, even while their families were locked up in concentration camps back home. Daniel James Brown, author of “The Boys in the Boat,” has a new book detailing that time. It’s called “Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II.” Brown will be speaking Thursday at Portland Arts and Lectures.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We’re going to spend the hour today talking about the selflessness and heroism of Japanese Americans during World War II. Thousands of young, first generation Japanese American men put on US military uniforms and fought for their country in Italy, France, and Germany. Many died. They did this despite the fact that, at the same time, their siblings, parents, aunts, and uncles were imprisoned by their country and without due process, in camps behind barbed wire. This is the complicated story that Daniel James Brown tells in his new book. It’s called Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II. Brown is the author of three previous books, including the number one best seller, The Boys In The Boat. Daniel James Brown, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Daniel James Brown: Hi!
Miller: So let’s start with Pearl Harbor, the attack on Pearl Harbor, where you basically start your book. You note that some of the Japanese pilots flew close enough, low enough, that they could actually see the faces of people on Oahu and vice versa. You also note that a third of the people who lived in Hawaii at the time were of Japanese descent. But this meant that the people in those bombers and fighter planes, they could actually see that the people they were attacking, that some of them, were of Japanese descent themselves. What kinds of contemporaneous accounts were there of those encounters?
Brown: I was lucky in that I had access to the first hand accounts of a number of people, Japanese Americans, who lived through the actual attack on the naval base and air bases at Pearl Harbor. The fact is, when they looked up and saw Japanese pilots flying overhead and vice versa, there was a recognition on the part of the Japanese Americans, an immediate recognition that, in addition to everything else that was happening, all the other things that this attack on Pearl Harbor meant, it meant for them that there was going to be a particularly difficult road ahead, because they obviously were going to be associated with the enemy.
We’ve all seen movies and read accounts of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But I thought it would be interesting to see it through the eyes of Japanese Americans who were there that day, because as I say, their perspective was unique. And as shocking as it was to everybody in the country, the event was particularly shocking to them. So I started the book off seeing the event through the eyes of a number of young Japanese American men.
Miller: For a lot of that generation, people who were in their teens and their twenties, many of them had spent time in Japan visiting their extended families. How did that familiarity affect the way they thought about the war? Because this wasn’t just a far away country where their families had come from. This was a place that many of them had actually been to, or spent a six month month chunk living in.
Brown: Yeah, it was very common for Japanese families, living both in Hawaii and on the mainland, to send particularly their firstborn son, but sometimes all their children to school in Japan, or at least for a stint of schooling in Japan. They were trying to keep the culture alive in America. They thought it would be good if their kids at least mastered the language or had some familiarity with the language. So it was very common to do that. But it also meant, of course, as the war got underway and events unfolded, the psychological issues, if you will, for young Americans of Japanese descent were very convoluted and complex, because in many cases, they had been in the country. They had friends there. They almost always had relatives there. They were completely loyal Americans, but they also understood that there was a Japanese way of looking at these events. And so it was very complex, and it created a lot of angst, a lot of anxiety amongst the young Japanese Americans in particular.
It also caused a lot of angst for issei, for first generation immigrants of course, because they had been born in Japan and they were thoroughly Japanese, unlike their kids, in terms of culture. And so the war was an enormously painful thing for them to live through.
Miller: How did you approach, overall, writing this book, that’s so much specifically about Japanese Americans and Japanese American experience, given that you yourself are not Japanese American?
Brown: Yeah, of course, that was sort of the elephant in the room when I first started thinking about this. First of all, I met a gentleman in Seattle named Tom Ikeda, and Tom has, for 25 years, been collecting the oral histories of Japanese Americans, and curating them and putting them on the Densho website. So anybody can tune in and listen to the first hand accounts of these families.
Tom actually was extremely supportive of me writing this book, and we worked very closely throughout the writing of it. One of the first things that we talked about was, is this appropriate for somebody like me to write? And what sort of reaction will there be from within the Japanese American community? Actually, as it turns out, the reaction within the community has been tremendous. I mean, it’s just been wonderful.
