Dr. Mitch Maki: “Because of You, Our Nation is What It is Today”
Editor’s note: The following is the text of Dr. Mitchell Maki’s speech to the veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion and their families and friends at the One Puka Puka’s 75th anniversary banquet. The gathering, which was attended by seven 100th Battalion veterans, was held July 23 at Dole Cannery’s Pömaika‘i Ballroom. Maki is the president and CEO of the Los Angeles-based Go For Broke National Education Center, which is committed to perpetuating the legacy of the Nisei soldiers who fought in World War II.
The 100th Infantry Battalion was formed in June 1942, just six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. It was originally made up of 1,432 prewar draftees who had served in the Hawai‘i National Guard. The unit lost its first member, Sgt. Shigeo “Joe” Takata, when he was killed in action on Sept. 29, 1943, just one week after the men entered combat in Italy. Less than an hour after Takata’s death, Pvt. Keichi Tanaka was killed by machine gun fire. In the spring of 1944, the 100th lost many of its men in the bloody battle to wrest the abbey at Monte Cassino from the Nazis — so many that soldiers from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who were just completing training, were sent in as replacements. The One Puka Puka would later become the 1st Battalion of the 442nd, but was allowed to keep its original name. To learn more about the 100th, visit www.100thbattalion.org.
The Herald thanks Dr. Maki for allowing us to share his speech with our readers.
Good afternoon everyone . . .
I’d like to start off my comments by acknowledging why we are here — and that is the veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion. Can we give them a round of applause? They are truly our heroes.
First of all, I’d like to thank the board of directors and the members of the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans for inviting me here today. I’d like to also acknowledge the members of the 100th Battalion of the U.S. Army Reserves for what they’re doing for us here today. I’d like to also acknowledge our distinguished guests — people like Governor (David) Ige, (retired U.S.) Senator (Daniel) Akaka, (retired) General (David) Bramlett. Thank you for being here today.
But, most importantly, I want to thank the members — the family members and the veterans — that are here today. Thank you very much for inviting me.
When I walked into the room this morning and I looked around, I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother. I’d like to start off my comments today by telling you a story about my grandmother. You see, if there is any word that would describe the life of my grandmother, that word would have to be “hard.” She came to this country as a young girl, worked on the plantations of Hawai‘i, got married at a young age and, by the time she was 30, had six children. My grandmother never lived much above the poverty line. So whatever hopes and dreams she had for a better tomorrow rested squarely on the shoulders of her children and of her grandchildren.
My grandmother didn’t speak much English and I don’t speak much Japanese. In fact, my favorite memory of her was of her chasing me around. “Bakatare! Bakatare!” I used to hear that term so often as a child I thought it was a term of endearment. “I thought she was saying, “My dear grandson! My dear grandson!”
But just because she couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Japanese didn’t mean that we couldn’t communicate, because we had my mother to translate, and the message would always be the same: “Be good. Take care of family. Remember who you are. Remember who you are.” And along with that sentiment was: Okagesama de. Because of you, I am. And that’s why we are here today. It’s to: one, remember who we are; but more importantly, to pay tribute to those men who made it possible for us to lead the lives that we have. To the members of the 100th: Thank you . . . okagesama de . . . because of you — all of us in this room are. Because of you, our nation is what it is today.
Seventy-five years ago, our nation found itself in an environment where there was wartime hysteria, racial prejudice and a failure of political leadership. And in that environment, our nation chose to abandon its most cherished value of equal protection under the law. Based solely on their racial background, young Americans of Japanese ancestry were told that they were not American. They were told they were not trustworthy. They were labeled 4C and they were considered unfit for duty. But we in this room know that story and how it unfolded. We know how these young men of Japanese ancestry, but more importantly, of American heart, demonstrated their loyalty and wrote that first chapter in a very amazing story. Today as we gather here, we can tell those stories to each other and to the world.
We can tell the story of Conrad Tsukayama, the first Purple Heart recipient of the 100th Battalion. We can tell the story of Sgt. Joe Takata, the first KIA of the 100th Battalion, and we can tell the story of Sadao Munemori, the first Medal of Honor recipient of the 100th. Or we can simply tell the story of the other 335 men who made that ultimate sacrifice at a time when their nation would not trust them. We can also talk about Monte Cassino and Castle Hill and Anzio. The truth is that the story of the 100th is one of courage, of sacrifice and of honor, which changed the minds of the military leaders of our nation, but more importantly, changed the mind of our community and of our nation.
But I think if we were to stop there, we do not fully embrace the true legacy of the 100th. Because the truth is that the 100th Battalion story is the first chapter of the story that transformed our nation. We in this room all understand that if the 100th had failed in what it had to do, the history of our community, the history of our nation and the history of the world would be very different. There would not have been a 442nd Regimental Combat Team as we know it. There would not have been the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” as we know it. There would not have been the breaking of the Gothic Line as we know it.
Because of the accomplishments of the 100th, thousands of young Japanese Americans men were able to serve in the 100th, the 442nd, the MIS and the 232nd. Men from Hawai‘i as well as men from the Mainland — men whose names we know very well, like Daniel Inouye, and also men whose names we don’t know as well, like Sgt. Kazuo Masuda.
