Japanese American service in World War II

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Boy Scouts at Granada War Relocation Center raising flag to half-mast during a Memorial Service for first six Nisei soldiers from this Center who were killed in action in Italy. The service was attended by 1,500 Amache internees. -- August 5, 1944.
US government-produced film attempting to defend the massive internment of Japanese Americans in detention camps during World War II. (Media from the Prelinger Archives)
A soldier and his mother in Florin, Sacramento County, California

During the early years of World War II, Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated from their homes in the Pacific Coast states because military leaders and public opinion combined to fan unproven fears of sabotage. As the war progressed, many of the young Nisei, Japanese immigrants' children who were born with American citizenship, volunteered or were drafted to serve in the United States military. Japanese Americans served in all the branches of the United States Armed Forces, including the United States Merchant Marines.[1]

The 442nd Infantry Regiment became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.[2] Other Japanese American units also included the 100th Infantry Battalion, Varsity Victory Volunteers, and the Military Intelligence Service.

Servicemen in the U.S. Army

The majority of Japanese Americans serving in the American Armed Forces during World War II enlisted in the army.

100th Infantry Battalion

The 100th Infantry Battalion was engaged in heavy action during the war taking part in multiple campaigns. The 100th was made up of Nisei who were originally members of the Hawaii National Guard. Sent to the mainland as the Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion on June 5, 1942, the 1,432 original members of the 100th were stationed first at Camp McCoy and later at Camp Shelby for combat training.[3] Meanwhile, an earlier decision to demote Nisei soldiers to 4-C class was reversed and the Army in 1943 issued a call for Japanese American volunteers. Most of the initial recruits came from Hawaii, as those on the mainland were reluctant to volunteer while they and their families remained in camp. The 2,686 accepted Hawaiians (out of 10,000 volunteers) and about 1,000 mainlanders were sent to Camp Shelby, where they joined the 100th.[3] The Battalion shipped out in August 1943, landing in North Africa before fighting in Italy, eventually participating in the liberation of Rome. Their exemplary military record, and the patriotic activities of the Varsity Victory Volunteers, paved the way for the creation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.[4]

442nd Regimental Combat Team

In foreground group of Japanese-American soldiers climb over a ridge and begin to fire upon a German tank in the background which is accompanied by a German half-track in a wooded area.
Painting depicting soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team fighting in the Vosges mountains

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was an all-Nisei U.S. Army regiment which served in Europe during World War II. Japanese Americans already in training at the start of the war had been removed from active duty shortly after Pearl Harbor, and the Army stopped accepting new Nisei recruits in early 1942.[3] However, Japanese American leaders like Mike Masaoka and War Department officials like John J. McCloy soon began to push the Roosevelt administration to allow Nisei to serve in combat. A military board was convened in June 1942 to address the issue, but their final report opposed forming a Nisei unit, citing "the universal distrust in which they [Japanese Americans] are held."[5] Despite resistance from military and War Relocation Authority leaders, the President eventually sided with the War Department, and on February 1, 1943, Roosevelt announced the creation of a segregated battalion composed of Nisei soldiers and commanded by white officers.[3] While the first group of volunteers fought in Europe as part of the 100th Infantry Battalion, additional recruits and draftees began combat training at Camp Shelby. The 1st Battalion of the 442nd soon after began sending replacement troops to join the 100th, which suffered an extremely high casualty rate, and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions shipped out on May 1, 1944, joining the 100th in Italy the next month.[6] These men arrived in Europe after the 100th Infantry Battalion had already established its reputation as a fighting unit, and in time, the 442nd became, for its size and length of service, the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.[4]

522nd Field Artillery Battalion

The all-Nisei 522nd Field Artillery Battalion was organized as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team; but towards the end of the war, the 522nd became a roving battalion, shifting to whatever command most needed the unit.[7] The 522nd had the distinction of liberating survivors of the Dachau concentration camp system, from the Nazis on April 29, 1945.[4] Nisei scouts west of Munich near the small Bavarian town of Lager Lechfeld encountered some barracks encircled by barbed wire. Technician Fourth Grade Ichiro Imamura described it in his diary:

"I watched as one of the scouts used his carbine to shoot off the chain that held the prison gates shut .... They weren’t dead, as he had first thought. When the gates swung open, we got our first good look at the prisoners. Many of them were Jews. They were wearing striped prison suits and round caps. It was cold and the snow was two feet deep in some places. There were no German guards. The prisoners struggled to their feet .... They shuffled weakly out of the compound. They were like skeletons - all skin and bones ...."[7]

Holocaust historians have clarified the Nisei 522nd liberated about 3,000 prisoners at Kaufering IV Hurlach. Hurlach was one of 169 subordinate slave labor camps of Dachau. Dachau, like Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück, was surrounded by hundreds of sub-camps.[7]

Pierre Moulin in his recent book 'Dachau, Holocaust and US Samurais' writes that the first Nisei arrived at Dachau's gate not on April 29, the date of the liberation of the camp, but on April 28, 1945.[8]