Miller: Can I ask you, was that a question that he brought to you? Or were you the one who introduced that question?
Brown: He brought it to me, but I was already aware of it, and if he hadn’t brought it up I was going to bring it up. I really hesitated long and hard because of that issue. But talking to Tom, and then more particularly talking to the family members of some of these young men that I wound up writing about, as I engaged with them, I was still thinking, “well, I’m not sure I should do this. I want to talk to the families, see how they feel about it.” The families I was able to connect with were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about it. So there was all that going on. There’s a lot of encouragement from that.
The other thing is though, and Tom and I talked about this quite a bit, if you look at the source material for the book, if you get the notes, essentially, 100% of this book is based on the first hand accounts of people who lived through this experience, Japanese Americans, both issei and nisei who lived through the experience.
Miller: Letters, oral histories, interviews, their voices written or spoken.
Brown: Exactly. So the way I see it, really what I’m trying to do here is just use whatever skills I have as a storyteller to elevate some of these stories, and also to use the skills I have to weave them together in a way that is compelling and sustains a narrative arc. But I really see it really as the voices of the protagonists in this book that I’m giving a platform to.
So that’s the way I’ve gone into it. And as I say, the reaction from within the community has been absolutely tremendous.
Miller: I should just clarify these words because it’s been a little while since we’ve defined them on this show. Issei, and correct me if I’m wrong, that’s the term for people born in Japan who moved to this country. Nisei is the first generation of Japanese Americans who were born in this country. That’s accurate?
Brown: That’s exactly right.
Miller: So let’s move on to what happened pretty soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even though there was a very large concentration of Japanese Americans in Hawaii, relatively few of them were sent to detention camps. Why was that?
Brown: Well, it’s basically because the economy of Hawaii would have ground to a halt. If everybody of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii had been incarcerated as they were on the west coast of the mainland, Hawaii simply wouldn’t have been able to function. The population was that large in Hawaii. And so as a practical necessity, the US Military knew that they needed Hawaii to be basically the launching pad or the base from which they would wage war in the South Pacific, and ultimately in Japan itself. So they had to have a viable functioning economy in Hawaii. And so there really was never any question that they were going to incarcerate mass numbers of people in the islands. It should be noted, they did arrest and incarcerate for the duration of the war hundreds of issei men in particular. Before the war had started, the FBI had already created what they called ABC list. They had categorized everybody of Japanese descent in Hawaii based on what the FBI thought might be their degree of loyalty or disloyalty. And the lines were completely arbitrary and ridiculous. But nevertheless, they created this list. And so they did, beginning on the night of December 7, 1941, they began to arrest hundreds of these issei men that, for various reasons, they thought might be suspect.
Miller: I wonder if you could read us a section about one of the makeshift prisons. This was on Maui where some men were taken to, a place called Sand Island.
Brown: Yes, Sand Island actually is on Oahu. The gentleman I’m about to read about was first incarcerated in Maui at the Maui County Jail, but then he was removed to Sand Island and held there in very primitive conditions with a number of other issei men. So I’ll just pick it up here.
“It rained for days on end that December, and the tents quickly flooded. Several times a day, the men were forced to stand in the driving rain for a roll call. With almost no change of clothing available, they shivered in wet clothes through long damp nights on cots. The guards referred to them as POWs. Some were made to clean toilets with their bare hands. When a spoon went missing, they were strip searched. They had no access to phones, radios, newspapers, pens, paper, wristwatches, or even bars of soap. They had little idea of what was happening in the outside world, and no idea at all about what was going to happen to them. For weeks, they were allowed no family visits. With Pearl Harbor and Hickam Airfield just four miles to the west, military aircraft roared low overhead, and the ground shuddered day and night as the navy fired practice rounds of barges, towed back and forth, out in Mamala Bay. Amid the rain, the roar of the planes and the thunder of the big guns, Katsuichi walked daily along the perimeter fence around Sand Island Detention Center, looking out across a narrow waterway at Honolulu, where, unbeknownst to him, Kats, just a long stone’s throw away, was patrolling the waterfront each night. Armed with his old carbine, ready to repel the enemy.”
