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AJA Success in World War II: Hawaii Made the Difference

04 Sep 2020 10:43 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Back row, left to right: Yozo Yamamoto, Henry Shiyama (killed in combat), Yoshikatsu Matsumoto, Kaoru Yamamoto, Charles J. Okimoto, Takeshi Lefty Kimura. Front row, left to right: Kunio Fujimoto, Susumu Kunishige, Raymond Yokoyama, Katsumi Jinnohara (killed in combat), Kaoru Yonezawa.  Nine received the Purple Heart Medal. These are a few of the 1,400 Nisei in the 100th Bn, an oversized battalion consisting of 6 line companies and a headquarters company when it went overseas.  Photo: Signal Corps.

Mark Matsunaga and Isami Yoshihara

Honolulu, HI.  The 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s battlefield heroics delivered America’s Japanese populace from the shameful injustice of mass removal and incarceration in World War II. That’s true, but it’s only part of the story. That vindication could not have occurred without the Americans of Japanese ancestry from Hawaii who were in the fight first: pre-war soldiers who became the 100th Infantry Battalion, Territorial Guard members who became the Varsity Victory Volunteers, and two spies in the Philippines. And two-thirds of the 650 soldiers of the 100th and 442nd who were killed in action or died of wounds in World War II were from Hawaii.

In 1940, there were nearly 127,000 ethnic Japanese on the continent, 158,000 in Hawaii. The wartime experiences of the two groups differed dramatically. All of the Nikkei living on the West Coast -- 112,000 -- were forced from their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps. About 2,000 suspect Japanese were removed from Hawaii, where martial law had been imposed on December 7, 1941.

The attack thrust Hawaii’s 450,000 residents onto the front line of America’s new war. Two thousand American soldiers of Japanese ancestry -- of the 298th and 299th Infantry regiments and engineer and service units -- were among the active duty personnel who rushed to defend Hawaii that day.  Another 300 AJAs, most of them University of Hawaii ROTC cadets, were called up as members of the Hawaii Territorial Guard. The Nisei soldiers and guardsmen performed faithfully during and after the attack. Despite rampant rumors, thorough investigation concluded there had been no sabotage or subversion by any local Japanese during or since the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Under pressure from Washington, LTG Delos Emmons, the Army’s new commander in Hawaii, ordered all AJAs discharged from the Territorial Guard in late January. But he resisted orders to remove all Japanese to the continent or at least to one of the neighbor islands. Rather than sulk, 169 of the discharged Territorial Guard Nisei offered themselves as a labor battalion. The offer was accepted, and the Varsity Victory Volunteers was born. Soon afterwards, a VVV crew quarrying rocks at Kolekole was visited by the Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy. Fresh from approving the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the west coast, McCloy was in Hawaii to meet with Emmons and inspect units there. The trip changed his attitude toward AJAs.  Emmons suggested to McCloy that the Nisei infantrymen from the Hawaii regiments be sent to fight in Europe. This would be a chance to demonstrate their loyalty, Emmons said, and he believed they would acquit themselves well. Meanwhile, reports were filtering back to Washington about the valuable intelligence being produced for General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines by Arthur Komori and Richard Sakakida, Army spies who had been recruited in Honolulu and served in Manila under commercial cover. 

In May 1942, AJA soldiers of the 298th and 299th were reorganized into the Hawaiian Provisional Battalion, which sailed from Honolulu in June 1942. On arrival in Oakland, it was designated the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) and sent to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. The 1,400 Hawaii Nisei would spend another year training. General Dwight Eisenhower refused them for European service. But they impressed other Army officials with their skill and discipline, and their supporters continued to press for their deployment. Approval came in late 1942. In short order, despite opposition from officers such as LTG John DeWitt, who ordered the west coast evacuation, the War Department and President Franklin Roosevelt acceded to pleas from within the Army and the Nikkei community to create a larger Nisei unit of AJAs, a regimental combat team of 4,500 troops. It is unlikely that the combat team would have been approved if any of the trail-blazing Hawaii Nisei soldiers had said or done something disloyal to America.

Some of the new combat team’s slots would be filled by mainland prewar soldiers who had been benched after Pearl Harbor. Because AJAs were no longer being drafted, the new outfit needed volunteers. The call went out in February 1943. The Army initially expected two-thirds of the recruits to come from the continent, but ill feelings about their mistreatment and a flawed loyalty questionnaire resulted in barely 1,000 volunteers from the camps. In Hawaii, nearly 10,000 volunteered, and 2,600 were accepted.

The 100th Battalion and the new recruits crossed paths at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, that summer, but the 100th soon left for the Mediterranean. Assigned to the veteran 34th Division, the 100th Bn entered combat in September 1943 near Salerno. The Hawaii Nisei soon earned the respect of fellow GIs in bloody fighting along the Volturno and Rapido rivers and at Cassino. By the end of March 1944, the 100th Battalion had only 500 men and was being called the Purple Heart Battalion.

War correspondent Lynn Crost wrote in her book Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at war in Europe and the Pacific:  “As years pass, statistics of decorations and the numbers of men killed and wounded may be forgotten. But the record of that original 100th Infantry Battalion and what it meant in the acceptance of Japanese Americans as loyal citizens of the United States must be remembered. If it had failed in its first months of fighting in Italy, there might never have been a chance for other Americans of Japanese ancestry to show their loyalty to the United States as convincingly as they did on the battlefields of Europe.”

Replacements from Shelby bolstered the 100th for Anzio and the drive to Rome. In late June, the 442nd arrived in Italy and the 100th became its first battalion. The combat team foundered in its first battle, at Suvereto and Belvedere, until the 100 th was called out of reserve to save the day.

As the combat team slogged through Italy and France in the months that followed, the initial differences between kotonks and buddhaheads melted away under fire. Neither group had a monopoly on challenges, service or courage. Both earned a place in the story of Japanese Americans in World War II. 

[EdNote. Matsunaga and Yoshihara are both Hawaii residents with family members who served in WW II.]       

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