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On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcibly removing over 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent from their homes. These Americans would remain in internment camps for over three years, a civil rights violation that called into question claims of moral superiority by the United States during World War II. Although claimed to be done for security reasons, many felt that the policy was due to racism and discrimination, a way of othering American citizens of Asian descent for actions outside of their control.

While the use of internment camps during World War II has been acknowledged as a dark stain on American history, the othering of Asian Americans due to world events continues. Last year saw a 164% rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the largest cities of the nation during the first quarter of 2021, and multiple attacks against Asian communities occurred throughout the country amid false narratives assigning blame for the Covid-19 pandemic. Even today, distrust of Asian Americans in the U.S. population is growing, with one and five Americans feeling that they are at least partly responsible for the virus.

Before the U.S. became involved in the Second World War after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had identified German, Italian, and Japanese persons who were suspected of being potential enemy agents, keeping them under surveillance.

The Hirano family, left to right: George, Hisa, and Yasbei at Poston War Relocation Center, Parker Dam, Arizona, 1942. The camp was a temporary detention facility for some of the 120,000 Japanese Americans excluded from the West Coast under wartime presidential Executive Order 9066. (Corbis via Getty Images)

When America entered the hostilities, however, it was only those of Japanese descent who were targeted for mass imprisonment in internment camps. First, immediately after the attacks, over 1,500 Asian Americans were arrested by the FBI, Office of Naval Intelligence and the Army G-2. In January 1942, the Secretary of the Navy falsely blamed Japanese Americans for assisting Imperial Japanese forces in their attack on the installation. President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 a month later.

The West Coast was declared a military area. Army Lt. Gen. Don Dewitt of the Western Defense Command announced a curfew that was only targeted toward Japanese Americans and tried to “encourage” voluntary relocation for these citizens.

A month later, on March 29, backed by legislation from Congress, Dewitt issued a public proclamation that mandated the forced relocation of Japanese Americans within 48 hours. Thousands of American citizens had only two days to sell or arrange for care of their property, businesses and personal belongings. Those who could not, which were many, lost these precious things forever. It took until 1988 for survivors of the internment camps to receive reparations, $20,000 for each surviving living person who was there.

No one knew where they were going or for how long and families were then loaded into trucks, buses, and trains; first to 17 temporary assembly centers, then to 10 hastily constructed relocation centers. The assembly centers were often in remote areas, such as reconfigured fairgrounds or racing tracks and thousands of Japanese Americans found themselves living in horse stables or cow sheds, often packed in together and suffering from a lack of food and sanitation facilities. In Hawaii, where Japanese Americans made up almost half the population (150,000 of the 370,000 people there in 1937), the government, partly for economic reasons, did not force them into internment camps but made the islands themselves a prison with the imposition of martial law.

The few remaining structures of Heart Mountain Japanese internment camp, on July, 28, 2017 in Cody, Wyoming. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The permanent relocation centers would be their homes for the next three years. Life in the camps was emotionally, physically, and spiritually taxing. Each camp was its own town, with farmland, schools, post offices and other facilities, located on military bases and Native American reservations. Prisoners could work at these camps doing various jobs, from doctors to mechanics to teachers. But no one would be paid no more than an Army private, no matter their skill set or previous occupation. About 1,000 Japanese American prisoners were sent to do seasonal work on farms across the Midwest. About 4,000 were allowed to go to college.

The vast majority were forced to stay. The camps were prisoner of war facilities in all but name, surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Fatal violence was used against those interned for even the slightest violations: Toshio Kobata and Hirota Isomura, two elderly men, were killed on July 27, 1942, by a sentry who claimed they were trying to escape. Multiple witnesses, however, testified the sentry murdered the two men for simply struggling on a march. In 1943, 63-year-old prisoner James Hatsuki Wakasa was shot and killed for no other reason than walking near the perimeter fence of his camp in New Mexico. 

