FAIRBANKS - The day Pearl Harbor was bombed, Dec. 7, 1941, Brian Yamamoto’s father, Edward, was attending the University of Southern California on a baseball scholarship.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, the college student was as surprised as the rest of America about the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base in Hawaii.
“He was playing tennis with a buddy when he heard the news,” said Brian, a Fairbanks dentist, “and he asked, ‘Where is Pearl Harbor?’”
What 19-year-old Edward didn’t realize was that as a Nisei (second generation Japanese American) he would soon be rounded up with thousands of other first-, second- and third-generation Japanese Americans, herded onto buses and trains to assembly centers before being transported to hastily built barracks-style camps spread across desolate stretches of the Western states and two camps in Arkansas.
Although many Japanese internees were American-born and raised, they were imprisoned behind guarded, barbed-wire fences, without due process, and listed as enemy aliens.
The mandatory internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the mainland would last until after the war with Japan ended in August 1945.
But some, like Edward Yamamoto, managed to get out early — by volunteering or being drafted to serve in the armed forces of the very country that had locked them up.
In early November, Brian Yamamoto; his wife, Leslie; and son, Stuart, traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in three days of Congressional Gold Medal ceremonies honoring World War II veterans of Japanese ancestry. The medal is the highest civilian award in the United States and is awarded to an individual or unit that performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity and national interest of the country.
Of the 30,000 plus Nisei who volunteered or were drafted into the U.S Army during World War II, only 360 veterans, many in wheelchairs, attended the ceremony.
The Yamamoto family made the trip to represent seven male relatives, including Brian’s father, Edward, all deceased, except for one uncle who was too infirm to travel.
The men served in either the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team or the Military Intelligence Service.
All three units consisted exclusively of Americans of Japanese ancestry.
“It was truly gratifying to see the veterans awarded the medal,” Brian said. “Their sacrifices, valor and commitment proved their loyalty to America. They were richly deserving of the honor and it was heartwarming to see their expressions of pride as they received and displayed their medals.”
But there was also a feeling of regret among the more than 2,000 extended family members in attendance that it took six and a half decades for the veterans to be honored.
“Even in the speeches, it was said ‘This is long overdue,’” Leslie said.
The saga of how Japanese-American citizens were treated during World War II is not widely known.
Nor is the fact that many patriotic, military-age Nisei internees had to protest in order to fight for their country of birth — the United States.
Brian’s father seldom spoke about what he or his family endured during their stay in Poston internment camp (population 17,840), located in the Arizona desert, or whether he volunteered for or was drafted into the Military Intelligence Service — although Brian’s brother recently told him that their father had volunteered for the Army.
From old photos Brian turned up recently during a family Thanksgiving visit Outside, Brian learned his father first held the rank of sergeant and was promoted to staff sergeant during his service in Japan after the surrender.
Edward Yamamoto shipped out to Japan in December 1945, and was stationed at Camp Zama, outside Tokyo with the 4th Replacement Depot. There he served as an interpreter, translator and interviewer.
The 6,000 Nisei serving in the MIS were dubbed “America’s Secret Weapon in the War Against Japan” and were credited by military officials with saving a million lives.
Following intensive training, MIS graduates were attached to the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Corps, served in every combat theater and participated in every major battle and invasion against the Japanese military. They also were loaned for duty to British, Australian, New Zealand, Chinese and Indian combat units.
Nisei linguists, with their knowledge of Japanese language and customs, translated a vast variety of enemy documents, including maps, diaries and letters. They broke codes and broadcast surrender appeals to flush out caves of enemy soldiers and civilians.
Their usefulness as a cultural and language bridge extended after the war as well in occupied Japan.
Nisei soldiers also proved themselves invaluable on the battlefield.
“Together the 100th and 442nd became the most highly decorated outfit in U.S. Army history,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, at the recent Congressional Medal of Honor Ceremony.
“They received more than 9,000 Purple Hearts. They earned thousands of Bronze and Silver Stars. They earned 52 Distinguished Service Crosses and 21 Medals of Honor. They even won medals from the Italians and the French.”
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who lost his right arm while fighting with the 442nd, was a guest speaker and recipient of one of the Congressional Medals of Honor presented to the veterans.
The 100th Infantry Battalion, originally all Hawaiian Nisei, were the first to be trained and shipped overseas to Italy in August 1943, to fight in the European campaign.
The unit was called the “guinea pig battalion” by some and considered expendable. In the 100th’s first nine months of engagements, most notably Monte Cassino Abbey, the unit became known as the Purple Heart Battalion because of the extremely high number of casualties it suffered.
Later, the 100th Battalion was merged with the 442nd and the unit displayed combined courage and fortitude fighting in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany.
The 442nd’s motto of “Go for Broke” was exemplified in its hard-fought victories.
Among the best known was the unit’s rescue of the Texas “Lost Battalion,” which was surrounded by Germans in the Vosges Mountains in France. The 442nd was called in after two failed attempts to rescue the 230 trapped soldiers.
After a five-day, uphill battle, the 442nd broke through and rescued the Texans, at a high price — more than 800 casualties.
“The 442nd Regimental Combat Team won one of eight presidential citations for that battle,” Brian said.
President Truman summed up the 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s record of loyalty and patriotism at a 1946 troop review at the White House by saying “You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home and you won.”
November’s trip to the nation’s capital was not the first time the Yamamotos have traveled to learn more about the World War II military history of Americans of Japanese ancestry.
Two years ago, Brian and Leslie traveled with a group of friends and family of Nisei veterans to France and took a tour of battlefields in the Vosges Mountains and towns the 442nd liberated from German occupation.
“In every town they liberated, they had a big parade for us and a big dinner. It was amazing,” the Yamamotos said.
To Brian’s regret, his interest in his father’s military service began shortly before his father died, and he wishes he had asked more questions earlier.
He did learn from his father that while he was serving in Japan after the surrender he visited an uncle and cousin living near Tokyo and was received coldly by both men, who had served in the Japanese Army. Brian said his father never learned why his relatives were so stand-offish, saying it was unusual since most Japanese in post-war Japan were really friendly.
Brian continues to search for more information about his father’s service in the MIS, while accumulating a collection of books, patches, mementos and other items about all three Japanese American military units.
Leslie shares her husband’s interest.
“I loved seeing the three and four generations of families there (in Washington, D.C.),” Leslie said. “It was a proud moment for everyone.”
Brian, who has taken on the responsibility of delivering the Congressional Gold Medals to the families he, Leslie and Stuart represented, concurs.
“I saw four generations of Americans of Japanese ancestry represented to honor these World War II veterans. Seeing this was an encouragement for me to know that their legacy will not be forgotten.”
Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.
Brian and Leslie Yamamoto and son, Stuart, represented seven family members who served in the U.S. military during the World War II in the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442 Regimental Combat Team or the Military Intelligence Service. All three units were made up exclusively of Americans of Japanese ancestry.
Edward Yamamoto (MIS) father
George Matsuoka (MIS) uncle
Yutaka Matsuoka (442nd) uncle
Saburo Takeshita (MIS) uncle
Goro Takeshita (442nd) uncle’s brother
Shiro Takeshita (522nd) uncle’s brother
**the 522nd was the field artillery unit associated with the 442nd
Shigeo Takeshita (100th)