Courage Under Fire: Sharing the Legacy of the 442nd Japanese American Segregated Unit

Posted on: December 24th, 2012 by Gwendolyn Purdom 1 Comment

Soldiers of the 442nd regiment. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

For actor George Takei, the experience of returning to the relocation site where he and his family, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, were interned during World War II was a moving one -- especially when he visited the memorial to Japanese American veterans in the former camp’s cemetery.

The names etched in the tank-shaped monument, Takei told us in an interview for our upcoming issue of Preservation magazine, represent “young men who went from behind American barbed-wire fences to fight with amazing heroism. The 442nd regimental combat team is the most decorated unit to come back from the entire Second World War. The American flags that covered their coffins were delivered back to their parents or their wives still imprisoned. The irony of that was just unbearable.”

The approximately 14,000 men who served in the 442nd segregated unit earned more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, 20 Medals of Honor, and an unprecedented seven Presidential Unit Citations -- and yet, as Takei pointed out, their story often goes untold. Through preservation and education efforts, groups across the country are trying to change that.

In Rohwer, Ark., where Takei and his family were detained, Japanese American Confinement Sites grants from the National Park Service and other sources of funding are helping to revive the camp’s cemetery, as well as its story. The headstones and monuments at the cemetery, along with an industrial smokestack on the grounds, are among the only remaining vestiges of the camp that once contained hundreds of buildings.

The tank-shaped military memorial in the former camp's cemetery. Credit: Beth Wiedower

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, the cemetery was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992. The tank-shaped military memorial dedicated to the Japanese American soldiers of the 442nd and 100th Battalion who were killed in Italy and France that Takei referenced was one of two memorials internees erected while the camp was still in operation, and one that is now in the first phase of a planned three-year restoration project, according to Beth Wiedower, field director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Rural Heritage Development Initiative.

“It’s still amazing that this monument was designed. It’s very patriotic, a tank, and American flags and an eagle on the obelisk adjacent to it,” Wiedower says. “So it’s very interesting how much, despite the internment, these soldiers and their families were in fact [identifying as] American citizens.”

Other monuments such as those in Washington, D.C., Honolulu, and elsewhere honor the more than 16,000 Japanese Americans that fought for the U.S. overseas during WWII. The name of each of these soldiers is engraved in the Go for Broke Monument in Los Angeles.

Last year, Nisei (American-born sons of Japanese immigrants) soldiers were awarded the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal. But, Donald Nose, president of the Go for Broke National Education Center, says there’s still much work to be done educating a nation about a brave group of soldiers that did so much for it.

“I look at the opportunities that I’ve had in life and it’s because the Niseis really put us on their shoulders and took so many sacrifices on our behalf,” says Nose, a third-generation Japanese Canadian who now lives in the United States. Nose’s organization is named for the 442nd’s motto to risk it all to win big -- and the combat team certainly did, despite the discrimination and poor treatment it faced.

The Go for Broke monument. Credit: Keri Kaba-Dien

In addition to establishing the Go for Broke monument, the Go for Broke National Education Center is focusing on collecting the oral histories of former soldiers, detailing everything from the internment camps, to their reactions to the attack on Pearl Harbor, to the hardships of war.

“These are very humble men. They don’t expect a lot of accolades, they haven’t gone out of their way to try and seek them out so as we do this, I can just tell they’re very appreciative,” Nose says. “For those of us that had a chance to hear [their stories], we really are in awe.”

Nose estimates there are likely fewer than 3,000 veterans from the Japanese American segregated units still living, with that number shrinking each year, so saving those soldiers’ stories for future generations is especially urgent. At Rohwer too, there’s a push for education: Takei has even provided his famous voice for an interpretive audio tour of the cemetery site.

“Those that don’t know the story and finally get a chance to hear it, they find it incredulous that they never knew more about this,” Nose says. “So the more we can get a broader platform and get it in a broader arena, the better people will understand bravery in its truest form.”

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Gwendolyn Purdom

Gwendolyn Purdom

Gwendolyn Purdom is a former Preservation magazine editor and currently a writer, producer, and host at TouchVision TV in Chicago.

Preservation Magazine

One Response

  1. History and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team « Avenue Varietal

    January 13, 2013

    […] was equally interested and, in December of last year, offered an online blog post to delve more into their history. About 14,000 men served in the unit (including the late senator […]