Miller: How did the Roosevelt administration publicly justify this really big internal contradiction, of imprisoning without cause a father and having his son serving in the military just tens of feet away?
Brown: There was actually quite a bit of debate in late December and January about whether or not to incarcerate people. The argument basically was between the Attorney General’s office, which said these would be violations of basic American civil rights on the one hand, and military on the other hand. And basically the military got Roosevelt’s ear. And the argument was that there was a military necessity to do this, that these people represented a threat. There were fears of sabotage and espionage. And so that was the rationale.
Miller: So a little bit of time passed. And by February 1, 1943, instead of saying that young men of Japanese American descent were enemy aliens and could not serve in the military, Franklin Roosevelt signed a memo to the Secretary of War that read in part, “Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country, and our creed of liberty and democracy. Every loyal American should be given the opportunity to serve this country.” Is it fair to say that this was wartime necessity, gussied up as American idealism, as opposed to true high mindedness? They just needed more young people who were willing to fight?
Brown: It’s hard to say. I mean, as I say, there were two factions within the administration, and there was a faction that argued on behalf of young Americans of Japanese descent, both in regards to incarceration and then ultimately in regards to their ability or their desire to join the military to fight in the war. So there was a debate.
It is also true though that, as the war progressed, there was of course ever increasing demand for manpower. They wanted as many troops as they could garner of young men of the appropriate age. And by that spring, there were thousands and thousands of young men within the camps simply idling their time away. Many of them were willing to serve, eager, in fact to serve in the American military. And so it simply didn’t make any sense to keep them behind barbed wire. And so eventually the administration reversed course and allowed people to begin to sign up.
Miller: How was that news received within the prison camps on the US mainland? By either young men who were making different decisions, or by the families of those who said, I’m going to go fight in France and Italy and Germany?
Brown: Yeah, it opened a wound within the community that is still there to this day. There was an enormous amount of disagreement within the camps about what the right thing for these young men to do was. As I say, large numbers of them were eager to join the military. These are kids that had grown up in Seattle or Los Angeles or Portland or wherever, and they had watched their friends go off to war, their high school friends or college friends. They wanted to do the same. So there were significant numbers of young men that wanted to sign up and had not been allowed to sign up because of their ethnicity.
But, there were also many, many young men in the camps who said basically, hell no, I am not going to fight for a country that has me living and my family living behind barbed wire in one of these bleak concentration camps. So both among the young men, and then also among the families in which those young men lived, and sometimes not just between families but within families, there were very emotional, very searing arguments about what the right thing to do was. And as I say, for those who signed up and joined the military, they actually took a lot of abuse. Or perhaps abuse is not the right word, but they got a lot of negative feedback from some of their friends and family members in the camps. On the other hand, a little later when conscription began for Japanese Americans, those young men who refused to sign up for the draft got a lot of criticism from the other side. So as I say, it opened very deep fissures within the Japanese American community. And those fissures to some extent still exist today.
Miller: The numbers nevertheless are pretty striking, especially when you look at Hawaii, you know that the army called for around 1500 Japanese American volunteers from Hawaii. Almost 10,000 turned up. This gets, and we can talk about this as we go, but this does get to some of the really big cultural, related to history, differences between Japanese Americans in Hawaii and on the mainland. How did those play out when it came to the question of serving in the military at all?
Brown: So there was much more enthusiasm to sign up in the islands than there was on the mainland. And that’s partly because, on the mainland, virtually all these people were living behind barbed wire by the time this question came up. And the Hawaiians, the young Japanese American men from Hawaii, I think they knew in the abstract that these camps existed. But they weren’t seared by the experience of what living in those camps was like. So they didn’t really get it.
