Here is Ted Tsukiyama’s compelling story of the people and events that led to the formation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team…
Several months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, a fearful and distrusting America barred its Japanese-American citizens from military service, altering their draft status from 1-A draft eligible to 4-C “enemy alien.” The story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team must really begin with the Nisei’s fight to regain their right to fight for their country in its hour of peril. How did the 442nd get its start?
“The earliest mention of an all-Nisei combat unit was made by Colonel Moses W. Pettigrew in early 1942, according to Brigadier General John Weckerling, former G-2 head of the Assistant Chief of Staff:
‘In the spring of 1942 Colonel Pettigrew formally proposed the organization of a Nisei combat unit. The Commanding General in Hawaii (Emmons) endorsed the plan from the beginning and declared his belief that the Nisei would prove to be an excellent combat soldier. However, opinion was divided…concerning the use of the Nisei as a front-line soldier… It was even seriously suggested that the Nisei should not be used at all or limited to non-critical installation in the Zone of the Interior.’
Colonel Pettigrew pursued his plans determinedly, and they were finally approved by the Assistant Secretary of War, Mr. John J. McCloy.”
Considering the hysterical fear, distrust and prejudice against all Japanese following the Pearl Harbor attack, Colonel Pettigrew displayed remarkable foresight, conviction, and courage to even suggest that U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry be organized into an American fighting unit. Then Roger Daniels, in his book, Concentration Camps, USA, mentions that in May 1942 McCloy sent a memo to General Eisenhower stating he favored permitting the Nisei to serve in military service.
In this darkest period for the Japanese Americans, another ray of hope gleamed when Hawaii’s Military Governor, General Delos C. Emmons, rather than discharge all pre-war Nisei draftees, retained them in the 298th and 299th Infantry to guard Hawaii. On May 29, 1942, he assembled them into an all-Nisei provisional battalion and dispatched them to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, for combat infantry training…the origin of the legendary 100th Infantry Battalion as the first all-Nisei fighting unit in the U.S. military history!
On June 26, 1942, the Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, received a memorandum on the subject of “Military Utilization of United States Citizens of Japanese Ancestry,” recommending that a board of officers be appointed to study “the advisability of utilizing a small token force, composed of United States citizens of Japanese ancestry…as combat troops in the European Theater.” On July 1, 1942, a special five-man military board was appointed to study the question.
On July 9, 1942, four witnesses testified before the Board, one Colonel Haas stating “he did not trust them” and recommended negatively, but three others, Colonel Moses Pettigrew, Colonel Rufus Bratton, and Thomas Holland, representing Dillion Meyer of the WRA, recommended positively. Colonel Pettigrew stated:
“The great majority of second-generation citizens of Japanese ancestry was unquestionably loyal. (He recommended) that a Division of these men be formed in the Army of the United States for combat duty in the theater of war where they would not have to fight Japanese…that if such a Division were formed, he would be willing to serve as one of its officers.”
Other opinions solicited by the Board included that of Secretary of Navy Frank Knox who opposed the enlistment Japanese-Americans in the Navy, and that of General John De Witt who favored such enlistment of Niseis if limited to assignment “in service units only, unarmed, in the continental U.S.”.
On July 15, 1942, U.S. Fleet Chief Admiral Chester Nimitz recommended the induction of 10,000 Japanese Americans from Hawaii for service outside the Pacific Area, but on July 21 the War Department advised Admiral Nimitz it would not accept Japanese-Americans for enlistment or induction.
In a report dated September 14, 1942, the special Board studying “The Military Utilization of United States Citizens of Japanese Ancestry” recommended:
“a. That, in general, the military potential of United States Citizens of Japanese ancestry be considered as negative because of the universal distrust in which they are held.
b. That certain individual United States citizens of Japanese ancestry be used for intelligence or for other specialized purposes.”
