More than 70 years ago, young Asian-American men fought two wars—World War II and the war against prejudice.
Although many of their families were imprisoned in internment camps as “enemy aliens,” these young Nisei—Japanese-Americans from Hawaii and the U.S. mainland—volunteered in record numbers to serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. They vowed to show the world they were true Americans. So who were the men of the 442nd?
“Shorty’s” shoe size was only a 2½, but he received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for using his small body to shield a wounded lieutenant during the battle of Hill 140 in Italy. Another soldier—one whose family was forced to live in a filthy horse stall at Santa Anita racetrack in California—was told by his father that “a lot of good things grow in horse manure.” A clipping in a dead sergeant’s pocket stated that vandals burned down the soldier’s home and barn in the name of patriotism. His chaplain wrote, “Despite the prejudice, this man had volunteered for every patrol he could go on. You know, you can’t give a medal high enough for a man like that.”
The men of the 442nd served a country that despised them, despite the fact they were the most highly decorated unit in the history of the U.S. military. Approximately 18,000 medals for heroism and service were awarded to the 14,000 men who served. Their unit was replaced more than three times because they suffered a 314 percent casualty rate, according to the Congressional Record.
In The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945, author Geoffrey Ward describes how a soldier “was given so much morphine at the aid station that later, when surgeons at a field hospital began to amputate his shattered arm, he had to endure it without anesthetic.” Later, when he came home to the States with an empty sleeve, a barber refused to cut his hair because it was “Jap” hair.
I am a 15-year-old, Asian-American boy. During WWII, my grandpa cleaned body parts off Navy vessels stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. My family’s friend, a 442nd Nisei from Kona who was later recruited to join the Military Intelligence Service, persuaded Japanese soldiers and civilian refugees to leave their hiding places on Okinawa and surrender to the American forces.
How is the experience of the Nisei soldiers relevant to my generation?
The men of the 442nd fought so I wouldn’t be judged by the color of my skin. These men, boys not much older than me, fought so I can live in freedom. The men of the 442nd fought so I can become a rocket scientist, a teacher, a soldier or whatever I want to be. They fought to prove that the way the world was for them didn’t have to be the way the world would be for me. The men of the 442nd fought so that no one will refuse to cut my hair.
Who were the men of the 442nd? They were, and are, my heroes.
Christopher James Lindsay, a junior at Honolulu’s ‘Iolani School, was a freshman when this essay won first prize among the high school entries in the Go For Broke National Education Center’s 2014 essay contest. To read essays from this year’s winners, visit GoForBroke.org.