So these two groups, first of all, culturally, they were quite different. The kids that had grown up in Hawaii, they had grown up almost universally on sugar cane and pineapple plantations. Which were these brutal working conditions, racially stratified environment. And they almost universally spoke pidgin English rather than standard English. They had a sort of laid back, let’s enjoy life, hang loose kind of Hawaiian attitude towards life.
The young men from the mainland, they were either living in the camps or they had close family members living in the camps. And they were very very troubled by what was happening in the camps. There were also sort of some class distinctions I suppose you’d have to call them. A lot of these were young men who were students at UDub or UCLA or whatever. They were more sort of solidly middle class kids. They tended to be more serious. They didn’t joke around a lot.
And so when these two groups met for basic training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, it was like mixing oil and water. And within the first week of basic training, these guys were going at each other with fists flying in a really serious way. And it went on for weeks and then months, these two groups just couldn’t seem to assimilate with one another. A lot of it had to do with language actually. As I said, the Hawaiian kids universally spoke Hawaiian pidgin, and the mainland guys couldn’t understand what they were saying. That made the Hawaiian guys feel disrespected. And so a lot of the fights that broke out had to do basically just with language, but also just with different attitudes towards life.
Miller: Could you tell us what finally broke the tension and brought unity to this combat team?
Brown: Yeah. So this is the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, all Japanese Americans segregated unit. It was actually one of the Japanese American chaplains, Chaplain Higuchi, got the idea. He realized that the Hawaiian guys didn’t really understand what was happening to the young men from the mainland. And there happened to be two camps nearby, in Arkansas, nearby the training center at Camp Shelby. So he got the idea, well let’s put these guys on buses and take them to one of these camps, and show the Hawaii guys what this is all about. So they did, they loaded Daniel Inouye and a whole bunch of guys who later became sort of famous in Hawaii on these buses, and they loaded them up into Arkansas. They arrived at this camp. and for the first time the guys got off the bus and they looked in through barbed wire and they saw Japanese Americans looking back at them through the barbed wire, old men, old women, children. And they were absolutely shocked. And they went into the camp, even though they were in American uniforms, they had to be patted down before they were allowed to go in the camp or come out of the camp. But they went in, and they usually spent a weekend in the camps living amongst the people that were incarcerated there.
And as they began to come back to Camp Shelby in different busloads, they had a very different attitude. They finally got it. They understood what the young men from the mainland were going through. And it took a little while longer. But that was really the beginning of a healing process that eventually knit these guys together in a very very tight way into one of the most effective fighting units in the US Military, actually.
Miller: I wonder if you could read us a section of the book in which the men of this combat team are on boats heading to battle for the very first time.
Brown: Yeah, sure. Let me pick it up here:
“At night in the dark, they lay in their berths, and quietly reached out and laid hands on things they had brought with them. Things from home, things they hoped would carry them through the battles to come. Some reached for crucifixes, some for small Buddha figures, some had slipped bibles into their duffel bags, some love letters from girls back home. Some had rabbits’ feet to bring good luck. Some had St Christopher medals.
“Hiro Higuchi had a new leather wallet with pictures of his wife, Hisako, his seven year old son Peter, and Jane, his newborn daughter, a daughter he had not yet met.
“Roy Fuji, one of the cannoneers in Kats’s artillery battery and one of his closest friends, wore a Honolulu bus token on a chain around his neck. He planned to use it to get back from the docks, back to his parents’ home in Honolulu after the war.
