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“My priority was to try to show the American people that we are just as loyal as anybody else. We need to prove our loyalty because the reason why we’re in camp is because the American public says that we are enemy aliens. We’re loyalty to Japan and so forth.  And that perception’s got to be changed.”— Susumu Satow

After Pearl Harbor, the Federal government took the unprecedented step of ordering some 110,000 Japanese aliens and American citizens of Japanese descent living along the West Coast out of their homes and into ten inland internment camps. In addition, all Japanese-American men of draft age, except those already in the armed forces, were classified as 4-C, enemy aliens, forbidden to serve their country.

Then, in early 1943, Washington reversed its policy on military service. The Japanese government had been making effective propaganda in Asia out of the internment of Japanese Americans in the U.S.; the camps appeared to confirm their depiction of the war as a racial conflict. To respond to the Japanese propaganda, and under pressure from Japanese American and civil liberties organizations, President Roosevelt authorized the enlistment of Japanese-American men into the U.S. Armed Forces.

Japanese Americans were now permitted to form a special segregated infantry outfit – the unit would come to be called the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team. In Hawaii, where Japanese Americans had never been locked up, recruitment exceeded all expectations. When the Army called for 1,500 volunteers, 10,000 turned up at recruiting offices.

Japanese-American soldiers rest in the street of Leghorn, Italy. July 19, 1944.
National Archives
Japanese-American soldiers rest in the street of Leghorn, Italy. July 19, 1944.

Among the new recruits was Daniel Inouye, an eighteen-year-old pre-med student from Honolulu. “I was angered to realize that my government felt that I was disloyal and part of the enemy, [an] enemy alien,” Inouye said. “And I wanted to be able to demonstrate, not only to my government, but to my neighbors that I was a good American.”

But not all Japanese Americans were eager to serve a government that had forced so many of them and their families into internment camps. Some in the camps refused to cooperate with the draft until their rights were restored. Many objected to the loyalty questionnaire they were forced to sign, which asked them to renounce allegiance to the Japanese emperor, a provision many found insulting. Others felt the new unit would be a “suicide squad” meant only to save the lives of white servicemen. Still, some 2,100 men in the camps stepped forward for the new all-Japanese American unit.

Many military leaders were reluctant to have Japanese Americans in the armed forces. General Eisenhower’s staff had initially rejected the idea of Japanese-American troops, but General Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Army in Italy, had said that he would “take anybody that will fight.”

In June 1944, The men who signed on with the 442nd would find themselves in Italy, fighting alongside the 100th Infantry Battalion, the battle-tested unit made up mostly of Japanese Americans from Hawaii. The 100th had been formed in 1942, before the ban had been placed on the enlistment of Japanese Americans, and they had seen action in North Africa and Italy. For months, the men of the 100th had distinguished themselves in repeated assaults on the German lines as the Allies fought northward in Italy. The 100th had lost over 950 men, so many that they came to be called the “Purple Heart Battalion.” The fall of Rome in June 1944 had boosted Allied morale, but it had not ended warfare in Italy, and new troops were needed to fight the Germans. As the campaign in Italy continued into the autumn, the newcomers of the 442nd and the combat-wise survivors of the 100th would be asked to spearhead the Fifth Army’s drive northward from Rome.

Japanese Americans going through the chow line while fighting in France.
National Archives
Japanese Americans go through the chow line while fighting in France.

“We all had the idea of proving that we were loyal Americans,” Tim Tokuno said. “And so everything was ‘go, go, go forward, go forward.’ And so I understand it, we never retreated. We never took a backward step. Always forward.”

The 442nd fought so well and so hard in the drive toward the German “Gothic Line” that when General Clark led his men into the important port city of Livorno in full view of the cameras that accompanied him everywhere, he insisted that the Japanese Americans march right behind his jeep. “They were superb!” said General George Marshall. “They showed rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit. Everybody wanted them.”

In September, the 442nd was moved from the ongoing battle in Italy and rushed to France. Once considered a “problem” by the army, the 442nd was now seen as a problem solver. But the battles they would endure in the Vosges Mountains in France would be their greatest challenge – if only because the orders of an incompetent General would send them into impossible situations where they would endure terrible losses. On October 29, 1944, the 442nd was called upon to rescue the so-called “Lost Battalion” – 275 men from the 141st Regiment who had been surrounded by Germans due to the reckless orders of their General. The 442nd lost 400 men rescuing the 230 men of the Lost Battalion who had survived their ordeal, and further secured their reputation for extraordinary bravery and valor.

At war’s end, the “Purple Heart Battalion” had suffered 9,486 casualties. Over 600 made the ultimate sacrifice.

Japanese Americans would also help win the war in the Pacific, as interpreters and translators in the war against Japan. They served in the Military Intelligence Service, intercepting secret Japanese communication, often making quick translations of the battlefield messages and orders of Japanese officers. On Okinawa and Saipan, Japanese-American servicemen were able to convince some Japanese soldiers to surrender, and they tried to reason with terrified civilians who had been told by the Japanese to expect horrible atrocities at the hands of the arriving Americans.

But on returning home, Japanese-American soldiers found many of the old prejudices remained. Veterans of the 442nd were denied service, even while in uniform. Some seven years after the war, Susumu Satow took his family to a restaurant in his hometown of Sacramento. They ordered their meal. It never arrived. “There’s no point in making any commotion and so we just walked out,” he said.

With time, the Japanese-American soldiers would be recognized for their bravery and sacrifice. After fifty-five years, twenty members of the 442nd , including Inouye, would finally be awarded the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for valor. Nobody could ever again question the Japanese Americans’ loyalty, or doubt their contributions to winning the war.

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In January 1942, the Office of Naval Intelligence estimated only about 3,500 Japanese were a potential military threat and there was no need for a mass evacuation.

33,000 Japanese Americans served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Many Japanese-American soldiers were assigned to the Military Intelligence Service, functioning as interpreters and translators on the Pacific front.

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Daniel Inouye
Video IconDaniel Inouye »
A trip to an internment camp changed his opinion of mainland Japanese Americans.

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Japanese Americans fought despite internment at home.
See “Civil Rights”»

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Volunteers on Kauai, Hawaii, undergo physical examination before induction.
Library of Congress

Volunteers on Kauai, Hawaii, undergo physical examination before induction.

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Robert Kashiwagi
Video IconRobert Kashiwagi »
Our lieutenant colonel said, “That’s all that’s left of that regiment.”

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Two Japanese-American color guard and color bearers of the 442nd RCT stand at attention during their citation for rescuing the Lost Batallion. France.  November 12, 1944.
National Archives

Two Japanese-American color guard and color bearers of the 442nd RCT stand at attention during their citation for rescuing the Lost Batallion. France. November 12, 1944.

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Tim Tokuno
Video IconTim Tokuno »
Tokuno's mother told him not to dishonor his family or his country as a soldier.

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Chambois Sector of France. October 1944.
National Archives

Chambois Sector of France. October 1944.

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Susumu Satow
Video IconSusumu Satow »
At the end of the war, President Truman presented the seventh presidential unit citation to the 442nd.

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Daniel Inouye
Video IconDaniel Inouye »
Describing the action that earned him a Medal of Honor, Inouye said, “What the men told me I did, I said, ‘No, it can’t be.’ ”

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See all photographs and media on Japanese Americans in “Search & Explore”»