Servicemen in the Army Air Forces

Japanese Americans were generally forbidden to fight a combat role in the Pacific theatre; although no such limitations were placed on Americans of German or Italian ancestry who fought against the Axis Powers. Up to this point, the United States government has only been able to find records of five Japanese Americans who were members of the Army Air Forces during World War II, one of them being Kenje Ogata. There was at least one Nisei, U.S. Army Air Forces Technical Sergeant Ben Kuroki, who participated initially in 35 missions as a dorsal turret gunner over Europe, followed by 28 bombing missions over mainland Japan and other locations in the Pacific Theater.[9]

Japanese-American Service in the Pacific Theater

File:Frank Merrill, Herbert Miyasaki and Akiji Yoshima.gif
Japanese-American interpreters Sgt. Herbert Miyasaki (left), and Sgt. Akiji Yoshima (right), with Brigadier General Frank Merrill (middle), commander of Infantry troops in Burma, in Noubaum, Burma. (ca. 1 May 1944)

Military Intelligence Service

Approximately 6,000 Japanese Americans served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS).[10] The first class received their training at the Presidio in San Francisco, but in June 1942 the MIS Language School was moved to Camp Savage, Minnesota, which offered larger facilities, removed the complications of training Japanese American students in an area they were technically prohibited from entering, and had less anti-Japanese prejudice. In August 1944, the language school was moved again to Fort Snelling.[11] Most of the MIS Language School graduates were attached to the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) as linguists and in other non-combatant roles, interpreting captured enemy documents and interrogating prisoners of war. (At the end of the war, MIS linguists had translated 18,000 enemy documents, created 16,000 propaganda leaflets and interrogated over 10,000 Japanese POWs.) However, MIS servicemen were present at every major battle against Japanese forces, and those who served in combat faced extremely dangerous and difficult conditions, sometimes coming under friendly fire from U.S. soldiers unable to distinguish them from the Japanese and often encountering former friends on the battlefield.[10]

Japanese American MIS linguists translated Japanese documents known as the "Z Plan", which contained Japan's counterattack strategy in the Central Pacific. This information led to Allied victories at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, in which the Japanese lost most of their aircraft carrier planes, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. An MIS radio operator intercepted a message describing Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's flight plans, which led to P-38 Lightning fighter planes shooting down his plane over the Solomon Islands.

Merrill's Marauders

Fourteen Nisei were assigned to the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), AKA Merrill's Marauders, which operated in Burma during the war. The Nisei assigned to Merrill's Marauders were called the "Marauder Samurai".[12] Amongst those who were assigned to Merrill's Marauders was Roy Matsumoto.[13]

Dixie Mission

Five Nisei were members of the US Army Observer Group, nicknamed the Dixie Mission, which operated in the Chinese Communist HQ in Yan'an from July 22, 1944 to July 24, 1946. Sho Nomura and George Itsuo Nakamura accompanied the Dixie Mission when they arrived in Yan'an on July 22, 1944. They were followed by Koji Ariyoshi in Fall of 1944, and Jack Togo Ishii and Toshi Uesato in August 1945. All five of them attended the MIS Language School. Nomura, Nakamura, Ishii, and Uesato were assigned to collect military intelligence through interrogation of Japanese prisoners of war. While stationed in Yan'an, the Nisei met Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and other communist leaders, including Sanzo Nosaka (AKA Susumu Okano) head of the Japan Communist Party.[14]

Office of Strategic Services

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) recruited, and sent Nisei to the China-Burma-India Theater. Lt. Junichi Buto, Tom Baba, Dick Hamada, Fumio Kido, Shoichi Kurahashi and Calvin Tottori, and Ralph Yempuku were assigned to Detachment 101 guerrilla operations in Burma. After Detachment 101 disbanded on July 12, 1945, Lt. Buto, Hamada, Kido and Yempuku received assignments to Detachment 202 in Kunming.[15]

After the Surrender of Japan

Japan accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered on August 15, 1945. Over 5,000 Nisei served in Occupied Japan.[16] Dozens of Nisei served as translators, interpreters, and investigators in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Thomas Sakamoto served as press escort during the Occupation of Japan. He escorted American correspondents to Hiroshima, and the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Sakamoto was one of three nisei to be on board the USS Missouri when the Japanese formally surrendered. Arthur S. Komori served a personal interpreter for Brig, Gen. Elliot R. Thorpe. Kay Kitagawa served as personal interpreter of Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey. [17] Kan Tagami served as personal interpreter-aide for General Douglas MacArthur.[18] Journalist Don Caswell was accompanied by a nisei interpreter to Fuchu Prison, a prison that held Communists Tokuda Kyuichi, Yoshio Shiga, and Shiro Mitamura.[19]

Nisei in the OSS parachuted down into Japanese POW prison camps at Hankow, Mukden, Peiping and Hainan as interpreters on mercy missions to liberate American and Allied prisoners.[20] Arthur T. Morimitsu was the only MIS member in the detachment commanded by Major Richard Irby and 1st Lt. Jeffrey Smith to observe the surrender ceremony of 60,000 Japanese troops under Gen. Shimada.[21] Kan Tagami witnessed the surrender of Japanese forces to the British in Malaya.[18]

