BY CRYSTAL NAM
UW News Lab
The afternoon rain drizzled with solemn conviction, reflecting the tears of pain, sacrifice and pride of the Japanese-American soldiers who served in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Their services not only had an impact in winning the war, but their courage in the face of racism and imprisonment has left a lasting imprint of pain and success on American history.
It has been 60 years since the end of the war, yet the stories and legacies of these soldiers are still unknown to the vast majority of Americans. Overcoming prejudice and discrimination, the soldiers were pioneers in rebuilding the democratic spirit of American society during and after the war.
Friends, families and public officials from across the nation gathered together on Veteran’s Day to pay tribute to these brave men at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall. Speakers included Gen. Richard B. Meyers, Gov. Christine Gregoire and U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii).
The event was organized by Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project. Densho is a nonprofit organization that started in 1996 with the goal of documenting oral histories from Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during the war. It has now evolved into a mission to educate, preserve and inspire action for equity, according to its Web site.
“We want to share the experiences of the Japanese-American veterans,” said Tom Ikeda, executive director of Densho. “We will learn to be closer and work together.”
The veterans, all wearing their medals, walked together onto the stage to a standing ovation from the packed audience.
The event began with posting the colors of the flags and the pledge of allegiance led by Dale Kaku, commander of the Seattle Nisei Veterans Committee. It was primarily nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans, who served during World War II.
The brave Japanese-Americans risked their personal lives for the war, said Meyers, the 15th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who celebrated his first Veterans Day as a veteran. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else than in Seattle with these great men.”
Following his tribute, Gregoire honored the veterans for their service.
“I want to thank all our veterans for protecting our tradition,” she said. “We are truly blessed.”
Inouye, a World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, spoke of his personal experience from the war.
“We were [considered] enemy aliens,” said Inouye. “We could not be drafted or wear the uniforms to serve our country.”
Many Japanese-Americans had petitioned to serve in the war. After their efforts, the War Department formed an all-nisei unit called the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Volunteers totaled almost 10,000 in Hawaii and around 1,250 from the internment camps, which suggest the negative impact of incarceration on the Japanese-Americans.
“We looked like a bunch of POWs instead of leaving Hawaii in grand style,” said Inouye, recalling the day he left his home to go to war.
The unit at first had friction between the mainland soldiers and the islanders, he said. Their negative views about each other came from the differences in language and mannerisms. It soon diminished after he visited an internment camp.
“To be in a camp and volunteer, it was something else,” he said.
Inouye continued his story with the sights and experiences he had when the 442nd went to Italy and France. The successes in war created a great reputation and military record for the Japanese-Americans, which remain part of their legacy.
Despite these achievements, many Japanese-American war heroes came home only to face prejudice from a war-torn society.
“I went in to get a haircut before I went home,” said Inouye. “The [barber] said ‘We don’t cut Jap hair.’”
Regardless of the negative experiences, the apology and acknowledgement from the country to the Japanese-Americans was what made it special, said Inouye.
“I am proud to have served. If it weren’t for our veterans, our country wouldn’t be as great as it is today,” he said.
And the larger message of the experience, especially now during a time of war, is that Americans should not be discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity in order for democracy to survive.
The Japanese-American veterans leave behind a great legacy of courage and patriotism. Many veterans wiped their teary eyes during the poignant speech, as Inouye proudly honored his fellow veterans.
“God Bless America.”
To register and view the archived stories and documented recollections from the Japanese-American World War II veterans, please visit www.densho.org.
CRYSTAL NAM is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.