“Suz Ito had carried three things. One was a tiny pocket Bible his sister had given him. Another was an inexpensive Argus camera. The army forbade GIs to carry cameras, but one facet of Suz’s relentless cheerfulness was that he sometimes took an impish delight in bending the rules, and the camera was small enough to keep concealed most of the time. But the third thing, the one that mattered most, the one that was precious to him, was a gift from his mother incarcerated at Aurora. A white senninbari, a traditional Japanese warriors’ sash emblazoned with the image of a tiger, a symbol of safe homecoming. The senninbari was embroidered with 1000 individual french knot stitches. Each stitch had been made with red silk thread by a different woman to confer good luck, protection, and courage. It was meant to be worn around the waist in battle. Suz would in fact never wear his and never show it to the other fellows in his unit. But when they got under the battlefield, he kept it folded up in his pocket, close to his heart.
“Rudy also had brought something he preferred to keep concealed under his clothes. His mother had plucked a single grain of brown rice out of a 100lb sack of white rice. Somehow, it had survived the rice polishing machinery. Fusa Tokiwa sewed it into a pouch that Rudy now wore around his neck. When she sent it to him, she said “This rice kernel was real lucky. It’s the only one that lived through it and was able to keep his husk on. I’m sending you this so that you will come home to us.”
Miller: That was on their way to battle. There are too many heroic and harrowing battles at the 442nd took part in to get into all of them. But I thought we could focus on one that was really representative of their tenacity and their bravery and the kind of impossible things they were asked to do. It’s the rescue of what became known as the Lost Battalion. Can you set this up for us? What was the Lost Battalion?
Brown: So, in November of 1944, the 442nd was tasked with liberating a town on the French German border called Bruyères. And winter was coming on, it was rainy and cold and snowing and muddy and just generally miserable. And they fought tenaciously for several days and finally liberated this little town of Bruyères. And then they moved on deeper into the Vosges forest, which is this very dark, impenetrable forest along the Franco-German border. And they fought their way to a town called Belmont and another called Biffontaine, and then they were given leave to take a few days of rest.
But on the first night that they were resting, they were awakened suddenly in the middle of the night and told to put their combat gear on, that they were going back into battle. And what had happened was the commanding general, General Dahlquist had ordered a unit of the Texas division, these were young men almost entirely from Texas and Oklahoma, he’d ordered his Texas unit too far deep into the Vosges forest. And several hundred of them had been cut off on the edge of a long ridge line, trapped, surrounded by the Germans. Many of them were wounded, they had no drinkable water. They had almost no rations. Some of them had died within the first few hours that they were there. Dahlquist knew they had ordered them too far into unreconnoitered territory and that he’d made a blunder.
So he sent one unit after another of his larger Texas division up into the mountains to try to get them out, and nobody could. So finally, he awoke the all Japanese American 442nd, and ordered them up the mountain to get his Texans out. So they went up the mountain that night. They fought their way up incredibly steep and difficult terrain. The Germans obviously had the high ground. They were firing downhill with absolutely withering machine gun fire. They were firing tanks point blank into the advancing American troops. They fought like this for several days, but did in fact finally break through and reach this unit of Texans, and get them down off the mountain. They expected that they would be brought down with the Texans. But in fact, they were then told to advance still further into the Vosges. And so it was another several days of heavy, really miserable fighting before they were brought down. When they did finally come down off the mountain, they were absolutely decimated.
Miller: I wonder if you could tell us the story that was so chilling but encapsulates a lot about this general who had ordered them there. After that, he asked for everybody there to muster up because he wanted to survey them and see what they were like. Can you tell what happened after that?
Brown: After they finally came down, General Dahlquist ordered what they called a retreat parade, and he wanted them to stand in ranks in uniform so he could walk in front of them, inspect them, and give them a little speech. But when he arrived there and got up on the little podium to speak, he looked out over the scene expecting to see thousands of the entire 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In fact, he saw hundreds of men. The unit had been so decimated, that this was simply all that was left of them. He angrily demanded to know where the others were, why everybody hadn’t turned out. He said “I want everybody to turn out, the cooks, the medics, everybody. Why aren’t they here?” And finally, the lieutenant colonel had to turn to him and literally had tears in his eyes, and he said “General, these are all the men that I have left.”
