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Going for Broke
Japanese American Soldiers in the War against Nazi Germany
By James M. McCaffrey
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
PEARL HARBOR AND AFTER
"I was on K.P. I heard about it on the radio. I was devastated."
While Private Morita settled in to his new surroundings at Fort Lewis, the undeclared war in the North Atlantic escalated when the USS Kearney lost eleven men to a German U-boat attack in mid-October 1941. President Roosevelt responded: "America has been attacked. The USS Kearney is not just a Navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman, and child in this Nation." Two weeks later a German submarine sank the USS Reuben James with the loss of 115 of its crewmen, and now the president gave the navy shoot-on-sight orders with regard to German submarines. Hitler had to be very careful not to draw the United States into the war, at least not until after he had defeated Great Britain and the Soviet Union. He may have remembered that that was a mistake made by the Germans in World War I. Accordingly, German submarine commanders received orders not to engage American naval vessels unless it was a matter of self-defense.
Even as events in the North Atlantic seemed more and more likely to entangle the United States in the European war, events in the Pacific delivered the ultimate spark. By early September 1941, Japanese leaders had decided to declare war on the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands unless diplomatic progress was made in getting the United States to rescind its embargoes and other economic sanctions within six weeks.
Still the Japanese did not regard war as inevitable, and in early November 1941 a second Japanese envoy traveled to Washington to assist Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura in continuing negotiations. Nevertheless, in case the talks proved unproductive the Japanese would be ready to go to war by early December. On November 7, the two Japanese officials proposed a plan that called for American acceptance of Japan's dominant role in Asia, but Secretary of State Cordell Hull rejected this plan out of hand. A couple of weeks later, the Japanese set forth another plan. According to its terms, the United States and Japan would share the mineral resources of the Dutch East Indies and, except for Indochina, both nations would promise not to send any troops into Southeast Asia or the South Pacific, and U.S.-Japanese trade would be reopened without the burdensome embargo on oil to Japan. As soon as there was peace in China, the Japanese would withdraw from Indochina (assuming, of course, that in the meantime the United States stayed out of China).
Secretary Hull also rejected this plan and instead proposed a three-month truce, during which time the Japanese would pull out of southern Indochina and the United States would resume limited oil shipments to Japan. Prior to formal presentation of this proposal, Hull showed it to several Washington-based representatives of other nations with interests in the region. They were unanimous in their disapproval, saying that it contained no provisions for China's continued existence, and that if China pulled out of the war altogether it would make thousands of Japanese troops available for service elsewhere. This proposal, therefore, was never sent on to Japan.
On November 26, a ten-point proposal was presented to the Japanese, but it was not much more conciliatory than the earlier one. Under its terms Japan was to end all military operations in China and Indochina and leave those countries, and extend diplomatic recognition to the Nationalist Chinese government headed by Chiang Kai-shek. Further, Japan was to effectively pull out of the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Germany and join some sort of multilateral non-aggression pact in East Asia. The United States in return would unfreeze Japanese assets in this country, restore trade with Japan, and help stabilize the Japanese currency. The United States would also attempt to end extraterritoriality in China. Secretary Hull knew when he sent this proposal that the Japanese could not possibly accept it. He also knew that it would now be only a matter of time before Japan and the United States were at war.
At this point, Japanese military planners believed that their only option was war with the United States. The oil embargo had forced Japanese forces toward the Dutch East Indies to get the oil they needed to continue their conquest of China. They regarded the American embargo, as well as other economic sanctions, as unnecessary provocation. The United States had set the stakes for peace too high. Japan had either to withdraw from China or go to war with the United States. Withdrawal was completely out of the question. Japan had invested too much time, treasure, and lives in the China venture to pull out now.
Private Morita, meanwhile, finally got a chance to go to the shooting range. Perhaps his new battery commander decided that all of his men should have at least some proficiency with firearms, even though they would not likely be called upon to use them unless an enemy was about to overrun their battery's position. Thus Morita finally got a chance to shoot something smaller than a 105mm howitzer, but it was not to be the standard infantry rifle. Instead, he qualified as a marksman with the .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol that had been the army's standard handgun since before World War I. Within less than a week, the United States was at war.
