Post written by Chris Brusatte, Exhibit Manager at Go For Broke National Education Center
A friend of mine was told that the President of the United States was coming to visit his military base. He had served in the Army for over a year, and on this Easter holiday he would get the chance to see his Commander in Chief. He and his fellow soldiers bedecked themselves in their dress uniforms, and were told to march. They expected to be led to where the President was arriving.
Instead, they marched and marched until they were led into a warehouse with only a single door. Held at gunpoint, they were placed under armed guard until the President had left the base. They were told to remain completely silent and needed an armed escort to use the restroom. Only later were they allowed to return to their barracks. Still in their dress uniforms, most stared blankly without talking. The humiliation and the outrage were palpable.
The year was 1943. These American soldiers, treated so unjustly while serving their country so selflessly, were all of Japanese ancestry. They were treated so disdainfully because the United States was at war with Japan, and racism and hatred were directed at anyone with Japanese blood. My friend was about 23 years old that fateful Easter Sunday. He was as American as the next guy, a young man from a farm community in Oregon. The humiliation that he felt was one of the last straws for him. He was sick of being treated like the enemy. He was an American soldier for heaven’s sakes!
My friend’s parents were meanwhile imprisoned, like the 120,000 other Americans of Japanese descent, in an incarceration camp run by our government. They were imprisoned simply because of their Japanese ancestry. My friend wanted to use his furlough to visit his parents in the camp, but the Army wouldn’t let him. Why? Because the camp was in California, a zone “restricted” to all Japanese Americans who were not behind the barbed wire of the camp. This occurred shortly before the fateful visit of the President, and it was yet another injustice which angered my friend. An American soldier, he could not even visit his parents as they were being jailed by his own government.
In March 1944, my friend was sent to Fort McClellan in Alabama. He was ordered to begin combat training to be deployed overseas. Since September of the previous year, Japanese Americans had been fighting and dying in horrific battles on Italian soil. My friend had had enough. He felt that his battle was right here, at home. He had to fight the unjust treatment that he and his family were facing in America. Only then might he consider fighting, killing, and possibly dying in the battles against foreign enemies overseas. He made a fateful determination that would shape the rest of his life: he would refuse to undergo combat training, in protest of the unjust and unconstitutional treatment that he and all Japanese Americans were facing.
He knew that he would face harsh punishment, and he did. He was court martialed and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. He was dishonorably discharged from the Army and lost his benefits. He was even threatened with facing a firing squad. He eventually served about two years in prison before being released early. Throughout it all, he remained steadfast in his belief that he had done the right thing, and he never regretted standing up for his constitutional rights.
To me, my friend is a hero. He faced prejudice with courage, even putting his own life on the line for it. He knew that his actions would lead to new obstacles: prison, eviction from the Army, and a lifelong stigma that many still hold against him. Because he didn’t face bullets overseas, many of his contemporaries derided him as a “coward.” Many probably still do today. But my friend doesn’t mind. He knows that his actions prove his courage. He knows that he could have been executed for his choices. He knows that he fought the same American fight as Martin Luther King Jr. and the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, but fifteen years before. He risked his life to make America stand for what it claims to stand for: a land of equality and justice for all of its peoples. Because of his courage, more Americans are free today.
Unfortunately, not enough people know about my friend or his brave actions. That is why our Archives is so important. With each additional story that we tell – through oral histories, photographs, and documents – the actions of individuals like my friend become preserved for posterity. Without the hard work of our Archives staff, many of these stories would be lost to future generations. So please, make sure to always preserve the history of your own ancestors, and with passion and energy share the legacy of courageous individuals like my friend who risked so much for a better America. Thank you.