Byrnes Yamashita
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Writer’s note: The young people of World War II are either gone or over 80 and theirs is a story that needs to be told and retold. As I learn about World War II, I realize it was the pivotal event in modern history, shaping the world we live in today. Hawai‘i is no exception. 

Tom Coffman’s recent book, “Inclusion: How Hawai‘i Protected Japanese Americans from Mass Internment, Transformed Itself and Changed America” describes the remarkable events that set Hawai‘i’s Nikkei experience apart from those on the Mainland.

World War II Begins

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, young Japanese Americans were crushed to learn they had been declared “enemy aliens” and prohibited from serving in the U.S. military. Young Nikkei were sometimes shunned by their non-Nikkei friends.

Shortly thereafter, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the displacement and incarceration of the entire Nikkei community on the West Coast.

Less than a year later in January 1943, the U.S. government decided to create an all-Japanese American Army unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), which would go on to write American history and help transform Hawai‘i into a more equitable and democratic society.

In announcing the decision, President Roosevelt issued the following: “The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed, is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.” 

What happened to change the government’s thinking about allowing the Nisei to serve? And how did that change the country and many local lives? 

Precursors to the 442nd RCT

After declaring war on Japan, the U.S. determined that all available manpower was needed to support two combat theaters and decided to tap the American Nikkei community, whose loyalty it had earlier questioned. The thinking was colored by examples of Japanese American Nisei (second generation) willingness to support the war effort.

A group of University of Hawai‘i ROTC cadets were activated into the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard on the evening of the Pearl Harbor attack and guarded strategic locations on O‘ahu for almost a month before they were discharged on orders from Washington, D.C. Despondent at being rejected, they formed a civilian construction force for the Army calling themselves the Varsity Victory Volunteers (VVV). 

The 100th Infantry Battalion (IB) Separate, comprised of Hawai‘i Nisei drafted prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, was secretly formed in June 1942 to test how they would perform as a segregated unit. Consisting of about 1,500 men, they performed exceedingly well during training at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. This was noted by Army leadership.

The Military Intelligence Service Language School was activated in San Francisco in November 1941, a month before the Pearl Harbor attack. It trained men with Japanese language skills in military jargon and terminology in order to gather intelligence against the Japanese forces in the Pacific. By the time the 100th IB arrived at Camp McCoy, MIS linguists, most of them Japanese Americans, were already deployed across the Pacific Theater.

The loyalty and performance demonstrated by the Nisei in these situations convinced decision makers to allow formation of a bigger, more high-profile fighting unit. 

Key Figures in the Story

The actions of several individuals notably affected the treatment of the Nikkei community, which in turn shaped the response of the Nisei called upon to volunteer for the 442nd RCT.

  • FBI Agent-in-Charge Robert Shivers recognized the logistical challenges and impracticality of incarcerating the entire Nikkei community, which comprised almost 40% of the population. He formed a committee to identify prominent Nikkei leaders deemed potential security threats. About 1,500 persons were incarcerated in facilities in Hawai‘i or shipped to the Mainland, a small fraction of the total population.
  • Lt. General Delos Emmons, the military governor during the state of war, resisted Pentagon pressure to incarcerate the Nikkei population. As a delaying tactic, he cited many logistical challenges until Washington, D.C., was convinced of the loyalty of Hawai‘i’s Nikkei.
  • YMCA executive Hung Wai Ching, a local Chinese, had close relationships with many of the young Nisei attending the University of Hawai‘i that were either working or living at the Atherton YMCA. He was convinced of their loyalty. He escorted the assistant secretary of war, John J. McCloy, on a tour of Schofield Barracks, focusing on the hard work of the VVV on military projects. He later met with both the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt and the president, Franklin Roosevelt, advocating for Hawai‘i’s approach — inclusion not exclusion — to the “Japanese question.”
  • Shigeo Yoshida, Nisei educator and advocate for fair racial treatment, traveled to plantation camps around the state with Ching convincing the Nikkei community to let their young men join the military. Yoshida coined the phrase: “How we get along during the war will determine how we get along when the war is over.” Their combined efforts contributed to preventing the mass incarceration in Hawai‘i that occurred on the West Coast. 