In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, December 7, 1941, the ships of a Japanese naval task force that had left Japan almost two weeks earlier prepared for action in the waters north of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The aircraft carriers turned into the wind to launch a variety of aircraft including dive bombers, torpedo bombers, high-altitude bombers, and fighters. American radar operators on Oahu detected the aircraft when they were still 140 miles out, but so complete was the surprise that American military authorities thought them to be a flight of American bombers due in from the mainland. At five minutes to eight, the attack began and America was in World War II.
Japanese targets were the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and the military airfields nearby. Eight battleships, the pride of the Pacific Fleet, were moored in two rows close together alongside Ford Island in the middle of the harbor. Fighters and bombers were parked in clusters at Wheeler Army Airfield and at Hickam Field to make it easier to defend against saboteurs. Japanese pilots found these arrangements almost too good to be true. Attack plans also called for the employment of five small, two-man "midget" submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Launched from larger submarines positioned just offshore, they were to submerge and enter the harbor before the aircraft arrived. Then, when the air raid began, they were to launch torpedoes at American warships from close range and escape the harbor to rendezvous with their "mother ships."
The attack was devastating! Eight American battleships were destroyed or badly damaged, as were several cruisers, destroyers, and other vessels. Almost all of the 350 American airplanes at Oahu were destroyed on the ground. Approximately twenty-four hundred Americans died and another one thousand were wounded. Japanese losses in the two-hour raid were all five midget submarines, twenty-nine airplanes, and fifty-five men. That same day (December 8 in territories west of the International Dateline) other Japanese forces struck at targets elsewhere in the Pacific, including, notably, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaya, and Wake Island.
Only a week earlier, many Americans conceded that war with Japan was just a matter of time, perhaps only weeks or even only days away, but most assumed that hostilities would commence in the Philippines or other American possessions far west of Hawaii. This attack, therefore, came as a complete surprise and caught American military authorities unprepared to defend against it.
The attack came as a shock to area civilians, including Japanese Americans and resident nationals. One Japanese American man had gotten up early that morning to help his father work on their garage roof, and it was from there that they both saw the clouds of smoke rising above the harbor. At first, like many others watching that day, they thought the military was conducting extremely realistic drills or war games. And then they glimpsed the solid red balls painted on the undersides of the attacking planes—the Rising Sun emblem of Imperial Japan. "How I hated the Japs for bringing this [war] upon us!" he later recalled, unconsciously using a racial epithet that would be thrown at him before long. Another Japanese American, already serving in the U.S. Army, remembered that his reactions "ran the gamut of shock, bewilderment, anger, shame, and sorrow. But mostly he recalled feeling a "deep anguish and despair because the land that I had been taught to honor by my parents had committed an act of war against the country that I loved." Another remembered how, in the days immediately following the attack, "I kept asking myself: 'Why the hell did the Japanese want to do something like that?' I never once thought of myself as anything other than an American."
Some of the attacking planes flew so low that those on the ground could see the expressions on the pilots' faces. Home on a weekend pass after less than a month in the U.S. Army when the attack occurred, another Japanese American "saw the face of the Japanese pilot in his fur-lined helmet, looking down at us through his goggles." The flier looked "calm and confident. Maybe this was his way of displaying his arrogant superiority, or perhaps he was communicating to us not to worry, that all would be okay." Another had a similar experience. He and his sister had jumped into their car and were hurrying to their parents' home when a Japanese plane strafed the road. The car was not hit, but they could see the impacts of the bullets on the ground alongside as the plane roared overhead. Turning onto another road, they soon saw another plane bearing down on them from the front. Some instinct caused him to crane his neck and stick his head outside the car as the plane approached. "I guess he didn't fire at us," he later recalled, "because he could see that we were Asian." What probably saved him and his sister that day more than his Asian features was the fact that the pilot was able to tell that he was a civilian and, therefore, not on his target list.
Many Americans discounted initial reports of the attack as a hoax like the one in 1938 about an invasion from Mars. In that instance, filmmaker Orson Welles had produced a radio program with realistic-sounding news reports about creatures from Mars attacking earth. Based on the H. G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds, the broadcast had briefly caused panic among some listeners before it was revealed to be a complete fiction. Many Americans, therefore, wanted to believe that the devastation being reported from Hawaii was just more of the same.
The Japanese planes had scarcely left the skies over Oahu before rumors of an impending invasion began to circulate. Some claimed that Japanese troops had already occupied all of the other islands in the Hawaiian chain and that enemy submarines had surrounded Oahu. Enemy paratroopers were said to have landed on Oahu already, and because most of the full-time soldiers and sailors ashore had their hands full, it was up to the college students in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Hawaii to defend Honolulu. Most Japanese American men attending the university were also ROTC cadets, and they responded to the surprise attack like the American soldiers they were training to become, by rushing to report to their duty stations anxious to do whatever they could. The ROTC was immediately reconstituted to form the basis of the recently-authorized Hawaii Territorial Guard. The student-soldiers picked up basic equipment and waited for duty assignments. They drew gas masks and the soon-to-be obsolete World War I-style helmets. Their rifles were the bolt-action Springfields with which they had trained and which were fitted with highly polished bayonets that caught the sunlight during parades. The firing pins, previously removed to prevent accidental shootings, were hastily re-installed and each student-soldier was issued with five rounds of ammunition. Thus armed, they bravely stood to their assigned tasks. "With pounding hearts," remembered one guardsman, "we moved to the south end of the campus and scanned for the enemy. To put it bluntly, we were scared!" Another collegian had only recently demonstrated the mysterious workings of his military-issue gas mask to his admiring family. They "would have been mightily shocked," he later recalled, "if they knew that I didn't know how to load my Springfield '03 rifle with ammunition.... The only war training or experience I had came from playing soldier in the corn field as a child." However, neither fear—certainly a rational reaction to the events of the day—nor their unpreparedness kept these young men from carrying out their orders. Soon they were performing guard duty at the electric power and water treatment plants, the telephone exchanges, and Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu.
The federalization of the national guard back in October 1940 had affected the two Hawaiian infantry guard regiments: the 298th, composed mostly of men from Oahu, and the 299th, with men from the other islands. Of the roughly three thousand men inducted into these units in 1941, about fifteen hundred were of Japanese descent. On the alert for a possible follow-up invasion, they now fanned out along Oahu's beaches. It was on Waimanalo Beach, on Oahu's eastern side, that a Japanese American sergeant and his Caucasian lieutenant came upon an unconscious Japanese naval officer and made him the first enemy combatant captured during the war. Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki had been the commander of one of the five midget submarines that had been part of the Imperial Japanese Navy's attack force. His boat had lost its steering capabilities, however, and had finally drifted toward shore. Not wanting his craft to fall into American hands, he set a demolition charge before he and his crewmate scrambled into the surf. The charge failed to detonate and his companion was drowned in the surf. It was ironic that it was an American soldier of Japanese ancestry who helped to capture this enemy officer.
On the morning of December 7, members of the United Japanese Society of Honolulu had gathered in a theater in Honolulu to award certificates of completion to the eight hundred or so who had completed an emergency medical course. The timing was fortuitous as almost all of them immediately reported to various aid stations around the harbor to help the hundreds of civilians wounded in the attack.
Within hours of the attack, the president of the Japanese American Citizens' League (JACL) sent a telegram to President Roosevelt offering his organization's full support in the war effort. "In this solemn hour," the letter read, "we pledge our fullest cooperation to you ... and to our country." It went on to say that "now that Japan has instituted this attack upon our land, we are ready and prepared to expend every effort to repel this invasion together with our fellow Americans." A Japanese American student at the College of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, in an address to the student body on December 8, expressed his feelings of shame and anger over what had happened in Hawaii the day before and promised his loyalty to the United States. "Because I believe in America," he said, quoting a recently written Japanese American Creed, "and I trust she believes in me, and because I have received innumerable benefits from her, I pledge myself to do honor to her at all times and in all places; to support her Constitution; to obey her laws; to respect her flag; to defend her against all enemies, foreign or domestic; to actively assume my duties and obligations cheerfully and without any reservation whatsoever, in the hope that I may become a better American in a greater America." In Texas, a recent Japanese American graduate of Texas A&M University declared: "I'm ready to fight for the United States against Japan, even if I have to kill some of my cousins.... We're for the United States 100 per cent."
Excerpted from Going for Broke by James M. McCaffrey. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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