Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Taking a Stand: More Than 300 Men of Japanese Descent Refused U.S. Government Orders to Enter the Military in the 1940s. Only in Recent Years Have These Men Gained Recognition for Their Actions

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Taking a Stand: More Than 300 Men of Japanese Descent Refused U.S. Government Orders to Enter the Military in the 1940s. Only in Recent Years Have These Men Gained Recognition for Their Actions

Article excerpt

Every December, the nation pauses to remember Pearl Harbor, the site of the 1941 Japanese surprise attack that propelled the United States into World War II. Now, as the GI generation fades away, the stories of their battlefield accomplishments live on.

But for another group of Americans, it has taken more than half a century to begin to gain recognition for their wartime actions and decisions. Controversial and divisive at the time, this group is still generating debate in the context of the post-Sept. 11 climate and the Iraq War.

More than 300 men of Japanese descent refused to be drafted into the U.S. military in the 1940s, contending that they shouldn't risk their lives for a country that had forced 120,000 Japanese-Americans, including them and their families, into internment camps. They would be willing to fight in World War II only after Japanese-Americans were released from the camps, they said.

Their stand led to prison terms for draft dodging and ostracism by other Japanese-Americans, even some of their family members. Critics accused draft resisters of cowardice, laziness, lack of patriotism and even harboring pro-Japan loyalties.

But University of North Carolina law professor Eric Muller believes the men were largely pure in their motives. He points out that some of the resisters could have made themselves ineligible for the draft by merely disclosing disabilities and chronic conditions. They knew that their imprisonment for draft dodging would create even greater financial and emotional hardships on their families. Some of the draft resisters eventually did don uniforms and fight for the United States during the Korean War, which began after the internment camps closed, says Muller, who has extensively researched government records and interviewed surviving members of that group.

Muller's 2003 book, Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II, details the resistance movement of those men. He says many of the men will take their stories to the grave with them, having never told anyone about their role in history. While Muller was able to track down and interview 10 of the survivors, he had nearly as many decline his interview requests because they were reluctant to re-live the past. In fact, one of the men "chewed me out over the phone for 45 minutes," Muller recalls. "He wanted me to drop my project. He kept asking me, 'Don't you realize all the people you're going to hurt?'"

That hurt began almost immediately after Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Panicked, angry Americans reacted quickly and indiscriminately. Within a month, the U.S. government had changed the classification of all "Nisei" Selective Service registrants to 4-C, the category for "aliens not acceptable." This offended the Nisei, who were the U.S.-born children of Japanese immigrants. The first internment camps would be set up later that year, under the command of the War Relocation Authority. Ten hastily arranged camps, located in remote parts of the country and guarded with barbed wire, watch towers and armed soldiers, were built to warehouse people of Japanese ancestry. Charged with suspicion of disloyalty, the vast majority of the internees came from the West Coast, and more than half were American-born citizens. Entire families spent years trapped in the cramped communal spaces.

As the war dragged on, government officials saw the Nisei as a source from which to tap more troops. They encouraged them to volunteer, advertising it as a chance to prove their patriotism. In 1944, the government reinstituted conscription of the Nisei. Afraid that White soldiers wouldn't tolerate living and fighting alongside Japanese troops, the government planned a segregated battalion, patterned after the Black-only military units still operating at the time. That plan was the genesis of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which went on to become one of the military's most highly decorated units and was soon joined by the 100th Infantry Battalion, a segregated volunteer unit of Nisei from Hawaii. …

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