As We Celebrate Freedom, Remember the Japanese Internment Camps

In February 1942, another “date which will live in infamy,” the United States of America suddenly and deliberately forced the relocation of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent to detention camps during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese aircraft on December 7, 1941, the U.S. War Department suspected that Japanese Americans might act as saboteurs or espionage agents, despite a lack of hard evidence to support that view.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the U.S. military to exclude persons from designated areas. Earl Warren, then-Attorney General of California, emerged as one of the leading western political figures advocating the mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast states.

There were ten internment camps located in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas and on Mt. Lemmon (aka Gordon Hirabayashi camp)

This is the same Earl Warren, 14th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who later said that “he had deeply regretted the removal order and my testimony advocating it because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens.” John J. McCloy, the assistant secretary of war, remarked that if it came to a choice between national security and the guarantee of civil liberties expressed in the Constitution, he considered the Constitution “just a scrap of paper.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, more than 1,200 Japanese community leaders were arrested. In addition, the assets of all accounts in the U.S. branches of Japanese banks were frozen.

What crime did they commit? Did they perhaps vote illegally? Did they claim that somehow an election was stolen from them? Did they claim fraud? Did they storm the Capitol looking for Congressmen and Senators? Did this cause anyone to lose their life over being sent to an internment camp?  No, they did none of these things. The only thing most of them did was being born American citizens of Japanese descent.

I bring this up because if any American citizen had a right to protest in our National Capitol, it was these American citizens over losing their homes, possessions, livelihood, and then being forced into internment camps. But they didn’t. They did the opposite. When their government went hat in hand into these camps and asked for volunteers to serve their country (the same country that put them in these camps in the first place), most of the young men of draft age went. None had to be forced, and all volunteered to serve their country.  But their government was not through with them yet.

Instead of being integrated into regular Army division, they were put into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the 92nd Infantry Division, the only African American infantry division to see combat in Europe during World War II. In this regiment, these Japanese American citizens would establish the most decorated unit of its size in the entire history of the U.S. Army.

  • The 442nd regiment had a total strength of 3,800 men, and 18,000 men served in the regiment during the Italian campaign.
  • The regiment would earn 9,486 Purple Hearts.
  • The soldiers earned 21 Medals of Honor. One of these 21 to receive the medal was U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, who lost his right arm to a grenade wound.
  • The regiment earned seven Presidential Unit Citations.

Even after these American service members came home, they still were discriminated against. Some were not allowed to return to the homes they were forced to leave. As a family member of these American citizens told me recently, most refused to return to their homes and then had to wait till someone agreed to sponsor them.  In this case, the family moved to Ohio. Each family was given more than $20,000, depending on the size of their family. And perhaps they were told to get over it and get on with their lives.

It’s not hard to understand the difference between the rioters at our nation’s Capitol who believed when Trump told them that the election was stolen from them. Japanese Americans lost everything just because of their nationality. But one thing is certain: these Americans of Japanese descent were True Americans.