Japanese-American service in World War II

Boy Scouts at the Granada War Relocation Center raise the flag to half-mast during a Memorial Service for the first six Nisei soldiers from this Center who were killed in action in Italy. The service was attended by 1,500 Amache internees. -- August 5, 1944.
US government-produced film attempting to defend the massive internment of Japanese Americans in detention camps during World War II. (Media from the Prelinger Archives)
A U.S. soldier and his mother in Florin, Sacramento County, California

During the early years of World War II, Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated from their homes in the West Coast because military leaders and public opinion combined to fan unproven fears of sabotage. As the war progressed, many of the young Nisei, Japanese immigrants' children who were born with American citizenship, volunteered or were drafted to serve in the United States military. Japanese Americans served in all the branches of the United States Armed Forces, including the United States Merchant Marine.[1] An estimated 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the U.S. military during World War II, of which 20,000 joined the Army. Approximately 800 were killed in action.

The 100th/442nd Infantry Regiment became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.[2] The related 522nd Field Artillery Battalion liberated the infamous Dachau concentration camp. Other Japanese-American units also included the 100th Infantry Battalion, the Varsity Victory Volunteers, and the Military Intelligence Service.

Servicemen in the U.S. ArmyEdit

The majority of Japanese Americans serving in the American Armed Forces during World War II enlisted in the army.

100th Infantry BattalionEdit

The 100th Infantry Battalion was engaged in heavy action during the war taking part in multiple campaigns. The 100th was made up of Nisei who were originally members of the Hawaii National Guard. Sent to the mainland as the Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion on June 5, 1942, the 1,432 original members of the 100th were stationed first at Camp McCoy and later at Camp Shelby for combat training.[3] Their exemplary military record, and the patriotic activities of the Varsity Victory Volunteers, paved the way for the creation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in January 1943.[4] The Battalion shipped out in August 1943, landing in North Africa before fighting in Italy, eventually participating in the liberation of Rome.[5]

442nd Regimental Combat TeamEdit

Painting depicting soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team fighting in the Vosges
Two color guards and color bearers of the Japanese-American 442d Combat Team stand at attention while their citations are read. They are standing on ground of Bruyeres, France, where many of their comrades fell.

Meanwhile, an earlier decision to demote Nisei soldiers to 4-C class was reversed and the Army in January 1943 issued a call for Japanese-American volunteers. Most of the initial recruits came from Hawaii, as those on the mainland were reluctant to volunteer while they and their families remained in camp. The 2,686 accepted Hawaiians (out of 10,000 volunteers) and about 1,000 mainlanders were sent to Camp Shelby. The U.S. Army regiment served in Europe during World War II. Japanese Americans already in training at the start of the war had been removed from active duty shortly after Pearl Harbor, and the Army stopped accepting new Nisei recruits in early 1942.[3] However, community leaders in Hawaii as well as Japanese-American leaders like Mike Masaoka along with War Department officials like John J. McCloy soon began to push the Roosevelt administration to allow Nisei to serve in combat. A military board was convened in June 1942 to address the issue, but their final report opposed forming a Nisei unit, citing "the universal distrust in which they [Japanese Americans] are held."[6] Despite resistance from military and War Relocation Authority leaders, the President eventually sided with the War Department, and on February 1, 1943, Roosevelt announced the creation of a segregated unit composed of Nisei soldiers and commanded by white officers.[3] The 100th Infantry Battalion composed of men from Hawaii entered combat in Italy is September 1943 and suffered horrific casualties and became known as the Purple Heart Battalion. As a result, the 1st Battalion of the 442nd began sending replacement troops to join the 100th in early 1944. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions shipped out on May 1, 1944, joining the 100th in Italy in June 1944.[7] These men arrived in Europe after the 100th Infantry Battalion had already established its reputation as a fighting unit, and in time, the 100th/442nd became, for its size and length of service, the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.[4]

522nd Field Artillery BattalionEdit

The Nisei 522nd Field Artillery Battalion was organized as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team; but towards the end of the war, the 522nd became a roving battalion, shifting to whatever command most needed the unit.[8] The 522nd had the distinction of liberating survivors of the Dachau concentration camp system, from the Nazis on April 29, 1945.[4] Nisei scouts west of Munich near the small Bavarian town of Lager Lechfeld encountered some barracks encircled by barbed wire. Technician Fourth Grade Ichiro Imamura described it in his diary:

"I watched as one of the scouts used his carbine to shoot off the chain that held the prison gates shut .... They weren’t dead, as he had first thought. When the gates swung open, we got our first good look at the prisoners. Many of them were Jews. They were wearing striped prison suits and round caps. It was cold and the snow was two feet deep in some places. There were no German guards. The prisoners struggled to their feet .... They shuffled weakly out of the compound. They were like skeletons - all skin and bones ...."[8]

Holocaust historians have clarified the Nisei 522nd liberated about 3,000 prisoners at Kaufering IV in Hurlach. Hurlach was one of 169 subordinate slave labor camps of Dachau. Dachau, like Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück, was surrounded by hundreds of sub-camps.[8] Only three days later, the survivors of a death march[9] southwards from Dachau towards the Austrian border were found by troops of the 522nd just west of the village of Waakirchen,[10] and cared for them until dedicated medical personnel took over.[11]

Pierre Moulin in his recent book 'Dachau, Holocaust and US Samurais' writes that the first Nisei arrived at Dachau's gate not on April 29, the date of the liberation of the camp, but on April 28, 1945.[12] Two jeeps of forward observers with 522nd Field Artillery Battalion Captain Charles Feibleman, Kelly Nakamura (Driver), George Oide, Kenzo Okubo, Mike Hara, arrived first at the gates of Dachau but were told to wait for back up since the SS were still in the towers.<ref. Charles B. Feibleman>

Servicemen in the Army Air ForcesEdit

Japanese Americans were generally forbidden to fight a combat role in the Pacific theatre; although no such limitations were placed on Americans of German or Italian ancestry who fought against the Axis powers. Up to this point, the United States government has only been able to find records of five Japanese Americans who were members of the Army Air Forces during World War II, one of them being Kenje Ogata. There was at least one Nisei, U.S. Army Air Forces Technical Sergeant Ben Kuroki, who participated initially in 35 missions as a dorsal turret gunner over Europe, followed by 28 bombing missions over mainland Japan and other locations in the Pacific Theater.[13]

Nisei Herbert Seijin Ginoza flew combat missions over Europe as a waist-tail gunner in the 483rd Bomb Group. He spent 3 months as a German prisoner-of-war after his B17 was shot down on a bombing mission near Vienna, Austria.[14]

Military Intelligence ServiceEdit

Japanese-American interpreters Sgt. Herbert Miyasaki (left) and Sgt. Akiji Yoshima (right) with Brigadier General Frank Merrill (middle), commander of Infantry troops in Noubaum, Burma (ca. May 1, 1944)

Approximately 6,000 Japanese Americans served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS).[15] The first class received their training at the Presidio in San Francisco, but in June 1942 the MIS Language School was moved to Camp Savage, Minnesota, which offered larger facilities, removed the complications of training Japanese-American students in an area they were technically prohibited from entering, and had less anti-Japanese prejudice. In August 1944, the language school was moved again to Fort Snelling.[16] Most of the MIS Language School graduates were attached to the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) as linguists and in other non-combatant roles, interpreting captured enemy documents and interrogating prisoners of war. (At the end of the war, MIS linguists had translated 18,000 enemy documents, created 16,000 propaganda leaflets and interrogated over 10,000 Japanese POWs.) However, MIS servicemen were present at every major battle against Japanese forces, and those who served in combat faced extremely dangerous and difficult conditions, sometimes coming under friendly fire from U.S. soldiers unable to distinguish them from the Japanese and often encountering former friends on the battlefield.[15]

Japanese-American MIS linguists translated Japanese documents known as the "Z Plan", which contained Japan's counterattack strategy in the Central Pacific. This information led to Allied victories at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, in which the Japanese lost most of their aircraft carrier planes, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. An MIS radio operator intercepted a message describing Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's flight plans, which led to P-38 Lightning fighter planes shooting down his plane over the Solomon Islands.

The Military Intelligence Service Memorial Highway is named after the Military Intelligence Service.

Women's Army CorpsEdit

Like their male counterparts, Nisei women were at first prohibited from serving in the U.S. military; this changed in November 1943, and 142 young women volunteered to join the WAC. Because their number was relatively small, the Nisei WACs were not restricted to a segregated corps, but instead were spread out and served alongside other ethnic groups. The idea of female auxiliary service was still new at this time (the Women's Army Corps was only nine months old when it opened its ranks to Nisei volunteers), and these women were most often assigned to clerical duties or other "women's work." Additionally, WACs were often portrayed in media and propaganda as highly sexualized and were encouraged by male supervisors to play into this role. The Nisei WACs faced another difficulty in that they were expected to translate Japanese military documents; even those who were fluent in Japanese struggled to understand the military language, and eventually some were sent to the Military Intelligence Language School for training.[17]


Monument to the men of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Rohwer Memorial Cemetery

The nation's highest award for combat valor, the Medal of Honor, was conferred upon one Nisei during the war, Sadao Munemori, after he sacrificed his life to save his fellow soldiers. Twenty-one members of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team received Distinguished Service Crosses during or immediately after their World War II service, but in the 1990s, after a study revealed that racial discrimination had caused them to be overlooked, their awards were upgraded to Medals of Honor. On October 5, 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, as well as the 6,000 Japanese Americans who served in the Military Intelligence Service during the war.[18]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ James McIlwain (2012). "Nisei served in U.S. Army Air Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Merchant Marines during World War II" (PDF). JAVA Advocate. Japanese American Veterans Association. XX (3): 7. Retrieved 21 January 2013.
  2. ^ Shenkle, Kathryn (May 2006). "Patriots under Fire: Japanese Americans in World War II". United States Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Center of Military History. Archived from the original on June 3, 2008. Retrieved 6 June 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Niiya, Brian. "Japanese Americans in military during World War II". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 30 October 2014.
  4. ^ a b c "Terminology and Glossary," Archived 2007-06-24 at the Wayback Machine Denshō, The Japanese American Legacy Project.
  5. ^ http://encyclopedia.densho.org/100th%20Infantry%20Battalion/
  6. ^ Duus, Masayo. Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and the 442nd (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), p 56.
  7. ^ Odo, Franklin. "442nd Regimental Combat Team". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  8. ^ a b c Go for Broke National Education Center: Central Europe Campaign, 522nd Archived 2009-11-25 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Todesmärsche Dachau memorial website's map page of KZ-Dachau death march
  10. ^ USHMM photos of Waakirchen with 522nd personnel and rescued prisoners
  11. ^ "Central Europe Campaign – 522nd Field Artillery Battalion". Retrieved 2015-01-12. In fact, the brutal death marches south had already begun on April 24. Jewish prisoners from the outer Dachau camps were marched to Dachau, and then 70 miles south. Many of the Jewish marchers weighed less than 80 pounds. Shivering in their tattered striped uniforms, the "skeletons" marched 10 to 15 hours a day, passing more than a dozen Bavarian towns. If they stopped or fell behind, the SS guards shot them and left their corpses along the road. Thousands died from exposure, exhaustion, and starvation. On May 2, the death march was outside Waakirchen, Germany, near the Austrian border, when the 522nd came across the marchers. That day, soldiers from the 522nd were patrolling near Waakirchen. The Nisei saw an open field with several hundred "lumps in the snow." When the soldiers looked closer they realized the "lumps" were people. Some were shot. Some were dead from exposure. Hundreds were alive. But barely. The 522nd discovered hundreds of prisoners with black and white prison garb, shaven heads, sunken eyes, and hollowed cheeks. Some roamed aimlessly around the countryside. Some were too weak to move. All were severely malnourished. One soldier gave a starving Jewish prisoner a candy bar, but his system couldn't handle solid food. Then the Americans were told not to give food to the prisoners because it could do them more harm than good. For the next three days, the Nisei helped the prisoners to shelter and tended to their needs as best as they could. They carried the survivors into warm houses and barns. The soldiers gave them blankets, water and tiny bits of food to ease them back from starvation. The soldiers left Waakirchen on May 4, still deeply disturbed by the harrowing scenes of the Jewish prisoners.
  12. ^ Moulin, Pierre (2007). Dachau, Holocaust and US Samurais - Nisei Soldiers first in Dachau. Authorhouse Editions. ISBN 978-1-4259-3801-7.
  13. ^ Yenne, Bill. (2007). Rising Sons: The Japanese-American GIs Who Fought for the United States in World War II, p. 140.
  14. ^ "Herbert Seijin Ginoza | Japanese American Military Experience Database | Discover Nikkei". www.discovernikkei.org. Retrieved 2017-11-10.
  15. ^ a b Nakamura, Kelli Y. "Military Intelligence Service," Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  16. ^ Nakamura, Kelli Y. "Military Intelligence Service Language School," Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  17. ^ Sato, Marie. "Japanese American women in military". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  18. ^ Steffen, Jordan (October 6, 2010), "White House honors Japanese American WWII veterans", The Los Angeles Times

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit