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The Story of Two Japanese Americans Who Fought in World War II

By Gene Santoro 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: July 17, 2007 
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In the summer of 1943, twenty-two-year-old Warren Tsuneishi was trying to finish his BA at Syracuse University when a letter arrived from his older brother Hughes. Hughes was training with the U.S. Military Intelligence Service Language School at Camp Savage in Minnesota and recommended that his younger brother volunteer to do the same. "The Nisei in the infantry are being put into a unit called the 442nd," Hughes warned, using the Japanese American term for someone born to parents who had emigrated from Japan. "They are going to be cannon fodder."

At Camp Grant in Illinois, twenty-four-year-old Norman Ikari had also heard about the new 442nd Regimental Combat Team, all Nisei except for the officers, and was intrigued. The recently promoted technician was restless at his comfortable, low-level lab job and felt the war was passing him by. Norman's kid brother Bob was already in the new outfit; Norman decided to volunteer for a transfer.

By the next summer, Warren Tsuneishi was an army private in the Pacific, translating crucial Japanese operational orders and documents. Japanese-language intelligence work was hardly headline stuff—for security reasons among others—but Tsuneishi would later earn a Bronze Star for his contributions at Leyte and Okinawa.

And Norman Ikari, who took a demotion to private when he joined the 442nd, was lying in a hospital bed after both his legs were shattered by enemy bullets east of Pisa. He would be awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart: one of 18,000 decorations, including 3,600 Purple Hearts, awarded over twenty months to some 3,000 original and 6,000 replacement members of the 442nd, known as "Go For Broke."

In many ways, some of them unsettling, the diverse experiences of these two men epitomize the achievements, struggles, and sacrifices of the 33,000 Japanese Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II.

Sitting in his Maryland study recently, surrounded by memorabilia including his Purple Heart, Norman Ikari, who retired two decades ago as a health scientist administrator at the National Institutes of Health, explains an important distinction of the time: "Issei [first-generation Japanese immigrants] could not become citizens. The immigration laws forbade it. If you were Japanese, the only way to be a citizen was to be born here. A Nisei like me."

When Norman Ikari was born in Seattle on February 17, 1919, his father, Shinichi, had lived there for six years after emigrating from northern Japan. His mother, Maki, also from the north islands, arrived in 1917. They'd left behind their first two sons, who came to Seattle after Norman—originally called Saburo, meaning "third son"—was born. Soon the Ikaris had two more sons and a daughter.

Both of Norman's older brothers finished high school in Seattle and became acculturated, but of the two, George was the bigger maverick: an artist, a movie projectionist, a motorcyclist, he invented games and learned to fly a plane. Their American wanderlust led Willy and George to scout for better opportunities for the family. In 1930 they found one in Montebello, east of Los Angeles. Norman recalls, "That is where I first encountered racial discrimination."

His brothers rented a house on the western edge of Montebello Park, but when the family arrived, white neighbors told the Ikaris' landlady they wouldn't put up with Japanese. The Ikaris quickly found another house across the park.

Norman was all-American, Nisei style. His favorite subjects at high school were biology, chemistry, and English. He went out for basketball, handball, and track, was president of the Japanese Club and a Merit scholar, and was named Senior Patrol Leader of the Japanese troop of Montebello Boy Scouts. "But when I graduated [in 1936]," he explains, "family finances were very tight, so college wasn't worth thinking about."

For the next three years he worked in Los Angeles produce markets. Then he heard about a way out. An agricultural association was seeking young men to train in a technique for chicken sexing. Norman explains, "If you're a farmer, you want to make sure the chicks you buy are close to 100 percent hens, and this was a simple hand–eye manipulative technique to identify genders that was new and, ironically, developed in Japan." He signed on, was trained, and was sent to northeastern Ohio.

Ikari and his crew worked for ten hatcheries and were on the road nonstop from January to May. More than hard-core prejudice, he says, they met surprise, curiosity, and ignorance as they tore back and forth across the state, trying to keep up with hatching season. "And," he grins, "we made good money." So he enrolled at Los Angeles City College, thinking vaguely about a premed major. Then, toward the end of his second semester, Pearl Harbor was attacked. "Everything went on hold," is how he describes it. "Many of my Nisei friends didn't show up at class afterward; they were worried."

They were right to be. On December 11, the U.S. Army's Western Defense Command became a theater of operation. Its commander, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, was eager to rout out Japanese saboteurs working inside the United States. He was far from alone. A few days later, though there was no evidence of sabotage, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox told the press that with the possible exception of Norway, where traitors working from inside contributed to its downfall to Germany in 1940, "I think the most effective fifth column work of the entire war was done in Hawaii."

On January 20, 1942, Norman Ikari was drafted into the U.S. Army. After reporting to the Reception Center at San Pedro, he was shipped east to Camp Grant, Illinois, for basic training. There he heard no more Japanese Americans would be drafted or allowed to volunteer for the American armed forces. "Then," he says, "I was informed that my family had been evicted from their homes as a result of EO9066."

Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, was the equivalent of a blank warrant. It authorized military authorities to "exclude" virtually anyone from anywhere without trial or hearings and thus set the stage for the mass eviction, evacuation, and incarceration of 120,000 Issei and Nisei into ten relocation camps. Originally built for Works Progress Administration laborers during the Depression, the camps were all over—Arkansas, California, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah—and easily adapted as holding pens.

The Ikaris were split among three camps: Willy went to Rohwer in Arkansas; George was sent to Manzanar in eastern California; the rest of the family was shipped to Poston, Arizona, which received 7,450 internees within three weeks of opening on May 8.

The first thing Norman did when he finished basic training was hop a bus to Arizona. He was in uniform when the guard at the gate stopped him: "Where's your pass?" Norman eyed him quizzically. "I need a pass to visit my mom?" he asked.

Later, Norman and a couple of other Nisei went into Parker, a nearby town, to pick up beer for a party. As soon as the men poked their heads in a bar, the bartender sneered, "We don't serve Japs here." Norman kept telling him, "We just want to buy it. We don't want to drink it here." The bartender waved to two big guys, the presumed bouncers, so Norman's crew left in bemused frustration. Outside they spotted a Native American soldier wearing Timberwolf patches of the 140th Infantry, who grinned at them. "Guys like us, we should never go into places like that," he said.

Back at Camp Grant, Norman was assigned to the Medical Detachment, Station Hospital. "The training battalion shipped out and left just us Nisei there, about 300 of us," he recalls wryly, "and not a gun around anywhere. Some army post." He was learning basic lab work and got promoted to technician fourth grade, but "I was bored, though I really should have had no complaints. I had a good job. I was learning useful skills. But I felt like I was out of things."

In June 1942, the army, consistently inconsistent in its Nisei policy, formed the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) of Hawaiian Nisei. Partly this was due to Robert L. Shivers, the FBI agent in charge of Hawaii, who reported, "There was not a single act of sabotage committed…in the Hawaiian Islands during the course of the war. Nor was there any fifth-column activity." Shivers's testimony, plus the results of the Roberts Com-­mission—headed by a Supreme Court justice, it exonerated Japanese Americans in Hawaii of espionage—helped persuade FDR to let Hawaiian Nisei, at least, prove their patriotism. The 100th was the first result.

The formation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was announced in February 1943, and since Nisei could no longer be drafted, the word went out for volunteers. More than 11,000 Hawaiian Nisei and over a thousand mainlanders responded. The new unit was made up of roughly twice as many Hawaiians as mainlanders, with a tiny handful of other Asian Americans. Most of the officers were white.

When Norman decided to join his brother Bob in the 442nd, he discovered it wasn't easy. His commander didn't want to let him go, but he eventually got a transfer—and was busted down to private to begin training. When he finally arrived at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, in November 1943, he was nonplussed. "I was the odd man out," he recalls. "These units had been training together for months without me. I just had to try to fit in."

That proved a bigger challenge than he had thought. Being Nisei didn't make for automatic ethnic solidarity. "I couldn't even understand the Hawaiian guys talking on the bus," he says, "that pidgin of theirs. And they were making fun of us: 'You guys talk like sissies.'"

Hawaiian Nisei were a very different breed from the stateside model: often physically bigger, more direct, and less likely to have encountered mainland-style racial prejudice thanks to the islands' ethnic stew: Japanese Americans made up a full third of the population. Norman explains, "They were extroverted, loud, sure of themselves. They shared everything. They had money. They bought beer by the case. Mainland guys bought it by the bottle; we had no money; our families were in camps."

Incidents between the Nisei groups flickered from the get-go, grew, and rapidly escalated into violence. Soon the mainland Nisei were walking guard with fixed bayonets around the perimeter of their part of camp to ward off marauding Hawaiians. Finally, the regiment's CO assembled them on the parade grounds and lectured them about how they should behave toward the white girls in nearby Hattiesburg and toward each other. He boomed, "How are we going to fight together in combat after all this?"

Right about then came an incident that former senator Daniel Inouye, a soldier in the 442nd, often regales audiences with: a dramatic turning point that established Nisei brotherhood, thanks to a bus trip to a nearby internment camp that opened the Hawaiians' eyes to the deprivations of their mainland cousins. "It's a nice story," Norman says, "but it's not true." The soldiers did indeed visit the nearby camp, but as Norman recalls, "incidents kept occurring until we shipped out. Of course, once we got into combat, there was no time for that BS."

The 442nd left Norfolk, Virginia, on May 1, 1944, arriving twenty-eight days later in the bombed-out harbor of Naples. They rode LCIs and LSTs up the coast to Civitavecchia, where they joined the 100th Infantry Battalion, which been reduced from 1,400 men to a few hundred after seven months of fighting in Africa and Italy. The depleted 100th became the 442nd's 1st Battalion, though Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, argued, unsuccessfully, for dispersing Nisei throughout the army. When Rome was declared an open city and the Germans withdrew in June 1944, the 442nd followed: first to Belvedere, then to the mountains east of Pisa.

