WASHINGTON -- In recognition of both Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and the Memorial Day holiday, the Joint Base Journal highlights a group from the Japanese American Veterans Association. Members discuss their experiences during World War II - a time when being Japanese American was called into question.
Mary Tamaki Murakami was a little girl during a time of national hysteria. She was born in California, but was incarcerated with her family at an internment camp for Japanese American citizens in Topaz, Utah. Due to the hostile relationship between the island nation of Japan and the U.S., particularly after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, she said approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were taken to various camps in places like Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Arizona.
She remembers the day when U.S. Army soldiers surrounded her hometown just outside San Francisco - making it virtually impossible for anyone to leave. She also remembers the military asking everyone two very important questions once they got to the camp.
"They asked us if we were willing to serve in the U.S. Army and whether we were willing to forego any allegiance to Japan's emperor," Murakami said. "It was a matter of where our loyalty stood. They wanted to know if we were we for Japan or for America."
Murakami was 14 when she arrived at the camp in Topaz. She would spend all her high school years there and later graduate in 1945. Many years later, she would reunite with some former classmates and write a book about their experiences at the school and what it was like living at the camp. The book is called Blossoms in the Desert.
"Conditions were horrible. We were put in bare barracks. Some families were even put in horse stalls," Murakami said. "We had a community bathroom with no door. There weren't any comforts, but the comfort of family and close friends. We did the book because we wanted to educate younger people of how far we've come in terms of discrimination in this country."
Just like Murakami, Grant Ichikawa was taken to the internment camp in Topaz. He was born and raised in the prominent wine region of Suisun Valley California. As a young boy, he dreamed of one day furthering his education by going to college and becoming a businessman. His dream came true years later when he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in accounting and commerce. Though, his path in life would take a different course.
"Nobody was hiring Japanese Americans at that time, so I decided to be a fruit farmer with my father. He had years of experience and it made all the sense in the world since I couldn't find a job anywhere else," Ichikawa said. "We found a good lease on a piece of land and borrowed some money so we could invest in a tractor, spray wagon and other equipment."
Ichikawa was only out of school and working with his father for a short time when the world around him came crashing down, he recalls. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941 - signaling the U.S. entry into World War II. Following the attack, Ichikawa and his family were placed in an internment camp by U.S. forces a year later along with many other Japanese American citizens.
"We had to get rid of the farm. I was very disappointed because I was American and couldn't understand why they were doing this," Ichikawa said. "I had never even been to Japan. I was an American. I just couldn't understand why our government was treating us like we were enemy-aliens."
Ichikawa quickly found out that Japanese Americans like himself would have to go above and beyond to prove their loyalty to the U.S. In November 1942, he volunteered from the internment camp and enrolled in a U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service (MIS) Language School. Along the way he participated in the Philippine liberation and, following Emperor Hirohito's announcement of Japan's surrender in World War II, talked more than 250 armed Japanese soldiers into surrendering their weapons.
"For those soldiers in the Philippines, surrender was not a word in their vocabulary. I still remember walking to this open field and them hiding in the bushes," Ichikawa said. "They were a very special, highly-trained and disciplined group. I met a lieutenant colonel for their side and he gave his sword to me. After seeing that, they came out and piled their weapons in the middle of the field."
Ichikawa, who would go on to have a 30-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) said nearly 6,000 Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) served in the MIS during World War II. He said their work should dispel any doubt that as Americans they were willing to fight an enemy with whom they shared a similar background.
"We were initially labeled as being enemy-aliens. That's why many of us volunteered to fight for the U.S. Army," Ichikawa said. "All we wanted was to prove our loyalty as American citizens. It was always our hope to one day erase whatever discrimination we had against us."
Terry Shima, formerly executive director for the Japanese American Veterans Association, was born in Hawaii and joined the 442nd Infantry Regiment in Italy in 1945. Like Ichikawa, he got language training and eventually received an exception from the U.S. Army to serve during the war.
He was assigned to public relations and, when the unit returned stateside in July 1946, he continued to handle public relations for veterans in New York, Washington, D.C. and in Honolulu. He would go on to have a career in foreign services for 30 years.
"Army leaders wanted to form a larger, brigade-size unit so they could achieve their objective. That led to the creation of the 442nd Combat Team, which was a volunteer unit," Shima said. "About 1,500 volunteered from internment camps, while another 2,500 volunteered from Hawaii. The 442nd later merged with the 100th Infantry Battalion."
Shima said linguists assigned to the 442nd were based in Europe, while 60 Japanese Americans already training with the U.S. Army MIS were in the Pacific. Shima also notes that when the war broke out, not one individual decided to quit - even after their families had been incarcerated at internment camps.
"On top of this is the legacy of that group and what it means to Japanese Americans today," Shima said. "European commanders had asked for the 442nd to be on their team. That just shows the quality of combat strength the Japanese Americans provided."
A fond memory for Shima remains taking part in a parade in Washington, D.C. after the war. Shima said it was at that parade that President Harry Truman confirmed how invaluable Japanese Americans were to the war effort. Decades later, he said President Ronald Reagan also offered a formal apology to all Japanese Americans for the discrimination they faced during that period in history.
Murakami's husband, Raymond, is a fellow member of the Japanese American Veterans Association. He was part of the committee that spearheaded the effort to establish the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in Washington, D.C. He calls it a lasting tribute to all those who fought bravely during World War II.
"It was very emotional for me to be involved in the process of selecting a proper site for this memorial," Murakami said. "The memorial ensures that we leave a lasting legacy for future generations to learn and understand the role of Japanese Americans in the war."
In November 2011, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, presented Shima, Ichikawa and other Japanese American veterans with Congressional Gold Medals in honor of the 100th Battalion, 442nd RCT, and the MIS.
The Japanese American Veterans Association is a non-profit organization located in the Washington, D.C. area. It has several initiatives in place to help veterans and their families. This includes sponsoring scholarships for dependents. For more information, please visit www.javadc.org.