There were at least seven confirmed deaths by gunfire alone — among other injuries due to heavy-handed and egregious use of force by the U.S. government during protests at the Manzanar camp in Dec. 1942, and the Tule Lake Camp in 1943. Just over 1,800 Asian Americans died overall during this wrongful captivity.

When the nation needed more troops during the conflict, however, thousands of these citizens enlisted, proving their loyalty even as their family members remained imprisoned. The first such unit to be formed was the 100th Infantry Battalion activated on June 12, 1942, which consisted of Japanese Americans and was created from the 298th and 299th Infantry Regiments of the Hawaii National Guard. After training in the United States throughout 1942, the battalion was sent to Europe to participate in the Italian campaign as part of the 34th Infantry Division. 

Two Japanese American boys outside the Pinedale Assembly Center in Pinedale, California, circa 1942. The camp was a temporary detention facility for some of the 120,000 Japanese Americans excluded from the West Coast under wartime presidential Executive Order 9066. (Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps photo./Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

On Sept. 23, 1943, they had their first combat experience near Salerno, Italy. Assigned to the vanguard of the 34th’s 133rd Infantry Regiment, the 100th advanced 15 miles in 24 hours “in the face of strong enemy resistance and over difficult terrain,” part of an advance that would see them capture the town of Benevento in early October.

Members of the battalion were awarded six Distinguished Service Crosses during the first eight weeks of combat, alongside three Presidential Unit citations. In mid-January 1944, the battalion was committed to the attack on Monte Cassino, a horrific war of attrition that saw the Allies suffer 55,000 casualties in three months to the German’s 20,000 as they fought to open the road to Rome.  The battalion was nicknamed the “Purple Heart Battalion” by the end of the battle, and of the 1,300 men it entered Italy with, only 521 were fit to fight five months later. 

The 100th Infantry Battalion received replacements in the form of the second Japanese American Army unit formed for combat in the European theater: the 442nd Infantry Regiment. In 1943 the Army ordered the creation of the 442nd Infantry, made up of second-generation Japanese Americans, for use in the European theater because of fears they would be mistaken for enemy troops in the Pacific. The Army called for the regiment to be filled with 4,200 volunteers.

Japanese-American infantrymen of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team hike up a muddy French road in the Chambois Sector, France, in late 1944. (Army Center for Military History)

Almost 12,000 Japanese-Americans answered that first call.

The 442nd would arrive in Italy in June 1944, and then, alongside the 100th Infantry Battalion joined the 36th Infantry Division in the invasion of Southern France. Battling throughout Southern France and to the Vosges Mountains that marked the eastern French and German border, the 442nd engaged in a month of heavy combat from October to November 1944 that saw them liberate two French villages. During the last week of October, the regiment was called upon to rescue the “Lost Battalion” of the 141st Infantry Regiment, which was surrounded by German forces who repelled multiple attempts to relieve the unit. The 442nd was the final unit to be sent and it was the final one needed as they accomplished their mission and rescued 275 trapped soldiers at the cost of 800 casualties to their regiment. 

This achievement of arms was one of many for the American soldiers of Japanese descent during the war. The 100th and 442nd participated in six campaigns during World War II and became the most decorated unit for its size. More than 20 Medal of Honors were awarded to members of the 442nd, along with 560 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Stars, over 4,000 Purple Hearts and seven Presidential Unit Citations.

In 1945, the war ended and the soldiers of the 442nd returned home as the United States government decided to end its policy of interning Japanese Americans in March 1946. Like African American soldiers who fought during the conflict, they faced racial discrimination despite their sacrifices; many of those imprisoned could not even get their own land back as laws in some states enshrined this racism. There were also violent attacks on Japanese Americans after the war, including bombings and gunfire, as these citizens began the decades-long process to rebuild their lives. 

Spearheaded by the families of those interned and inspired in the 1960s by the African American Civil Rights Movement, Americans began to question and then take action against the government’s rationale for these internments. It would take over 40 years after World War II for these Americans, whose sole crime was the color of their skin, to receive any form of redress or reparations.

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