Miller: Is it fair to say that this team was given more dangerous missions than other teams of comparable size?
Brown: Certainly in that circumstance, they were. It was pretty close to a suicide mission. And it is true, a number of the veterans, a number of the guys that came back from the 442nd after the war felt that they had been treated like cannon fodder basically.
Miller: Because they were a Japanese American team, they were seen as more expendable. That’s what the men said?
Brown: That’s what many of the men believed, and it may well be true. It’s kind of a hard thing to prove. But yes, many of them came home feeling that their lives had not been valued as much as their white comrades, and that they had been subjected to more risk than other units were.
Miller: That’s what I want to hear more about the 442nd. But I want to turn now to another person who you devote a lot of time and energy to, Gordon Hirabayashi, who is, in my mind, as brave as any of the soldiers you were just talking about, even though he didn’t join the army, never served in combat. Who was Gordon Hirabayashi?
Brown: Yeah, I agree with you about courage. I mean, one reason I included Gordon in the book was I think there are different faces of courage. And Gordon took a very different path, but I think a very courageous one. Gordon, at the beginning of the war, was a student at the University of Washington. He was a very unusual young man. He was a young man who believed very strongly in his principles and was not about to let anybody direct his life in a way that he thought violated his principles.
So one of the first things that happened for Japanese Americans in Seattle, and in many west coast cities, was that a curfew was imposed on them. Nobody of Japanese ancestry was allowed to be out on the street in Seattle after 8pm. Gordon looked at that, and the first few nights he obeyed it, then he suddenly realized that this didn’t accord with his principles. There was no reason he should be made to retreat into his house at 8pm, when his fellow students at UDub were not. So he simply started disobeying the curfew. Not only disobeying it, but he actually kept a little journal in which he documented the times when he was out after 8pm. Then, when the order came for Japanese Americans in Seattle to get on buses and be taken off to these camps, Gordon just didn’t get on the bus. The buses came, they picked up everybody, and their little bits of possessions people were allowed to take to the camps, and Gordon remained. He was the last Japanese American in Seattle. Instead of getting on the bus, what Gordon did was he wrote a statement addressed to the FBI, stating why he was resisting both the curfew and the incarcerations in the camps. And he took this statement and he went to downtown Seattle, and he walked into the FBI offices there, handed them this statement, and said “Here I am, I’m turning myself in.” And it completely perplexed the agents. They didn’t know what to do. Everybody else had complied. And here was this young man who had just said “I’m not doing it.”
Miller: And did it in a very conscious, considered, open way. He wasn’t hiding, as you said, even when he would not obey the curfew, he would write it down in a diary so that there was documentation for the ways that he was breaking this rule that he saw as flagrantly unconstitutional. How did the FBI respond?
Brown: They were utterly flummoxed. That first day, they spent the day driving him around Seattle to different places. But the issue was, he had to sign a registration form before they could put him in the camp, and he just refused to sign the form. So they took him from one place to another and he just wouldn’t wouldn’t sign the form. And they finally took him that night to the King County Jail. And he spent the rest of the war in and out of jail and prison fighting a legal battle over this. The government really literally didn’t know what to do with him, because nobody had acted this way before.
Miller: Let’s go back to the question of heroism, and the fact that, despite the heroism and then that the rescue of the Lost Battalion was covered by many newspapers, as were other brave acts by the 442nd, and yet anti-Japanese racism was still rampant in the US. I wonder if you could read us a passage about this that has a big focus on Oregon.
Brown: Specifically on Hood River.
“By December, the closure of some of the WRA camps was drawing near. In these camps fear, hope, and indecision continued to mount as families incarcerated there contemplated the prospect of returning to the west coast. A fiery, often vicious debate over their return still raged in communities up and down the coast, playing out in small town newspapers, in barbershops, in bars and coffee shops, in church socials.
