Story by KEN MOCHIZUKI
“All your assumptions about why I wrote this book are wrong.”
Robert Asahina of New York interviewed 41 veterans across the country that belonged to the all-Japanese American 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team of World War II.
He also interviewed six veterans who belonged to the unit the 442nd rescued in the battle of the “Lost Battalion,” and four French civilians.
He searched through endless papers, documents and photographs at government and local archives, museums and studied many, many books, oral histories, speeches, memoirs and videos.
Asahina also hiked through the dense forests of the Vosges Mountains in northeastern France to see for himself what the 442nd fought through.
Amazingly, he did all this plus writing his book in about four years, he said during a Seattle bookstore appearance this summer.
The result: “Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad – The Story of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II” published this spring is a definitive book about the legendary 442nd and the Japanese American World War II incarceration in this country.
Asahina has been an editor at national magazines including George, Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review; has held executive positions at major publishing houses including vice president and senior editor of Simon & Schuster; and has had his articles and reviews appear in The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times Book Review, among other periodicals. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program at New York University.
“All your assumptions about why I wrote this book are wrong,” Asahina said to begin his presentation, adding that his book would also “challenge comfortable assumptions of what it means to be an ethnic minority in the United States.”
Asahina does approach “Just Americans” like a thesis, but he combines a compelling oral history, you-are-there approach with exceptional research. Just about every paragraph in “Just Americans” is footnoted, and those footnotes are often as informative as the main text.
Interestingly, Asahina begins with the “Jap Road” controversy of a few years ago, focusing on the lonely struggle of Sandra Tanamachi, a Beaumont, Texas schoolteacher who, beginning in 1992, struggled to have that road’s name changed.
Asahina then thoroughly documents the incarceration, or the “camps,” and particularly many of the illogical, hypocritical and contradictory decisions made at the highest levels of the U.S. government. One is the U.S. Army carrying out the “relocation” due to “military necessity” because Japanese Americans had links to the country of Japan. Yet, at the same time, the Army was recruiting Japanese Americans into the Military Intelligence Service because of their knowledge of Japan and the Japanese language.
Japanese American volunteers from Hawaii initially formed the 100th Battalion, which later became part of the 442nd. When mainland Japanese Americans incarcerated in the camps were allowed to volunteer for the U.S. military during World War II, volunteering was their “most significant, political act,” Asahina writes, “acting as citizens first, even though their government did not fully acknowledge them as such.”
“Even though it had been the Army that ‘evacuated’ the Japanese Americans from the West Coast, it was also the Army that had provided them with the opportunity to affirm their citizenship.” Asahina quotes 442nd veterans who said being in the Army was the first time they were treated as “equals.”
“Just Americans” really gets going when the 442nd enters combat in Europe in 1944. He glosses over its initial Italian campaigns and concentrates on missions in France. Liberating a series of French towns, the 442nd then engaged in its most famous battle: fighting uphill through the Vosges Mountains against entrenched German forces surrounding 211 remaining members of a battalion with the 141st Regiment, becoming known as the “Lost Battalion.” The 442nd suffered about 800 casualties to rescue those members of the 141st, a unit originally from Texas.
Shiro “Kash” Kashino, the gritty 442nd sergeant from Seattle who was wounded multiple times but still fought till the war’s end, is quoted as saying: “A lot of people don’t realize we could have failed.”
The reason the opposite proved true throughout battles in Italy and France, as Asahina vividly brings to life, was due to courageous individual actions by members of the 442nd. Young Oak Kim, a Korean American who became a legendary officer with the 100th, crawls hundreds of yards in broad daylight to capture German prisoners that yield critical battlefield information. Barney Hajiro takes it upon himself to lead an attack to rescue the “Lost Battalion,” as does George “Machine Gun Joe” Sakato. Medic James Okubo repeatedly risks his own life to save others.
Asahina’s real coup was being able to interview Marty Higgins, commander of the “Lost Battalion.” There are even radio transcripts between Higgins and his commanders that capture the desperation of the besieged soldiers.
Infuriating to read are the experiences of 442nd veterans after the war. Some of those returning home and rejoining their families experienced people shooting at their homes, arson and threatening visits. A 442nd sergeant killed in action is not allowed to be buried at his hometown’s cemetery. Sgt. Jack Wakamatsu “wondered, again, who my real enemies were.”
Asahina brings “Just Americans” full circle when “this time, it was the Lost Battalion that came to the aid of the 442nd.” In 2004, veterans of both World War II units supported Tanamachi’s successful effort to have the “Jap Road” name changed.
Mainly through transcripts of conversations between Roosevelt administration Cabinet members, Asahina concludes that the combat record of the 442nd helped persuade the president to close the camps:
“… [T]he significance of the rescue of the Lost Battalion, then as now, was not just military. It had united men as Americans, not as hyphenated Americans … The 442nd had freed their fellow unhyphenated Americans from a German ambush on a hillside bristling with booby traps. In so doing they had helped liberate their own families and loved ones from camps surrounded by barbed wire in their own country. And sixty years later, the circle was closed when Army veterans joined forces again as Americans.”
As to why he wrote this book, Asahina states in “Just Americans” that it was “bullets on the battleground that won the fight for civil rights.”
“So in the end, it was the Japanese Americans in uniform whose heroism had shamed their own government into doing the right thing.”