When the call for volunteers for the 442nd RCT was made in February 1943, almost 10,000 young Nisei responded, greatly exceeding the initial quota of 1,500 from the islands. The VVV disbanded and enlisted en masse. The Army adjusted its recruiting target and almost 2,700 men were accepted into the 442nd RCT. In contrast, only about 1,500 volunteered from the Mainland internment camps.

Unlike the 100th IB, which had snuck out of Honolulu Harbor in secret, the 442nd RCT was honored at an aloha ceremony at ‘Iolani Palace. Over 15,000 people attended the send-off to training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

War-Time Exploits

After training at Camp Shelby for a year, the 442nd RCT followed the 100th IB into Italy in June 1944. There the two units merged. In their early battles together, the green 442nd troops were schooled in combat by the battle-tested 100th IB soldiers. 

From Italy, they moved to eastern France, liberating several small towns from German occupation. Their most famous battle, “The Rescue of the Lost Battalion,” has been named among the top ten battles in U.S. Army history. Where the Lost Battalion’s own division failed, the 442nd RCT broke through German positions to reach 220 Texas soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. The reputation of the 442nd RCT as legendary fighters was sealed at a tremendous cost, with more than 400 casualties, both wounded and killed in action.

To this day, the combined 100th IB and 442nd RCT is still the most decorated unit in American history for its size and length of service.

Post-War Contributions

After the war in Europe, the Nisei veterans returned home to Hawai‘i. They had left as naïve boys fresh off the plantation and returned as battle-hardened men. They had seen a new part of the world beyond the ocean and survived the harshest conditions man can endure.

Some experienced post-traumatic stress, although that term would not be invented until much later. They talked among themselves about “survivor’s guilt,” which made them live their lives fully out of respect for the buddies who didn’t come home.

Many went to college on the G.I. Bill, got married and started families. They had proved their loyalty beyond all doubt and were unwilling to live as second-class citizens in the discriminatory plantation society of the prewar period, in which the vast majority of businesses were Caucasian-owned, with a glass ceiling that kept those of immigrant backgrounds from moving upward.

All the Japanese-owned banks were closed when the war began and their assets seized by the U.S. government. After the war, the Nikkei community was unable to get loans from the Caucasian-owned banks to start businesses and buy homes. A group of Nisei veterans and Issei (first-generation Japanese) with connections to Japan arranged for support from Japan’s Sumitomo Bank to open Central Pacific Bank to serve the Nikkei community in 1951.

In the 1954 territorial election, Nisei veterans played a major role in the Democratic Party overturning the long-time domination by Republicans. Citing their sacrifices on the battlefield, they lobbied Congress for equal representation, helping attain statehood for Hawai‘i in 1959.

They supported the election of John Burns as Governor in 1962 and 1966 because he had defended the loyalty of the Nikkei community during the war. Burns selected Nisei veteran George Ariyoshi as his lieutenant governor in 1970 and Ariyoshi succeeded him as governor when he became ill and had to step down from his duties. Ariyoshi served three more terms as the first Asian American governor in the U.S.

Senators Spark M. Matsunaga and Daniel K. Inouye, veterans of the 100th IB and 442nd RCT respectively, lobbied their peers and especially the Texas congressional delegation who recalled the rescue of their soldiers in France by the Nisei soldiers to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The act provided an official apology to all survivors of the internment camps and paid $20,000 in compensation for their losses.

Lives of Service

There were about 30,000 Nisei men and women who served their country during World War II to prove their loyalty as Americans. After the war, they continued to serve their communities. They coached their kids’ sports teams, joined the PTA and supported their churches and temples. Many served in governmental positions. In short, they tried to live honorable lives and make a positive contribution to their communities.

Each September, a memorial service is held at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl to honor the Nisei soldiers. The 2022 service saw only a handful of Nisei veterans able to attend.

As the last of these humble heroes pass on, we should remember their sacrifices on the battlefield and contributions at home to help create a better place for us to live. As a group and individually, they provided models for us to emulate. Theirs is a story worth retelling.

Byrnes Yamashita is a retired engineer and is the vice president of the Nisei Veterans Legacy. The mission of the NVL is to preserve, perpetuate and share the legacy of the Americans of Japanese ancestry who served in the U.S. armed forces in World War II: the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service and 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion. To learn more about the NVL, visit their website at or follow them on Instagram.


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