“Much of the public discussion centered on an incident in Hood River, Oregon. As in many American towns, the local American Legion post in Hood River had put up a monument to honor local boys serving overseas. But on the evening of November 29th, The legionaries had blacked out 16 names, all of Hood River’s active duty Japanese American servicemen. Lest there be any doubt about the intended message, the post commander, Jess Eddington, stated it bluntly. “We simply want to let them know that we don’t want them back here.” Eight other American legion posts promptly followed the Hood River post, and removed the names of Japanese American servicemen from their honor rolls, for no other reason than their ancestry. As news of the Hood River incident spread across the country, they provoked a backlash of indignation. The New York Times called it “Hood River’s blunder.” Collier’s slammed the “dirty work at Hood River.” The Chicago Sun-Times called the Hood River American Legion post “Not so American.”
“An American Legion post in New York went out of its way to invite 16 nisei soldiers to become members of its post. But in Oregon, and in much of the West, the reaction was very different. There, despite increasingly well publicized heroics of the 442nd in Europe, millions of Americans still seethed when they heard a Japanese name, or saw a face that might be Japanese.”
Miller: And you know that this wasn’t just words, this wasn’t just rhetoric. That up and down the west coast, it began to get violent as well. What happened?
Brown: There were many incidents of small violence. People’s garages were burned, greenhouses were smashed, property was looted, there was a great deal of looting. When the incarcerations had begun, one option families had was to put their possessions in storage, but many times they came back and found that those storage places had been raided and looted, graffiti had been written on their doorsteps, and things of that nature. It was a scary thing to come out of those camps and come back to wherever, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, because when they had left, there had been so much antipathy, and all the signs were as they came back that much of it still remained.
Miller: Right at the end of the war in Europe, some nisei soldiers, some first generation Japanese american soldiers, were among the American troops that arrived in Dachau, a German slave labor and death camp. What did they say about that time?
Brown: You know, it was so ironic. These were guys from the 442′s field artillery unit that came across Dachau. And Dachau wasn’t just one camp, it was a complex of slave labor camps, and they actually participated in opening some of those camps up and liberating some of the prisoners at these Dachau sub-camps. And the irony, for particularly the mainland guys, was just staggering. Because here they were, letting these people, obviously the right thing to do, out of these camps, going breaking down barbed wire barriers. And yet at home, their family members in many cases were still living in barracks. It looked much like the barracks of Dachau, behind barbed wire.
Miller: After his very first battle, one of the soldiers wrote this in a letter to his wife. “It’s just hell, and indreamable goriness and death. The fear of those screaming whining shells is indescribable and almost unbearable. Someday I will tell you all about it. But now I don’t want to think about it.” You wrote that another young man, Rudy Tokiwa, thought to himself “I wonder when I get out of this, if I do, whether I will be a human being.” And this was before a lot of what they would go on to experience. And it’s before what we now call PTSD. But, is it fair to say that all the young men that you profiled dealt with the after effects of massive trauma in the years that followed?
Brown: Yes, absolutely. The guys I profiled, and I’m sure thousands and millions of other GIs. But within the confines of the 442nd, it was very common to have all the symptoms of PTSD in the months and years following the war. One of the characters I follow is a young man from Spokane named Fred Shiosaki. And after the war he came back to Spokane. His family ran a laundry in Spokane, and they had a little apartment above the laundry. He moved for a while back in with his family over the laundry, and his mother almost every night had to wake him from nightmares in which he was screaming so loud that he woke everybody in the family. So I think it was nearly universal.
Miller: What was the transition back to civilian life like for these still young men, in terms of leaving the camaraderie behind? The terror, but also the sense of being in this together with these men with whom they had a kind of connection that they would maybe never have again?
