[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explores life beyond the workplace.]
Exceptionable Men & Women
On Sunday, April 22, I had the pleasure and honor of attending the Nikkei WWII Veterans Tribute, which honored Japanese American war veterans from the Midwest who could not attend a similar ceremony in Washington D.C. We’ve come to think of men and women from this period as the “Greatest Generation.” They survived the Depression, fought the war, and built middle class America during the 1950s. For Japanese Americans, the story has an extra element: internment.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government forced Japanese American citizens living on the West coast to live in prison camps. The popular fear of the time, similar to what we saw directed at Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, was that these American citizens would give aid and comfort to the enemy. Families and individuals were forced to leave their homes and property behind.
In 1943, the U.S. Army began recruiting Japanese American males for combat service in Europe. The 442 Regimental Command Team, a segregated group of Japanese American soldiers, fought some of the war’s bloodiest battles. It suffered a 300% casualty rate, and it earned 21 Medals of Honor. In the Pacific theater, Japanese American men and women served in the Military Intelligence Service, working as translators and often seeing action in front line combat. They also played an important role in the post-war reconstruction of Japanese society.
43 veterans attended the ceremony and received gifts in honor of their service. More importantly, their story was told again, which reminds us that American history is complex and not always a simple story of men raising flags. President Truman captured the heroism of the 442 and all the Japanese American veterans when he said: “You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home and you won.” In his proclamation, honoring Japanese American veterans, President Obama wrote: “They bore the extraordinary burden of defending our way of life abroad while many of their families were interned back home. Despite the sting of discrimination, their dedication to their country stayed true, and we are forever indebted to these veterans and their loved ones.”
Too often, our country’s history is simplified, given a plastic surgery that covers over any kind of wrong. Some even praise this version of history as American Exceptionalism. There is nothing exceptional about the wrongs done to Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asian American, women, or gays/lesbians. There is nothing exceptional about the war on workers and unions that started in the late 19th century and is alive and well today. What is exceptional is that Americans from all backgrounds have fought and died abroad and at home to protect the country’s best values: inclusion, opportunity, and fairness. The story of the Nikkei Veterans is an important chapter in that story. They helped make America a great nation.