During World War II the United States government violated its founding principles by incarcerating over 120,000 Japanese-Americans in “internment camps,” a euphemism for “concentration camps.” Families were separated, homes and businesses lost, and possessions sold for little value as people were sent to live in barracks in Wyoming, Colorado, California, Arkansas, and Utah. Of those sent to the camps, two-thirds were American citizens. Despite this treatment Japanese-Americans reacted to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in the same manner as their fellow countrymen with thousands either enlisting or being drafted into the US military. The treatment of these American citizens domestically and the courage and defiance shown by Japanese-American soldiers in Europe is the subject of Daniel James Brown’s latest book FACING THE MOUNTAIN: A TRUE STORY OF JAPANESE HEROES IN WORLD WAR II. Brown the author of the award winning THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: NINE AMERICANS AND THEIR EPIC QUEST FOR GOLD AT THE 1936 BERLIN OLYMPICS has produced another amazing narrative history that focuses on the personal lives of the characters portrayed and provides the reader with intricate details of what they experienced, the emotions involved, and in the case of Brown’s current effort the quest to bring honor to their families and successfully represent their country on the battlefield.
Brown’s work is based on voluminous research that included interviews with many survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in the camps and fought for their country in the European theater. Brown’s effort has two major components. First, he focuses on the reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and its implications for Japanese-Americans. The racism and fear on the part of the US government resulted in the round up of over 120,000 American citizens where they wound remain until President Roosevelt, after gaining his fourth term in the White House ended their incarceration in December 1944. The second component of the book zeroes in on Japanese-American citizens, born on American soil who were known as Nisei who enlisted in the US Army. These individuals made up two distinct groups that Brown describes; the Kontonks, Japanese-Americans who lived on the mainland, and Buddaheads, who lived in Hawaii. The two groups were very different culturally despite
(Map of Japanese internment camps, 1941-1945.Japanese Americans were ordered to leave the “Exclusion Area” on the West Coast of the United States and to move to remote internment)
their common ancestry and did not get along well until they began to train together and deployed overseas.
Brown introduces countless individuals in his presentation, but his main focus is on four men; Rudy Tokiwa and Fred Shiosaki who were members of the Third Battalion K Company, part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and were from the mainland. Katsugo “Kats” Miho, a Hawaiian was part of the 522nd Artillery group, and George Hirabayashi, a mainlander who refused to fight because of the racial discrimination against Japanese-Americans becoming a conscientious objector as he was a Quaker. From the outset Brown describes the increasing racism and virulent rhetoric that the families of the Nisei had to deal with when they were rounded up, forced to give away and/or sell their possessions, and life in the internment camps. Brown’s presentation is very sensitive particularly reflected in the excerpted letters between family members and their sons fighting abroad, including a series of letters between chaplains Hiro Higuchi and Masao Yamada and their wives.
(Fred Korematsu wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom.Fred Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. In 1942, Korematsu refused to comply with the internment order and was arrested. The Supreme Court ruled against him, citing the “military necessity” of Japanese internment).
Brown carefully reviews the history of anti-Asianism in America dating back to the mid-19th century. He traces Congressional legislation from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Theodore Roosevelt’s Gentleman’s Agreement, and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act that set quotas for different ethnicities and their ability to immigrate to the United States. Brown describes the conditions in the internment camps that the Tokiwa, Shiosaki, and Miho families were sent to, particularly Poston in Arkansas and Heart’s Mountain in Wyoming. Brown explores their emotional state and how they and thousands of other internes were able to endure their situation and in most cases make the best of it as camps produced schools, theater, farming, among many examples of their flexibility in the face of virulent racism.
The author’s treatment of the Hirabayashi case is important as it reflects the racism in the American legal system and its refusal to conform to constitutional protections of its citizens. Many soldiers were allowed to visit their families in the camps. Their anger and frustration concerning what they witnessed did not take away their quest to honor their families and become the best soldiers they could be.
The 422nd and 522nd fought in North Africa, Italy, and Germany and were enveloped by the Battle of the Bulge and they developed a reputation of being among the best troops that the United States produced, evidenced by General Mark Clark’s constant requests for Japanese-American soldiers for his companies. The bravery of these men is well documented as Brown’s excellent command of details of what the Nisei faced on the battlefield is portrayed, i.e.; German bombardment on the outskirts of Italian cities and towns, their rescue of over 200 Texas soldiers pinned down by German artillery at the cost of hundreds of their own casualties in the Vosges, their constant volunteering for dangerous missions, and their sense of community as they fought as what historian Stephen Ambrose describes in dealing with the Battle of the Bulge, as “a band of brothers.” They gained the respect of the Germans, and they came to fear “the little iron men,” as the Nisei fought through the forests of the Vosges, Anzio, and numerous towns and villages throughout Italy and Germany.
Once Roosevelt ordered the freeing of the interned Japanese-Americans these people wondered where they could go. Their homes and businesses were gone, and FDR’s order did not extinguish the rampant racism that remained despite the reputation the Nisei had garnered from the American media, at the same time their sons were fighting and dying for the American flag. It is interesting that today we are witnessing a spike in anti-Asian racism in the United States because of Covid-19, reflecting the idea that we as a people we have a long way to go in coping with our racist past and present.
In the case of Hirabayashi, he was arrested and imprisoned after a sham trial. His lawyers fought the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the sentence in Hirabayashi v. United States. As David Kindy writes in Smithsonian Magazine, “In 1987, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reopened and reviewed the case, vacating Hirabayashi’s conviction with a writ of coram nobis, which allows a court to overturn a ruling made in error.
All four men are gone now—Shiosaki was the last survivor, dying last month at age 96—but they all lived to witness the U.S. government making amends. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 addressed the “fundamental injustice” of what happened during the war and provided compensation for losses sustained by incarcerated Japanese Americans.
‘The sacrifices of our parents and the sacrifices of the men in the 442nd were our way of earning that freedom,” Shisoki told Spokane’s KXLY 4 News in 2006. “The right to be called an American, not a hyphenated American and I guess that’s my message to everybody; that you don’t—this stuff doesn’t get given to you, you earn it. Every generation earns it in some way or another.’
At a difficult time in the country’s history, each of the four men followed the path that he believed was right. In the end, their faith in their country was rewarded with the acknowledgement that their rights had been violated.”***
***David Kindy, “Meet Four Japanese-American Men Who Fought Against Racism in World War II,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 12, 2021.