Brown: Absolutely. And you know, many of them maintained that connection for the rest of their lives even when they were old men. But when they first came back from the war, many of them wanted to use the GI Bill and go to university at that point, like Kats Miho for instance, one of the guys I follow, came back and enrolled at the University of Hawaii. But he couldn’t really focus on his studies. Had been a very very good student all the way through high school and his first year of college. But he couldn’t really focus. All he wanted to do was, there was a cafe in downtown Honolulu where some of the other vets gathered. He really couldn’t make himself study. He just always wanted to go down there and hang out with those guys because he was so close to them. He just wanted to be back in their company again. And it took him a long time before he could get past that and start applying himself to other things.
Miller: He did though, I mean he’s as good an example as any among the many people you focus on. Can you give us a sense for, when he did find a way to go back to school and then to move on with his life, what he accomplished?
Brown: Yeah. This was interesting. This was true of a lot of the vets from Hawaii, when they came back. You know when they left Hawaii, basically all the islands had been one big plantation system, as I say, very racially stratified. A lot of them when they came back and started going back to college, they decided that wasn’t acceptable. They wanted to change Hawaii. They wanted to modernize Hawaii. So quite a number of them, Daniel Inouye amongst them, Senator Inouye, after they graduated from whatever university they went to, they went to law school on the east coast. For some reason, many of them wound up at George Washington in DC, a whole cadre of them went to law school there. But wherever they went to law school, a whole bunch of these young men from Hawaii got law degrees, came back to Hawaii, and entered business and entered government, and began to change Hawaii in really profound ways. First of all, they were very involved in the effort to win statehood for Hawaii, which is a mixed bag. But Japanese Americans were very pro-statehood. And so over time, they became basically the major influential bloc in Hawaiian politics. And largely that continues to this day.
Miller: I wonder if you could read us a section from near the end of the book in the epilogue. This is about a trip you took to big mountains in Italy to see firsthand the site of one of the 442nd’s most heroic and most casualty filled battles.
Brown: Yeah, so we actually climbed up on this mountain to be where the guys had broken through a defensive line.
“What really arrested my attention though, was what lay between me and those peaks: a deep chasm, its abrupt sides cloaked in dark vegetation, dropping thousands of feet from where I stood at an angle of perhaps 60°. At the bottom were the red tile roofs of houses and what looked like a toy village. The village was Enzano, and it was out of that abyss that the nisei soldiers of the 442nd had climbed in the middle of the night, 75 years before, lugging their weapons, prepared to fight, and if need be, to die. Standing there, I struggled to comprehend the sheer audacity of it, pondering what exactly enabled those young men to do something like that. But in almost the same instant I knew the answer. It was something simple and powerful and irreducible. It was who they were at their cores. Those young men were the living embodiments of the spirit that has always animated America, the spirit that has held us together for more than two centuries. The striving, the yearning, the courage, the relentless optimism, the willingness to chip in and lend a hand, the fair mindedness, the inclusiveness. They knew that they had been called upon to defend a set of simple but profound ideals, the highest of those ideals of America and the western democracies. And having heard the call, they answered it, as did millions of young men in the first half of the 1940s.
“Most of them fought for those ideals on the battlefield. Some like Gordon Hirabayashi fought for them in courtrooms. But do not forget this: as American as they were in some ways, and to varying degrees, they were also proudly Japanese. As they stood up and ran into the fire, many of them carried with them the values that their immigrant parents had taught them. Not just the samurai’s code of bushido, but a host of related beliefs and attitudes, giri and ninjo and gaman among them. Indeed, it was largely because they held these other foreign values that many of them were able to do what had to be done. On Monte Folgorita, in the Vosges Forest, among the hills of Tuscany and Monte Cassino, time and again they selflessly offered up their best selves. And the selves they offered up, their lives they put on the line, grew from both American and Japanese roots. Whether they lived or died in the endeavor, they reminded us yet again that we Americans are all composed of varied stuff, a multitude of backgrounds and identities forged together in the furnace of our national tribulations and triumphs.
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