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Service to their country was a double-edged sword for Japanese American regiment

For soldiers in the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the choice came down to barbed wire or combat. Historians point to their story in a year of anti-Asian hate.
Japanese American troops in the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team climb into a truck at a military campsite in France during World War II. 
Japanese American troops in the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team climb into a truck at a military campsite in France during World War II. Seattle Nisei Veterans Committee and U.S. Army via Densho

After a year of increased hate, historians are looking back on the sacrifices Asian Americans have had to make to prove loyalty to a country that often disregards them.

The plight of a World War II Army combat unit whose Japanese American soldiers were forced from prison camps into war is a story that doesn’t often get told, experts said. 

The members of the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team left their families and crossed to the other side of barbed-wire fences when they were drafted in 1943. Just a year earlier, people of Japanese descent were labeled as enemy aliens by the War Department, the predecessor of the Defense Department. 

“Many believed that they were being used as cannon fodder,” said Brian Niiya, the content director for Densho, an organization dedicated to chronicling the history of Japanese incarceration. 

The 442nd, two thirds of which was made up of Hawaiian-born Japanese Americans, was sent to complete particularly dangerous and bloody missions and suffered heavy casualties.

“I don’t know which was worse, being locked up in camp or going off to war,” Masao Watanabe, a soldier in the 442nd, said in a 1998 interview. “Barbed wires aren’t very inviting. I just didn’t like being cooped up and looking at barbed wires and guard towers. That just wasn’t for me.” 

The instinct to prove loyalty and assimilation didn’t end with being imprisoned, and it’s a pressure experts say Asian Americans in the 21st century aren’t immune from.

“I hope that we can learn from this history and make sure that future generations will not be asked to make those same sacrifices to prove that they belong here,” said Nina Wallace, Densho’s communications coordinator. 

Even though the combat team came out of the war the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and period of service, many members still faced societal rejection as they returned to homes in disparate parts of the country. Asian American civil rights movements later on did credit soldiers of the 442nd for gradually improving the public image of Japanese Americans. But it’s a sacrifice they shouldn’t have had to make, Wallace said. 

“I think we can look back with gratitude for the sacrifices made by the soldiers of the 442nd, as well as grief and some critical questioning of why they were expected to give so much to a country that didn’t recognize them as equal citizens,” she said. 

Niiya said the public animosity is something that Asian Americans have become all too familiar with this year. And it’s a reality that has deep roots. 

“Until we address the root causes of anti-Asian violence — namely, white supremacy — Asian Americans and other communities of color will continue to face discrimination no matter how much we sacrifice or try to prove our loyalty,” he said. 

For Watanabe, who died in 2003, the choice was between staying in the destitute conditions of imprisonment or facing the risks of a brutal war. Young adults today find that it often comes down to a similar choice, with military recruitment largely targeting schools in lower-income districts and those with large Black and brown populations

“You try to be a good citizen. You try to do what you’re supposed to be doing,” Watanabe said. “But that rejection is very difficult.”