In a memorandum on Policy Towards Japan issued September 14, 1942, Edwin O. Reischauer, then a professor at Harvard University, with remarkable prescient understanding and foresight, stated:
“There are probably many methods by which the Japanese Americans can be made an asset rather than a liability, but among the most effective methods would be to encourage them to join the armed forces, and to give them training in political thinking and for specialized services, military or civilian, they can render during and after the war. If they knew they were wanted and that opportunities for advancement were open to them, large numbers of young Japanese would certainly be glad to volunteer. A special volunteer unit of Japanese Americans and other Americans who desire to serve with them could easily be formed for combat service in the European or African zones, where it would probably be as effective as any other unit and where it would cause no special disciplinary or organizational difficulties”. (Emphasis added)
Yet, on that same date, September 14, 1942, conforming to the recommendation of the special board, the War Department ordered all commands:
“1. Individuals of Japanese ancestry are in general considered unadaptable to the military service of the United States during the present war. They will not be commissioned, enlisted, inducted, enrolled, or ordered to active duty in the AUS, WAAC, ASC, or the ROTC Advance Course, except as noted below:
2. Certain individuals of Japanese descent who are citizens of the United States may be enlisted for intelligence or for other specialized purposes with the approval of the War Department in each case.”
On October 2, 1942, Elmer Davis, Director of the Office of War Information, wrote to President Roosevelt the following:
“For both Mr. (Milton) Eisenhower and myself, I want to recommend that you take two actions designated to improve the morale of the American-citizen Japanese who were evacuated from the Pacific West Coast:
1. Two bills in Congress – one aimed at depriving the Nisei of citizenship and the other proposing to “intern” them for the duration of the war – have heightened the feeling that this may after all be a racial war and that, therefore, the evacuees should be looked upon as enemies. A brief public statement from you, in behalf of the loyal American citizens, would be helpful. I think WRA and the Justice Department would concur in this recommendation.
2. Loyal American citizens of Japanese descent should be permitted, after individual test, to enlist in the Army and Navy. It would hardly be fair to evacuate people and then impose normal draft procedures, but voluntary enlistment would help a lot.
This matter is of great interest to OWI. Japanese propaganda from Philippines, Burma, and elsewhere insists that this is a racial war. We can combat this effectively without counter-propaganda only if our deeds permit us to tell the truth. Moreover, as citizens ourselves who believe deeply in the things for which we fight, we cannot help but be disturbed by the insistent public misunderstanding of the Nisei: competent authorities, including Naval Intelligence people, say that fully 85 percent of the Nisei are loyal to this country and that it is possible to distinguish the sheep from the goats.”
A draft of a letter from Secretary of War Stimson to President Roosevelt dated October 14, 1942, indicated that both Stimson and General Marshall favored permitting Japanese Americans to enlist in the U.S. armed services. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy had gone on record favoring the use of Japanese Americans in the Army through his memorandum to Secretary Stimson of October 15, 1942, which stated:
“I also believe that loyal American citizens of Japanese descent should be permitted, after individual test, to enlist in special units of the Army and the Navy. I believe the propaganda value of such a step would be great and I believe they would make good troops. We need not use them against members of their own race, but we could use them for many useful purposes. There is a current report by a board of officers which is adverse to these views. I have asked General McNarney to hold it up pending an opportunity for me to express my views before final action is taken.
In short, I agree with both of Mr. Davis’ suggestions as contained in his letter to the President.”
Stimson himself, in a personally handwritten memorandum to the Chief of Staff (General Marshall) dated October 14, 1942 wrote:
“I am inclined to strongly agree with the views of McCloy and Davis. I don’t think you can permanently proscribe a lot of American citizens because of their racial origins. We have gone to the full limit in evacuating them – That’s enough (signed) HLS.”
Predictably, Secretary of Navy Knox, on October 17, 1942, responded adversely to any enlistment of Japanese Americans in the U.S. Navy. But McCloy further urged Stimson to adopt a military policy utilizing Japanese Americans in the armed forces. In a memorandum dated October 28, 1942, he argued:
“The all-Japanese unit appears to offer greater possibilities from both propaganda and service viewpoints. The assembly of Japanese, either by recruitment or induction, into one unit would enable the unit to manifest en masse its loyalty to the United States, and this manifestation would provide the propaganda effect desired.
