Axis Abroad, Racism at Home: The Enemies Japanese American Soldiers Faced in WWII

Japanese American soldiers

The U.S. Postal Service is releasing a new stamp in honor of Japanese American soldiers who served during World War II — an army of 33,000 men and women whose battle for identity stretched beyond the period of defeating Axis forces.

The stamp, designed by Antonio Alcalá, shows a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which, along with the 100th Infantry Battalion, became the most decorated military unit in U.S. history.

Image via U.S. Postal Service

These soldiers were Nisei — Americans born to Issei, or Japanese immigrants barred from becoming U.S. citizens — and 800 of them paid the ultimate price in combat.

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Despite their sacrifices, these heroes had to endure the systemic discrimination that has persisted since the first Japanese immigrants arrived on U.S. soil in the 1880s.

Department of the Interior. War Relocation Authority

Forcibly Removed and Incarcerated

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forcible removal of about 120,000 Japanese people from California, Oregon, Washington and some areas in Arizona. It was a frantic response to the Pearl Harbor attack two months earlier, rendering all Japanese as the “enemy.”

At this time, the Nisei, as “enemy aliens,” were not eligible for the draft. Instead, they made up two-thirds of Japanese individuals incarcerated in concentration camps, which the U.S. government appropriated as “relocation centers.”

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Advocates call them prisons. They were “compounds of barracks surrounded by barbed wire fences and patrolled by armed guards,” according to Densho, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and sharing this history of Japanese American incarceration.

A promotional pamphlet issued by the U.S War Relocation Authority in collaboration with the War Department. Image via U.S. Army

Drafted Out of Necessity

Toward the end of 1943, U.S. officials began to realize their need for manpower. Suddenly, young Nisei men looked loyal enough for the army.

By Jan. 20, 1944, Secretary of War Henry Stimson announced that Nisei men were eligible for the draft. Most volunteers came from Hawaii — where the Japanese American population was generally allowed to stay at home — while 1,500 applied from the camps.

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Successful draftees used their translation skills in the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific theater, while others formed the 100th Infantry Battalion, which fought in Europe, including as a unit attached to the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, according to Susan H. Kamei, a lecturer of history at the University of Southern California and member of the Japanese American Citizens League.

President Harry S. Truman salutes the colors of the 100th Battalion and 442nd Infantry at the seventh Presidential Unit Citation on July 15, 1946. Image via U.S. Army

Hated at Home

The Allied forces had won the war, but Nisei soldiers came home to how things had been before the draft. Employers did not want to hire them and many of their families remained in concentration camps.

The hate was pronounced in street signs. One of them declared, “We don’t want any Japs back here… ever!”

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President Harry S. Truman condemned such actions, saying those who discriminate “have a streak of Nazi in them.” He praised the Japanese American soldiers and proclaimed that they have not only fought the enemy but prejudice — and won.

President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Image via Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

On Aug. 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which provided financial redress of $20,000 for every living “internee,” for a total of $1.2 billion. President George H. W. Bush amended it in 1992 with an additional $400 million.

The Nisei soldiers fought with the motto “Go For Broke,” which now serves as the title of USPS’ commemorative stamp. The agency says it is issued as a Forever stamp, which is equal in value to the current First-Class Mail 1-ounce price.

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Featured Images via U.S. Army (left) and U.S. Army Signal Corps (right)

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