World War II

Daniel K. Inouye/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_4_InouyeMilitary_InouyeInstitute.xml Image courtesy of the Daniel K. Inouye Institute Seventeen-year-old Daniel K. Inouye was deeply affected by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He volunteered as a private in the U.S. Army in 1943 and retired as a captain in 1947.

Daniel Inouye had just finished brushing his teeth and was dressing in his Sunday best when he looked outside into the bright, early-morning sun on December 7, 1941. He was listening to the radio and buttoning his shirt when a panicked voice cut into the day’s programming. “This is no test!” the radio announcer screamed. “Pearl Harbor is being bombed by the Japanese! I repeat: this is not a test or a maneuver! Japanese planes are attacking Oahu!”5

Inouye and his father ran outside as dark smoke filled the sky. Japanese warplanes flew overhead. The phone rang. On the other end was the local Red Cross chapter, looking for Inouye. “How soon can you be here, Dan?” the chapter’s secretary asked. “I’m on my way,” he replied.6

Grabbing his bike, the 17-year-old Inouye sprinted for the aid station near Pearl Harbor. As he sped toward the smoke, Inouye noticed his neighbors filling the streets. One of them, an elderly Japanese man, asked him if Germany had attacked, unable to process the reality that his ancestral home had just bombed his adopted one. “In the marrow of my bones,” Inouye remembered almost 30 years later, “I knew there was only deep trouble ahead. And then, pedaling along, it came to me at last that I would face that trouble, too, for my eyes were shaped just like those of that poor old man in the street, and my people were only a generation removed from the land that had spawned those bombers, the land that sent them to rain destruction on America.”7

USS Arizona/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_5_USSArizona_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Smoke billows from the wreckage of the USS Arizona on December 7, 1941, in Pearl Harbor.
Inouye was at the aid station for less than an hour when the next round of bombers swooped into Pearl Harbor. Armed with a stretcher, he and a few others raced to the impact zone and began ferrying out the dead and injured. It was five days before he went home.8

During World War II, tens of millions of Americans, nearly 11 percent of the entire population, received some sort of military training. Of those, almost 75 percent wound up overseas, engaged in the European and Pacific theaters. By one estimate, 33,000 nisei (the American-born children of Japanese immigrants) served in the armed forces during World War II. For these tens of thousands of Japanese-American troops, however, serving their country was not always a protected right. They fought for a chance to fight for America.9

Daniel Inouye was too young to enlist in 1941. But his age was not the only thing that prevented him from signing up. Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the federal government reclassified nearly every nisei on mainland America and in Hawaii, including almost every nisei already in uniform, as an enemy alien unfit to join or serve in the armed forces.10

Martial Law

Delos C. Emmons, Chester Nimitz, and Milo Draemel/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_6_EmmonsNimitzDraemel_NHHC.xml Image courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command From left to right: U.S. Army Lieutenant General Delos C. Emmons, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and Rear Admiral Milo Draemel meet at headquarters in Pearl Harbor shortly after the attack on December 7, 1941.
On that fateful day, Hawaii began a complete transformation, one that threatened to upend generations of Japanese Hawaiians’ participation in the life of the islands. U.S. officials declared martial law on the afternoon of December 7, and the military assumed all local judicial authority, regulated employment contracts, froze jobs and wages, instituted a curfew, censored the mails, monitored all telephone calls, and had the entire population fingerprinted. Newspapers and magazines, particularly Japanese-language publications, faced new licensing and strict censorship. Authorities implemented food and gasoline rationing and required that all firearms be surrendered. The U.S. Office of Alien Property Custodian seized businesses and properties and froze bank deposits and assets at all Japanese banks.11

Still, the treatment of persons of Japanese descent proceeded along two very different paths in Hawaii and on the mainland. In Hawaii, the new military governor, U.S. Army General Delos C. Emmons, ignored orders from Washington to evacuate and intern Japanese Hawaiians.12 Military intelligence and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) told Emmons that they had no evidence of any Japanese disloyalty or sabotage. He soon concluded that any effort to intern Japanese Hawaiians, the largest ethnic group on the islands, would be an immense undertaking and would drain the resources needed to bolster the islands’ defenses.13

