History Remembered: January 28, 1943

January 28, 1943: The Army announces it will recruit Americans of Japanese ancestry (AJAs) to volunteer for a new combat unit.

The announcement is made in Washington, D.C., by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and in Hawaii by Lt. General Delos Emmons, commander of the Hawaii Department, who says, “The manner of response and the record these men will establish as fighting soldiers will be one of the best answers to those who question the loyalty of Americans of Japanese ancestry.”

That new unit became the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Together with the 100th Infantry Battalion, it fought fiercely in Europe and became the most decorated regiment in U.S. history.

Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on military bases on Oahu unleashed a flood of suspicion and hatred against ethnic Japanese in America. In Hawaii, where Japanese made up 37 percent of the population, martial law was immediately declared. AJAs who had been drafted into the Army joined their fellow GIs in responding to the attack. University of Hawaii ROTC cadets reported for duty with the Hawaii Territorial Guard. Most of them were Nisei-- literally “second generation,” U.S.-born children of immigrants.

Investigations by military intelligence, the FBI and police found no sabotage, espionage or any other “fifth column” activities occurred. Yet within months, the Territorial Guard discharged its Nisei members; AJAs were removed from the 298th and 299th Infantry regiments and sent to the Mainland to become the 100th Infantry Battalion; and federal officials classified all AJAs IV-C, aliens ineligible for the military draft. On the West Coast, 110,000 people of Japanese descent were forced from their homes and locked up in desolate “relocation centers.” Some voices advocated a similar course for Hawaii’s 158,000 ethnic Japanese. Others called for fair treatment and giving AJAs a chance to prove their patriotism.

One hundred sixty former Territorial Guardsmen petitioned the Army for a chance to serve and became the Varsity Victory Volunteers, quarrying rocks, stringing barbed wire and performing other manual labor. And Nisei of the 100th Infantry Battalion proved to be exemplary soldiers. By January 1943, the Army, with presidential approval, agreed to establish a larger AJA fighting unit.

“It is the inherent right of every faithful citizen, regardless of ancestry, to bear arms in the nation’s battles,” Secretary of War Stimson said in a press release. “When obstacles to free expression of that right are imposed by emergency considerations, these barriers should be removed as soon as is humanly possible.

“Loyalty to the country is the voice that must be heard and I am glad that I am now able to give active proof that this basic American belief is not a war casualty.”

In Honolulu, Emmons said, “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 has not been an easy one. Open to distrust because of their racial origin, 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 quantifies of war bonds, and by the labor of their hands have added to the common defense.”

Emmons cited the 100th Infantry Battalion and Varsity Victory Volunteers and said, “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.”

Nearly 10,000 would volunteer from Hawaii over the few weeks.

Image: Varsity Victory Volunteers in formation, with gas mask cases slung on their shoulders. (Photo courtesy of Ted Tsukiyama/University of Hawaii)