A month in honor of generations of service
From the battlefields of the Civil War at home, to two world wars overseas, to Iraq and Afghanistan, Asian-Pacific Americans have fought with bravery. Facing formidable odds – sometimes abroad from enemies of like ancestry, other times from those at home whose freedoms they fought to protect – they served with integrity. They honor America with their service. In celebration of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, Stripes Okinawa highlights their role in defending American freedoms.
The times in which they served
Asian Pacific Americans have made lasting contributions to America’s wartime efforts. This includes both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many during World War II put their lives on the line for their country while their families were confined to internment camps back in the States.
In the first half of the 19th century, many people from Asia, particularly Chinese, immigrated to the United States where opportunities for employment were abundant. This was clearly a condition consistent with a Nation that was growing not only geographically but economically as well. By the start of the Civil War, thousands of Asians were living in the United States. Many served with distinction in the U.S. Army.
World War I
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many people from East Asia chose to immigrate to the United States where opportunities for work and a better life beckoned. Despite numerous instances of discrimination, many Asian-Americans joined the U.S. Army and served with distinction during World War I on the battlefields of France. Following the war, Soldiers of Asian ancestry were recognized for their contributions to the war effort and were allowed to become naturalized citizens. By the end of World War I in 1918, there were nearly 180,000 Asian-Americans living in the United States, including about 100,000 Japanese and 60,000 Chinese and 5,000 Filipinos.
World War I I
At the start of World War II in 1941, more than a quarter-million Asian-Americans were living in the United States. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Japanese-Americans were perceived as a threat to national security based solely on their ethnic ancestry. Consequently, on March 18, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the War Relocation Authority. Thousands of Japanese-Americans were moved involuntarily to internment camps created throughout the United States. Despite being subjected to prejudice and discrimination, a large number of Nisei (first generation Japanese-Americans born in the United States) volunteered for service in the U.S. Army. These Soldiers served with great honor in the Europe and North Africa campaigns. Their feats of courage, particularly in the Italian campaign, are legendary. Other Asian-American groups also answered the call to duty and served with great distinction in the European and Pacific theaters—many taking part in the liberation of their ancestral homelands.
In the years following World War II, Asian/Pacific Americans gained greater acceptance into American society, thanks in large measure to their outstanding contributions to the war effort. A large number of World War II veterans remained in the U.S. Army during the Korean War (1950-1953). As combat veterans, they helped to train and lead new Soldiers, which included more Asian/Pacific Americans, into combat against the communist North Korean and Chinese forces.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Asian/Pacific Americans assumed an even greater role and acceptance in American society and culture. In 1956, Dalip Singh, from California, became the first Asian-American elected to Congress. In 1962 Daniel K. Inouye, from Hawaii, was elected to the Senate and Spark Matsunaga, from Hawaii, to the House. Two years later, Patsy Takemoto Mink, from Hawaii, was elected to the House, becoming the first Asian-American woman in Congress. By 1965, immigration law finally abolished national origins as basis for allocating immigration quotas, giving Asian/Pacific Americans full legal equality with other groups. The war in Vietnam was intensifying and as in past wars, Asian/Pacific Americans answered the call to duty, serving with great distinction.
In 1979, the United States and its erstwhile World War II ally China, resumed diplomatic relations. In 1980, more than 2.5 million Asian immigrants entered the United States. In 1990, the number of U.S. immigrants from Asia was second only to Latin America. Many Asian/Pacific Americans joined the U.S. Army and where they contributed immeasurably to the security of the United States and to the end of the Cold War. Many were promoted to senior officer ranks, including some to general officer. In 1991, Asian/Pacific American Soldiers fought valiantly in Operation Desert Storm (also known as the Gulf War), helping to liberate Kuwait from Sadaam Hussein’s invasion forces from Iraq.
Birthplace: Kent, Wash.
Rank: Tech Sergeant
Unit: 5307 Composite Unit Provisional (Merrill’s Marauders)
The famed commandos of Merrill’s Marauders, a unit of soldiers who slogged their way through the Burmese jungles to overcome the Japanese occupiers, consisted of a number of Japanese American, or Nisei. They served in both intelligence and combat capacities, translating captured documents and fighting where needed. Grant Hirabayashi had to fend off not only the usual assortment of jungle-bred ailments such as dysentery and malaria, but also an allergy to the preservatives in K-rations. He would later serve in India and China; in the late days of the war, he interrogated Japanese POWs, one of whom accused him of betraying his people.
“I could not believe I was coming home to the same reception I received twenty-three years before, following World War II. This time I was not the enemy, but I was there saving lives, perhaps their loved ones.”
-Carolyn Hisako Tanaka
Branch: Army Nurse Corps
Unit: 24th Evacuation Hospital
Nicknamed Road Runner for her unflagging energy and enthusiasm, Carolyn Hisako Tanaka served in Vietnam despite a scarring childhood memory. At age 6, she saw her family evicted from their California home in the wake of Pearl Harbor and relocated to an internment camp in Poston, Ariz. When the family returned to California after the war, they found their home burned to the ground. In 1966, as an emergency room nurse, she decided to enlist in the Army, telling skeptical friends, “I have a skill that is needed in Vietnam, and I’m going there to do my duty for my country.” Ironically, she returned from that war to a “welcome” that brought back bitter memories.
Birthplace: Kent, Wash.
Unit: 442nd Regimental Combat Team
The demands and pressures placed on young Japanese American men who served their country during World War II while their families were confined to detention centers can’t be understated. And for men like Norman Ikari that pressure was intensified, as the 442nd, also known as the Go For Broke division, fought in some of the European Theater’s most intense battles.
