Asian-Pacific Americans play big role in military history

  • Published
  • By Ann Lukens
  • Asian Pacific American Heritage Month committee
Though there are a wide variety of ethnic and language groups, many Asian-Pacific Americans have one thing in common- these individuals went in harm's way to defend the democratic way of life. Some sought the freedom in uniform that was denied them where they came from.

The Department of the Army defines the Asian-Pacific American designation as more than 50 ethnic or language groups with 28 Asian and 19 Pacific Islander sub-groups. This includes Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Guamanian, Hmong, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Samoan, Thai and Vietnamese to name a few

During the attack on Pearl Harbor in early 1942, Japanese-American men, women and children were "evacuated" for their own safety or because they were thought to be untrustworthy, and were herded from the west coast into hastily-constructed tarpaper camps.

These camps replaced the homes, farms and businesses that were built during a lifetime. Barbed wire and machine guns completed the new landscape.

In Hawaii, the site of the attack, authorities stripped Hawaii's National Guard's 298th and 299th Infantry Regiments of their weapons, only returning them when they were the remaining line of protection against a feared Japanese invasion.

The Japanese generation born in America was shocked about what had happened and many sought to enlist into the military, but were turned away as "enemy aliens."

In June 1942, a provisional battalion of Nisei and the 298th and 299th regiments of the Hawaii National Guard were loaded into a ship for a journey that ended at Camp McCoy, Wis. The 100th Infantry Battalion was there for combat training.

Small groups of soldiers went to Camp Savage, Minn., to become Japanese linguists, which later became a vital part of the Military Intelligence Service. In January 1943, the War Department announced it would accept Nisei volunteers from Hawaii and the mainland to form the 442nd Regimental Combat Team to be trained at Camp Shelby, Miss.

Part of the plan was to train replacements for the 100th Infantry Battalion, already in combat in Italy. In January 1944, the War Department reinstated the draft for Nisei to bolster the ranks of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

The "Buddhaheads" from Hawaii fought with the "Katonks" of the 442nd RCT and did not understand anything about these strangers until a group of the Hawaiians toured Camp Rowher and Camp Jerome, both in Arkansas. There they saw families like their own living in tiny crowded shacks surrounded by machine guns and barbed wire. Word spread quickly back in the ranks. The men came together like a "clenched fist" to fight their common enemy.

Given its origin, it is ironic that the 442nd RCT went on to become the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. military. They punched through German defenses to rescue the "Lost Battalion" at Bastogne, Belgium.

A component, the 552nd Field Artillery Battalion, helped to liberate the skeletal inmates of the German concentration camp at Dachau. In total, 14,000 men served, ultimately earning nearly 10,000 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and an unprecedented eight presidential unit citations.

In time, all the troops who served returned to find their families and to rebuild their lives. In the years since, Asian Pacific Americans have continued to defend their nation at home and overseas and no one ever questioned their loyalty again.