In early 1942, General Emmons came under great pressure to relocate and intern Japanese Hawaiians. That pressure intensified following the publication of the Roberts Commission report on Pearl Harbor, directed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, which falsely suggested that Japanese Hawaiians had provided vital military and naval information to the Japanese consulate that contributed to the Pearl Harbor disaster. Emmons successfully resisted such drastic actions, however, because powerful white landowners and territorial newspapers backed him. Hawaiian Delegate Samuel Wilder King supported only the arrest of spies.14

Japanese Heavy Cruiser Mikuma/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_7_Midway_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration During the Battle of Midway, the U.S. Navy decisively turned the tide of the naval war in the Pacific with a devastating attack on the Japanese navy. This photograph shows the Mikuma, a Japanese heavy cruiser, after U.S. planes bombed the ship on June 6, 1942.

Crucially, too, Hawaiian businessmen rejected internment. “There are 160,000 of these people who want to live here because they like the country and like the American way of life,” wrote the president of the Honolulu chamber of commerce. “The citizens of Japanese blood would fight as loyally for America as any other citizen.” But most important of all, the Japanese Hawaiians were the lynchpin of the local economy.15

Emmons ended up interning fewer than 1,500 people (about two-thirds of whom were Japanese immigrants and one-third U.S. citizens) whom he considered serious security threats. This came to about 1 percent of the islands’ Japanese and Japanese-American population. Pressure for internment eased after the U.S. victory off Midway Island in June 1942 put the Japanese navy on the defensive and tamped down concerns about an invasion of Hawaii.16 Still, martial law remained in place until President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) lifted it in October 1944 after it became clear that Allied forces had turned the tide against Japan.

“Go for Broke”

442nd Regimental Combat Team/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_8_442nd_CompanyL_Army.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott Jr., right, salutes after fastening the Presidential Unit Citation streamer to the flag of Company L, Third Battalion, of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, on September 4, 1945. More than 10,000 Japanese-Hawaiian men tried to enlist in the 442nd, an all-nisei combat unit that received hard-won commendations.
While wholesale internment on the islands never came to fruition, life for Japanese Hawaiians remained far different from what it had been before the bombings. In the years leading up to the war, nisei served in the military across Hawaii. About 1,500 men had been drafted between September 1940 and December 1941, and on the morning of December 7, for instance, 2,000 Hawaiian nisei helped defend the islands when the bombings began, including future U.S. Senator Spark M. Matsunaga of Hawaii, who led a company of troops on nearby Molokai. By nightfall, thousands more nisei from the Hawaii territorial guard and the University of Hawaii’s reserve officers’ training corps helped guard vital points throughout the islands.17

But anti-Japanese hysteria quickly took over, and it was not long before the military stripped nisei troops of their weapons and assigned them to menial tasks under armed guard. Less than two months later, on January 21, 1942, the military dismissed all 317 nisei from the territorial guard. Six months after that, following the Battle of Midway, the army removed Matsunaga from command and sent him and other nisei soldiers to a base in Wisconsin. “Oh, my heavens, that was a sad day,” Matsunaga later remembered in an interview with the Washington Post. “Just imagine serving there for almost a year and having proven my loyalty.… Boy, I still feel emotional about it when I talk about it.”18

Daniel K. Inouye/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_9_InouyeRifle_InouyeInstitute.xml Image courtesy of the Daniel K. Inouye Institute Daniel K. Inouye, photographed in his U.S. Army uniform on January 1, 1947, fought as a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. On June 21, 2000, Inouye received the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism in battle during World War II.
Pressuring the government for a chance to join the fight, Matsunaga’s nisei troops petitioned President Roosevelt directly, and with the support of U.S. military officers in Hawaii, the federal government eventually created an all-nisei army division, the 100th Infantry Battalion, formed largely out of the young men stationed in Wisconsin.19

Not long after, federal officials endorsed the idea of creating an all-nisei combat unit, and in January 1943, the War Department put out a call for 1,500 volunteers to form the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Remarkably, even as the federal government interned Japanese Americans on the mainland, more than 10,000 Japanese Hawaiians, roughly 40 percent of all eligible nisei men in Hawaii, tried to enlist. The army ended up taking 2,600 volunteers, including Daniel K. Inouye, who was midway through his freshman year at the University of Hawaii.20

The 442nd adopted “Go for Broke” as its motto, borrowing the gambling term for when someone bets it all. “It was no idly chosen phrase,” observed the New York Times in June 1943. “The Japanese-Americans realize they have perhaps more at stake in this war than the average soldier.” At a time when their own government was forcing them to prove their loyalty, the nisei troops, the Times wrote, “have known from the beginning they would be under close public scrutiny.”21

Privates in the 100th Infantry Battalion/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_10_100thInfantry_MachineGuns_Army.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History The 100th Infantry Battalion was an all-nisei unit of the U.S. Army. Two privates in the 100th, Takeshi Omuro and Kentoku Nakasone, load a machine gun in 1943.
The 100th left for North Africa in September 1943 but soon transferred to central Italy, where it faced heavy combat. It eventually became known as the “Purple Heart Battalion” because of its high casualty rate—300 killed, 650 wounded—including Matsunaga, who suffered major injuries to his leg while crossing a mine field.22

In the spring of 1944, Inouye and the 442nd shipped out for central Italy and met up with the 100th that June. The two forces went on to see combat in Italy and France, and earned thousands of individual commendations and the nickname the “Army’s Most Decorated Unit.” Their costliest campaign took place in Bruyères, France, when the 442nd was sent to save a Texas battalion trapped behind German lines. In one week, the unit suffered 800 casualties. The casualty rate was so high over the course of the conflict that more than 15,000 nisei troops would serve in the unit.23

The harrowing and decorated service of Japanese-American GIs during the war and the fact that they had helped take down the Axis powers helped to transform the old order back home. “Hawaii seemed at a turning point in history, gathering breath as it made ready to push off in directions never before imagined. One could almost feel the ferment of impending change,” Inouye later wrote in his memoirs. “The 442nd was very much a part of what was happening.” But it was not just because of the accolades and honors they won in combat. “It was more subtle,” he said. “We had gone off to war as the sons and grandsons of immigrants, heirs of an alien culture and very much expected— and I suppose, expecting—to resume our unobtrusive minority status if and when we returned. But the army had given us a taste of full citizenship, and an appetite for more of the same. We were the ‘can-do’ outfit and we were heady with a sense of ourselves.”24

Next Section


5Inouye with Elliott, Journey to Washington: 53.

6Ibid., 54–55.

7Ibid., 56.

8Ibid., 55, 57–61.

9David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 747; Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, rev. ed. (Boston, MA: Back Bay Books, 1998): xiv.

10Yenne, Rising Sons: 34–39.

11John S. Whitehead, Completing the Union: Alaska, Hawai‘i, and the Battle for Statehood (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004): 72; Roger Bell, Last Among Equals: Hawaiian Statehood and American Politics (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984): 77; H. Brett Melendy, Hawaii: America’s Sugar Territory, 1898–1959 (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999): 233, 237.

12Tom Coffman, The Island Edge of America: A Political History of Hawai‘i (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003): 79.

13Gary Y. Okihiro, Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991): 205; Melendy, Hawaii: 237.

14Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991): 124–125; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 383.

15Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 382–383.

16Ibid., 382; Whitehead, Completing the Union: 78; Melendy, Hawaii: 234.

17Whitehead, Completing the Union: 84; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 384.

18Chan, Asian Americans: 125; Gavan Daws, Shoals of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1968): 348; quotation in Carla Hall, “The Senator & His Space Refrain,” 13 August 1986, Washington Post: C1.

19Hall, “The Senator & His Space Refrain”; Chan, Asian Americans: 134; Whitehead, Completing the Union: 84–87.

20Whitehead, Completing the Union: 86; Bell, Last Among Equals: 82; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 385.

21“Japanese Excel in U.S. Combat Unit,” 6 June 1943, New York Times: 33.

22Chan, Asian Americans: 134; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 400.

23Melendy, Hawaii: 238; Chan, Asian Americans: 134–135; Yenne, Rising Sons: 2.

24Inouye with Elliott, Journey to Washington: 201–202.