Women's Army Corps

Like their male counterparts, Nisei women were at first prohibited from serving in the U.S. military; this changed in November 1943, and 142 young women volunteered to join the WAC. Because their number was relatively small, the Nisei WACs were not restricted to a segregated corps, but instead were spread out and served alongside other ethnic groups. The idea of female auxiliary service was still new at this time (the Women's Army Corps was only nine months old when it opened its ranks to Nisei volunteers), and these women were most often assigned to clerical duties or other "women's work." Additionally, WACs were often portrayed in media and propaganda as highly sexualized and were encouraged by male supervisors to play into this role. The Nisei WACs faced another difficulty in that they were expected to translate Japanese military documents; even those who were fluent in Japanese struggled to understand the military language, and eventually some were sent to the Military Intelligence Language School for training.[22]

Other duties

Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians stated:

"There were Japanese American medics, mechanics and clerks in the Quartermaster Corps and Nisei women in the WACs. Nisei and Issei served as language instructors, employees in the Army Map Service, and behind the scenes in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Office of War Information (OWI). In the latter groups were primarily younger Issei who had fled Japan after World War I to avoid political persecution. At OWI and OSS, some made broadcasts to Japan, while others wrote propaganda leaflets urging Japanese troops to surrender or pamphlets dropped over Japan to weaken civilian morale."[23]

Prisoners of war

Only two Japanese-Americans were ever captured by the Japanese during the war; Frank Fujita and Richard Sakakida. Fujita was stationed in Java in the Dutch East Indies when he was captured by the Japanese on March 1942. He was imprisoned in Changi Prison in Singapore, and then Omori Prison Island in Tokyo Bay. Fujita was liberated after the war. Richard Sakakida was captured in the Philippines in May 1942.[24]


The nation's highest award for combat valor, the Medal of Honor, was conferred upon one Nisei during the war, Sadao Munemori, after he sacrificed his life to save his fellow soldiers. Twenty-one members of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team received Distinguished Service Crosses during or immediately after their World War II service, but in the 1990s, after a study revealed that racial discrimination had caused them to be overlooked, their awards were upgraded to Medals of Honor. On October 5, 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, as well as the 6,000 Japanese Americans who served in the Military Intelligence Service during the war.[25]

See also


  1. James McIlwain (2012). "Nisei served in U.S. Army Air Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Merchant Marines during World War II" (PDF). JAVA Advocate. Japanese American Veterans Association. XX (3): 7. Retrieved 21 January 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Shenkle, Kathryn (May 2006). "Patriots under Fire: Japanese Americans in World War II". United States Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Center of Military History. Retrieved 6 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Niiya, Brian. "Japanese Americans in military during World War II". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 30 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "Terminology and Glossary," Denshō, The Japanese American Legacy Project.
  5. Duus, Masayo. Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and the 442nd (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), p 56.
  6. Odo, Franklin. "442nd Regimental Combat Team". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 31 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Go for Broke National Education Center: Central Europe Campaign, 522nd
  8. Moulin, Pierre (2007). Dachau, Holocaust and US Samurais - Nisei Soldiers first in Dachau. Authorhouse Editions. ISBN 978-1-4259-3801-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Yenne, Bill. (2007). Rising Sons: The Japanese-American GIs Who Fought for the United States in World War II, p. 140.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Nakamura, Kelli Y. "Military Intelligence Service," Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  11. Nakamura, Kelli Y. "Military Intelligence Service Language School," Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  12. "'Merrill's Marauders,' Nisei helped shorten World War II (part 5) by COL Renita Foster". Japanese American Veterans Association.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. James C. McNaughton. Nisei linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During World War II. Government Printing Office.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "OSS Detachment 101, CBI Theater By Ralph Yempuku, Col., USAR, Retired". JAPANESE AMERICAN VETERANS ASSOCIATION.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "The Nisei Intelligence War Against Japan by Ted Tsukiyama". Japanese American Veterans Association.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. James C. McNaughton. Nisei linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During World War II. Government Printing Office. pp. 392–442.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. 18.0 18.1 "NOTED NISEI VETERAN KAN TAGAMI PASSES. HELD UNPRECEDENTED ONE-ON-ONE PRIVATE MEETING WITH EMPEROR HIROHITO AT IMPERIAL PALACE. AKAKA PAYS HIGH TRIBUTE". Japanese American Veterans Association.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "Japanese Diet Called Farce". The Tuscaloosa News. 5 October 1945.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Japanese American Veterans Association". Military Intelligence Service Research Center.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Delayed Recognition in the CBI Theater: A Common Problem?". Japanese American Veterans Association.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Sato, Marie. "Japanese American women in military". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 31 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Personal Justice Denied". Personal Justice Denied. National Archives. Retrieved 2013-10-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Frank Fujita, Stanley L. Falk, and Robert Wear (Dec 1, 2000). Foo, a Japanese-American Prisoner of the Rising Sun: The Secret Prison Diary of Frank "Foo" Fujita. University of North Texas Press. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Steffen, Jordan (October 6, 2010), "White House honors Japanese American WWII veterans", The Los Angeles Times<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading