The internment of people of Japanese ancestry in the United States during the Second World War was a particularly dark era in the nation’s history. Decades of racism and scaremongering about the ‘yellow peril’ laid the groundwork for the executive order condemning Japanese families to camps for the duration of the war; some people moved through multiple camps, series of transfers, lost almost everything they owned, and were subject to racism from the communities where their camps were located, to boot. Despite being told that simply being of Japanese ancestry made them a security threat so huge that they needed to be confined in camps, some residents of the camps wanted to fight in the war, thought of themselves as Americans, and were eager to play a role as well.
Shifting staffing needs eventually led the government to allow second-generation Japanese-Americans, the nisei, to serve. They were forced to agree to a loyalty oath before they could take up arms, of course, unlike all other soldiers, and they served in segregated units headed by white officers. They also weren’t allowed to serve in the Pacific theatre; evidently even after signing loyalty oaths and indicating a willingness to fight and being ready to die for the country that had penned them up like stock waiting for slaughter, they were still considered suspect, and couldn’t be allowed too close to regions where Japanese troops might be present.
Nisei units went on to conduct themselves with distinction, participating in a number of key military events. They were there for the liberation of concentration camps, for beating back German troops from important landmarks. They fought, ferociously, even as their friends and family members were incarcerated in internment camps in the United States. Even as they were segregated from other US soldiers, in a military where being ‘American’ supposedly wasn’t a matter of race, but mixed race units couldn’t be allowed. Hundreds died or went missing in combat as they fought for a nation that wouldn’t even grant them equal rights.
Some members of nisei units received recognitions after the war, but it took decades for them to fully recognised for their contributions to the war. Anti-Japanese sentiment lingered long after the end of the Second World War and wasn’t helped by conflict in Korea and Vietnam, which stressed the idea that people of Asian descent were suspect, the enemy, even if they weren’t of the same ethnic heritage as the people appearing on the television screen every night. For families rebuilding after the war, attempting to recapture what they had before the camps took it from them, getting military awards might not have been on the top of the priority list, but they certainly would have made a difference; being decorated with honours would have been a reminder to the community at large that nisei troops did something important for the country, and weren’t the enemy.
Belated recognitions came decades over, in some cases; as recently as last year, Congress was issuing proclamations to upgrade decorations and commemorate the service of nisei troops in Europe. Members of these units also participated in military intelligence, where they were critical players as translators of information that would have been difficult to access by other means. The role of nisei intelligence agents is even less well known and discussed than that of the heroic segregated troops who participated in the liberation of Europe alongside allied forces from other regions.
It is telling that even now, the nisei troops are not discussed as widely as other units and groups in the Second World War. They played an important role, both proving themselves as troops and quietly saying something to the world with their service. Yet, historians of the era don’t spend a lot of time talking about them, discussing the barriers they overcame to serve and be recognised. Along with segregated Black troops, they are a critical part of the war’s history, and a part that often slides through the cracks. In war movies, for example, it seems like most faces are white, and the narrative is about the white soldiers who fought; it’s a narrative of liberation and freedom that doesn’t delve very deeply into the uglier sides of the US military in the Second World War.
Segregation existed in the war, and played a role in how and where troops were deployed, where they fought, what kinds of services they accessed, and how they were treated at the end of the war, when the guns went silent and the recovery began. Segregation is part of US military history, as are the mechanisms that eventually broke it down and allowed people to enlist on a more equal racial footing, even was the racial representation of the military is not proportional to the rest of the country, and even as the distribution of officers in particular doesn’t line up with the expected distribution given the population.
Failing to talk about the role of the nisei troops in the Second World War ignores their social, cultural, and political meaning. And erases a very important part of Asian-American history, where people who were confined in camps because they were considered dangerous simply because of their race were willing to go to war anyway, under the flag of the nation that was taking everything from them and violating their civil rights, and were willing to do so with valour, despite the fact that they served in segregated units and were deployed selectively to ‘reduce security risks.’