As a beginning, it is suggested that a regiment of infantry might be recruited and organized. This regiment would have all American officers and would be organized as a separate infantry unit. It could be assigned a station initially not in or contiguous to a theater of operations or defense zone. Such an organization would, in a measure, be a challenge to the Japanese protestations of loyalty and the personnel of such an organization would, it is believed, go to great lengths to demonstrate that loyalty. Certainly the experiment would be worth the trial, and I am not prepared to say that, provided the officers are carefully selected, the regiment would fail to develop into a highly effective combat unit which could be employed as a corps d’elite in an African or European theater.”
When asked to estimate the number of Nisei from Hawaii who would volunteer, General Emmons cabled his reaction back to the War Department on November 5, 1942, stating:
“I hope project will receive approval as it will mean so much to this Territory. Am confident that these men will give an excellent account of themselves in the European theater.”
Pursuant to a request by McCloy to submit a study on “the formation of combat units composed of Americans of Japanese ancestry,” on November 17, 1942, Colonel Moses Pettigrew submitted an extensive rationale which concluded with the recommendation:
“That there be activated on April 15, 1943, for use in the European Theater, an infantry division with enlisted personnel composed of American citizens of Japanese ancestry.”
On the same date, Colonel Pettigrew wrote McCloy emphasizing that officers selected to lead the proposed Nisei Division must be “thoroughly in sympathy with this project” and offered his own name to command this unit saying:
“The initial conception of the formation of a Nisei combat unit I honestly think was mine. I have consistently believed and advocated that the overwhelming majority of the Nisei are unquestionably loyal, and that they would make the finest type of combat soldiers.”
On December 17, 1942, Brigadier General I.H. Edwards, Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3, issued a secret memorandum on the subject “Enlistment of loyal American citizens of Japanese descent into the Army and Navy” which concluded:
“G-3 recommends initial organization of a combat team to be composed of volunteer citizens of Japanese ancestry whose loyalty is unquestioned. Further recommends that this unit be employed in active theater – other than one where they would be required to fight Japanese – as soon as their training warrants.”
On December 18, 1942, a memorandum issued from Personnel Division, G-1, WDGS on the subject “Organization of a Military Unit to be Composed of American Citizens of Japanese Descent,” stated:
“Recommend the immediate organization of a combat team, to consist of one regiment of Infantry, one battalion of Field Artillery, and one company of Engineers, all at a 15 percent over-strength, is authorized.”
Sometime in December, 1942, when Assistant Secretary of War McCloy was inspecting military defenses on Oahu, Colonel Kendell J. Fielder of General Emmons’ staff assigned Hung Wai Ching, a member of the Military Governor’s Emergency Service Committee, to accompany McCloy on the inspection. Ching escorted McCloy to Kolekole Pass in Schofield Barracks where they found the Quarry Gang of the Varsity Victory Volunteers hard at work breaking rocks into the rock crusher. The VVV gang included Wally Doi, Dick Uyemura, Ryoji Namba, Hiroshi Kato, Wally Nagao, and Shiro Amioka who later volunteered for the 442nd.
Ching related to McCloy the story behind the VVV, composed of Nisei University of Hawaii students who forfeited their education and volunteered to form a labor battalion as a gesture of loyalty in spite of exclusion from U.S. military service. History will note that this is the very same period in which the War Department’s critical decision to organize an all-Nisei combat unit was formulated.
General George Marshall, Chief of Staff, approved the recommendations of G-3 for the formation of an all-Nisei combat unit on January 1, 1943.
On January 2, 1943, McCloy convened a conference of top brass in the War Department plus Navy Intelligence representatives on the subject “re: use of Japanese in Army,” the memorandum minutes prepared by Colonel W.E. Crist, General Staff, MIS, stating in part:
“Mr. McCloy opened the meeting by stating that there was a paper in the War Department relative to the use of Japanese in combat troops, upon which a decision had already been reached. He stated that in arriving in this decision three main points were considered, namely: (1) their fighting qualifications; (2) the propaganda value; and (3) the impact on Asia.”
In his book They Call Me Moses Masaoka, Mike Masaoka writes:
“McCloy, more than any other single person, was responsible for the Army’s decision to give Nisei an opportunity to fight for their country.”
On January 14, 1943, Brigadier General I.H. Edwards, Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3, sent a memorandum to McCloy on the subject “Status of the Japanese Regimental Combat Team,” stating:
“The Army Ground Forces have been directed to activate the following units, to be composed of Japanese citizens, at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, on or about February 1:
1 Infantry Regiment
1 Field Artillery Battalion
1 Engineer Company
Cadres will be obtained from Japanese already in the military service. Selective Service has been requested to call 4,500 men. 1,500 of whom are to come from Hawaii.”
On January 28, 1943, General Emmons publically announced the Army’s Nisei combat unit project and issued this call for volunteers:
“Once in a great while an opportunity presents itself to recognize an entire section of this community for their performance of duty. All of the people of the Hawaiian Islands have contributed generously to our war effort…Among these have been the Americans of Japanese descent. Their role had not been an easy one…Open to distrust because of their racial origins, and discriminated against in certain fields of the defense effort, they nevertheless have borne their burdens without complaint and have added materially to the strength of the Hawaiian area.
They have behaved themselves admirably under the most trying conditions, have bought great quantities of war bonds, and by the labor of their hands have added to the common defense. Their representatives in the 100th Infantry Battalion, a combat unit now in training on the mainland; the Varsity Victory Volunteers, and other men of Japanese extraction in our armed forces have also established a fine record.
In view of these facts, and by War Department authority, I have been designated to offer the Americans of Japanese ancestry an additional opportunity to serve their country. This opportunity is in the form of voluntary combat service in the armed forces. I have been directed to induct 1,500 of them as volunteers into the Army of the United States…”
Within the next few weeks, 9,950 Nisei from all over Hawaii volunteered!
On February 1, 1943, President Roosevelt sent this now famous letter to the Secretary of War (Stimson) which read:
“My dear Mr. Secretary:
The proposal of the War Department to organize a combat team consisting of loyal American citizens of Japanese descent has my full approval. The new combat team will add to the nearly five thousand loyal Americans of Japanese descent who are already serving in the armed forces of our country.
This is a natural and logical step towards the reinstitution of the Selective Service procedures which were temporarily disrupted by the evacuation from the West Coast.
No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship, regardless of his ancestry. 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. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy. Every loyal American citizen should be given the opportunity to serve this country wherever his skills will make the greatest contribution – whether it be in the ranks of our armed forces, war production, agriculture, government service, or other work essential to the war effort.
I am glad to observer that the War Department, the Navy Department, the War Manpower Commission, the Department of Justice and the War Relocation Authority are collaborating in a program which will assure the opportunity for all loyal Americans, including Americans of Japanese ancestry, to serve their country at a time when the fullest and wisest use of our manpower is all-important to the war effort.”
On the verbatim copy of this letter is a handwritten note requested by Elmer Davis of OWI:
“Proposed letter for the President to send to the Secretary of War who will announce on Thursday, January 28, formation of combat organization of Japs who are American citizens, etc.” This note shows that the immortal words uttered by President Roosevelt about “Americanism is not and never was, a matter of race or ancestry” were composed by Elmer Davis, and not Roosevelt.
The rest of the story of the 442nd is well-known history. What we have just narrated is the long, arduous, and almost impossible struggle and odds that had to be overcome before the Nisei were restored the right to fight and die for the country through the 442nd experience.
The names of those honored men, “the unsung forefathers of the 442nd,” who fought for the Nisei’s right to bear arms for country, who should be honored and never forgotten are: Colonel Moses Pettigrew; Elmer Davis; Edwin Reischauer, who conceived and promoted the concept; General Delos C. Emmons, who strongly supported it; and John J. McCloy, most responsible for implementing the War Department’s adopting of the controversial plan to reopen voluntary enlistment by Japanese American into an all-Nisei combat unit, which became the renowned 442nd Regimental Combat Team.