“We had to prove ourselves … worthy of recognition when we came back to the States and that our parents and the rest of the Japanese-American community would be proud of us.”
Unit: 3rd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT)
As a youth, Jimmie Kanaya became fascinated with the military, and at 20 jumped at the chance to enlist in 1941—months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. After helping his parents relocate from their Oregon home to an Idaho internment camp, Kanaya took his skills as a medic to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He aggressively looked out for his men, even negotiating a halt to fighting to bring in casualties from the battlefield. Captured by German troops, he escaped three times and at war’s end was the only non-Caucasian in his POW camp. Kanaya continued to serve his country during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Birthplace: New York
Rank: Technician Four
Unit: Company E, 442nd Infantry Regiment
For over a year after Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were not allowed to enlist in the military. But Yeiichi Kelly Kuwayama had been drafted long before Dec. 7, 1941, so he was in a kind of limbo: Part of the armed forces but not allowed to fight. Once President Roosevelt lifted the ban, the 442nd Regiment, composed of Japanese Americans from both the mainland and Hawaii, was formed, and Kuwayama became a battlefield medic with them. He witnessed brutal battles in Italy and France, including the famed rescue of the so-called Lost Battalion and the fight in which future Senator Daniel Inouye was severely wounded.
Rank: Technical Sergeant
Unit: 306th Headquarters Intelligence Detachment, XXIV Corps
Born on the Fourth of July in California, Warren Tsuneishi was the son of Japanese immigrants. After Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II, his family was evacuated to Heart Mountain, a Japanese internment facility in Wyoming. But Tsuneishi craved freedom and the chance to serve his country, in spite of his family’s confinement. He volunteered for the Military Intelligence Service Language School and served in the Pacific, translating captured documents that gave U.S. forces a big advantage in securing the Philippines and Okinawa.
“You try not to worry too much about things you have no control over.”
Unit: VA-165; VA-196; USS Ranger (CV 61); USS Enterprise (CVN 65); USS Constellation (CV 64); USS Yorktown (CV 10)
In 1958, when Gordon Nakagawa became a naval aviator out of college, the American military’s main concern was Cold War strategy. Ten years later, Nakagawa was flying bombing missions over Vietnam in a new A-6 Intruder, capable of flying at night and in all kinds of weather. On a subsequent tour of duty in Vietnam, Nakagawa’s plane was brought down and he became a “guest” of the North Vietnamese at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. Nakagawa called on his training and the shared experiences of previous POWs to survive his stay.
Notable Asian-Pacific Americans in the timeline of historic conflicts
Jan. 21, 1915
Fireman 2nd Class Telesforo Trinidad, born in New Washington, Capig, Philippines, died in the Cavite Navy Yard after rescuing two sailors. Driven from the USS San Diego’s Fireroom #2 by an explosion, he returned to retrieve an injured sailor; despite his own fatal injuries, he pulled another from Fireroom #3. He is the first Navy veteran to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Jan. 16, 1942
Army Sgt. Jose Calugas, Battery B. 88th Field Artillery, Philippine Scouts, 23d Division, during the Battle of Bataan, ran 1,000 yards under heavy enemy fire to a partially destroyed gun position. He organized a volunteer squad to repair the artillery and fired on the invaders before being taken prisoner. The Philippines native received the Medal of Honor.
April 5, 1945
Army Pvt. 1st Class Sado S. Munemori, Company A, 442d Regimental Combat Team, 1OOth Infantry Battalion. 34th Infantry Division, gave his life to save two comrades by smothering a grenade blast with his body as they withdrew under heavy fire near Seravezza, Italy. Before that, the Japanese American from Los Angeles, Calif. single-handedly made frontal assaults through raging enemy fire and destroyed two machine gun emplacements.
April 21, 1945
Army 2nd Lt. Daniel Ken Inouye, 442d Regimental Combat Team, 1OOth Infantry Battalion, already suffering an abdominal wound, lost his right arm to a German rifle grenade in World War II while advancing alone on a machinegun that had pinned down his troops. Despite incurring more injuries, he continued to fight “with devastating effect” on the enemy. Awarded the Medal of Honor and 15 other medals and citations, he was later elected to the House of Representatives (1959) and the U.S. Senate (1962).
April 24-25, 1951
Army Cpl. Hiroshi H. Miyamura, Company H, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, was severely wounded and captured after rendering first aid to his wounded squad members, directing their evacuation and fending off an enemy attack with his machinegun, killing more than 50 of the enemy near Taejon-ni, Korea. The Gallup, NM, native was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Sept. 17, 1951
Army Pvt. 1st Class Herbert K. Pllllaau, Company C, 23d Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, of Waianae, Oahu, Hawaii, gave his life during heavy combat near Pia-ri, Korea. When his platoon was ordered to withdraw, Pililaau volunteered to cover his comrades. Using automatic weapon fire, grenades and finally hand-to-hand combat, he killed 40 enemy soldiers before dying. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Jan. 1, 1969
Army Sgt. 1st Class Rodney James Tadashi Yano, Air Cavalry Troops, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, made the ultimate sacrifice during a firefight near Bien Hao, South Vietnam. Despite enemy fire on his helicopter, Crew Chief Yano (of Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii) returned fire and marked enemy positions. When a phosphorous grenade prematurely exploded, mortally wounding Yano and igniting other ammunition, he threw the blazing ammunition from the helicopter, saving his crew. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Jan. 28, 1986
USAF Lt. Col. Ellison Shoji Onlzuka, born in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii and the first Japanese American astronaut, died in the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.