For those of you who don’t know who Sgt. Kazuo Masuda was, he was a young Japanese American who served in the 442nd. His family was incarcerated in Gila River, Arizona, and he was asked, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you fighting for a nation that incarcerated your family and denied them the liberties and the freedom that you are fighting for?’ Sgt. Masuda’s answer was the answer that I think many, if not all of the Nisei soldiers were giving at that time, which was: Because this is the only way that I know that my family can have a chance in America. Agree with him or not, right or wrong, Sgt. Masuda and all of the Nisei soldiers understood that in 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945, loyalty needed to be demonstrated in blood.
The legacy of the 100th goes on into the postwar years when men from the 100th and 442nd came back to Hawai‘i and refused to accept second-class citizenship. You know this story: They transformed the territory into the 50th state that we know today. But even then, the story and the legacy of the 100th does not end there. Because 40 years after the last shot was fired in Italy, in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate, a bill was making its way through the halls of Congress. The Civil Liberties Act, which would provide a presidential apology and monetary redress payment for the violation of our Constitution. And the story of the 100th and the bravery, the courage and the loyalty that those men showed was the foundation for lobbying representatives across the nation and senators across the nation.
On Sept. 17, 1987, the bill hits the floor of the House, and the House passes the Civil Liberties bill by 243 votes — 180 of them Democrats, 63 of them Republicans — a truly bipartisan effort, and was based largely on the heroism and the loyalty of our Nisei veterans. Seven months later, the bill hits the floor of the Senate. We knew it was going to pass the Senate, because there was a former member of the 100th Battalion, a man named Spark Matsunaga, somebody you all know very well.
Senator Matsunaga had lobbied every other senator, all 99 of the senators. By the time it hit the Senate floor, it had 70 co-sponsors, so it was a slam dunk that it was going to pass. And it did pass the Senate, in April 1988.
So at that point, we needed only one more supporter. One more signature, and that would be the president of the United States of America.
For those of you who remember, in 1988, the president was Ronald Reagan, a very conservative president — a president whose administration had been fighting against the Civil Liberties bill, both in the House, in the Senate and in the courts. To many of us, myself included, we felt we had fought the good fight. We had passed the House; we had passed the Senate. But there was no way on God’s green earth that President Ronald Reagan was going to sign this bill. But the true believers in the movement said, no, we need to press on: We will find a way.
For those of you who remember President Reagan, whether you agree with his policies or not, I think many of us would agree that he was a great communicator. He had the ability to tell stories that would touch people’s hearts and move them in a certain direction. But the opposite was true of Ronald Reagan: If you could tell him a story that would touch his heart, you could have a great advocate on your hands. So the question was: What story could we tell Ronald Reagan that would help him to understand the experience of Americans of Japanese ancestry?
Remember a moment ago I told you the story of Sgt. Kazuo Masuda? Two weeks after giving the statement that this was the only way that he knew that his family could have a chance in America, Sgt. Masuda was killed in battle. After the war, his family goes back Santa Ana, California, and they wanted to bury their son in the local cemetery. But the local community said, “No.” No Jap body. Never mind that he was an American citizen. No Jap body. Never mind that he was a decorated war veteran for the United States of America. No Jap body.
The Army realized the PR (public relations) fiasco and sends out a contingent of officers to the medal ceremony for Kazuo Masuda’s family. And on that evening, at a convention dinner, there was a young white American captain named Ronald Reagan. And Ronald Reagan addressed the audience and he addressed the family of Kazuo Masuda by saying, “The blood that is soaked into the sand is all of one color. America stands unique in the world — the only country not founded on race, but on an ideal. Mr. and Mrs. Masuda: As one member of the American family to another: For what your son Kazuo did, thanks.”
When that story was relayed to President Reagan in 1988, his response was: “I remember that family and I remember what those soldiers did for America.” The 100th Battalion made that all possible.
On August 10th 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, granting an apology and, in a measured way, allowing our nation to atone for a most egregious constitutional violation. That is a big part of the legacy of the 100th Battalion.
But as we sit here today, we must acknowledge that justice is not permanent, that equal protection under the law is something over which we must constantly be vigilant. Today, we are reminded of the role that the 100th played in making sure that we remain vigilant over equal protection under the law.
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said, before he died, that the (Fred) Korematsu decision was wrong, but you’re kidding yourself if you think it will never happen again. In times of war, the law falls silent. In times of war, the law falls silent. Very chilling words.
Today, as we come together to celebrate and to commemorate, we must also commit ourselves to ensuring that the legacy of the 100th Battalion will never fall silent. We must commit ourselves to ensuring that the legacy of the 100th Battalion, which is, that in America, no one should be judged by the color of their skin, the nation of their origin or the god whom they worship. And that legacy must always speak loudly to the American people, speak loudly to ensure that our laws will never again fall silent.
To the veterans here, dömo arigatö. We will remember your legacy.
Dr. Mitchell T. Maki was appointed president and CEO of the not-for-profit Go For Broke National Education Center last December after having served in an interim capacity from July 2016. His formal association with Go For Broke NEC began in 2015 when he was appointed to its board of trustees. The Go For Broke National Education Center is dedicated to preserving the legacy of and lessons learned from the Nisei soldiers who served in World War II.
Maki is a sought-after speaker on the Japanese American redress movement and its relevance to contemporary socio-political issues. He is considered one of the leading scholars on the subject and was the lead author of the award-winning book, “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress,” a detailed case study of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
Prior to joining Go For Broke, Maki held teaching and administrative positions with California State University – Dominguez Hills, CSU – Los Angeles and UCLA. He earned both his master’s and doctorate in social work from the University of Southern California and is a licensed clinical social worker. For more information on the Go For Broke National Education Center, visit goforbroke.org.