On July 17, 1944, Norman was on point as his unit climbed up and down Tuscan hills when he felt "like somebody whacked me in both legs with a baseball bat. It turned out that both legs were shattered: compound comminuted fractures of the left femur and the right lower leg. My friend, medic Kelly Kuwayama, and another volunteer pulled me out of there just as mortar rounds were crashing all around us. I kept coming in and out of consciousness."

Private Ikari spent the next four months in the hospital in Naples. When he was finally released, he was classified as PLA—permanent limited assignment. No more front lines for him.

At about that same time, Pvt. Warren Tsuneishi had settled into Schofield Barracks in Oahu, where he and ten other Nisei were named to the 306th Headquarters Intelligence Detachment of the XIV Corps just being organized in the summer of 1944.

Warren was born in Monrovia, California, on July 4, 1921. "I always thought of myself as Yankee Doodle Dandy, though I obviously didn't look like one," he says. His near-sightless eyes twinkle in his Maryland office, where a widescreen computer and antique print magnifier (to compensate for advanced macular deterioration) crowd a table in a room bulging with books and papers—memorabilia of a lifetime in libraries. Warren retired in 1993 from his position as chief of the Orientalia Division at the Library of Congress.

His patriotic Issei father, Satoru, named him after President Warren G. Harding. Satoru Tsuneishi had emigrated from Kochi Prefecture to Monrovia in 1907; his wife Sho arrived in 1915. Satoru entered the University of Southern California to pursue a divinity degree. But illness and the financial obligations of a family pushed Satoru into truck farming in Duarte.

Warren was the Tsuneishis' fifth of ten children. He attended Duarte Grammar School with non-Nisei students, some of whose families befriended him. As he remembers, "School and my friends constituted an intense Americanization course for me—the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, all that." Though he graduated at the top of his high school class, "the school counselor did not encourage me to apply for college, because professional job opportunities for Japanese American graduates were not readily available." His education-loving parents overrode that, and he enrolled at UCLA for twenty-seven dollars in fees, no tuition. In September 1941, he transferred to Berkeley to study political science.

After December 7, some 13,000 Japanese Americans from the San Francisco Bay Area were evacuated to the temporary quarters at Tanforan racetrack in San Bruno. While Warren managed to finish spring term at Berkeley, his friends and family found themselves further south at the Santa Anita racetrack and Pomona Fairgrounds. "They converted them to holding pens," he explains. "Whatever we could carry we could take. People were angry and frightened. In the Western states, we were aware of the long history of discrimination, but we were brought up to be Americans, and therefore optimistic."

In the camps, that combination of intensified discrimination and American-bred optimism created a volatile psychological mix. On August 4, a riot broke out at Santa Anita when military personnel searching for contraband became abusive, triggering mass unrest. Crowds gathered and harassed the searchers until MPs with tanks and machine guns shut the dissenters down. By year's end, beatings, shootings, deaths, demonstrations, even mass uprisings were a recurrent problem in the camps. They would proliferate until the war's finish.

The Tsuneishis were sent to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming soon after it opened on August 11. Each family in the standard-issue GI barracks was assigned a single room; all ate in the mess hall. "It wasn't home," Warren, who joined them in October, says, "but it was not Dachau. There was no curfew. There were dances, ice skating, parties. These were not death camps. If you had a good reason, like a job, or family in another part of the country, you could get out." He smiles slightly. "I took unconstitutional acts of government without fighting them. I guess, according to the stereotype, I was more Japanese than American that way. But America is in the heart."

Warren's calculated optimism paid off that spring, as he still sat in Tanforan, when sugar beet farmers in Idaho came looking for stoop labor. "The thing I missed most was freedom, so I was one of twelve to volunteer, first thinning the beets, then putting up hay during the summer months, and then harvesting beets and potatoes in the fall." After losing his last fifteen-dollar stake at poker, he opted to join his family at Heart Mountain.

The American Friends Service Committee opened the way to Warren's final exit from the camps. On May 29, 1942, in Philadelphia, Quaker leader Clarence E. Pickett and University of Washington dean Robert W. O'Brien formed the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, which placed 4,300 Nisei in college by 1945. (This was Quaker humanitarian practicality at its finest: the draft had half-emptied college classrooms.) After talking to the Quaker representative visiting Heart Mountain, Warren entered Syracuse University in January 1943.

Just one month later, the army about-faced its Nisei policy, calling for volunteers and forming the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. This sparked demonstrations and unrest in the camps. "Some people naturally questioned why we should die for a country that put us there," Warren explains. The questioning didn't cease. In fact, after the draft for Nisei was restored in January 1944, Heart Mountain's Fair Play Committee became a center of passive resistance, persevering despite dozens of arrests and subsequent convictions for its activities.

But Warren the Yankee Doodle Dandy still wanted to serve his country: "I wanted to prove myself, even with bad eyesight and flat feet." At Syracuse, he got that letter from older brother Hughes. So when he graduated from the accelerated degree program in August 1943, he immediately volunteered for the Military Intelligence Service Language School. In utter contrast to the fanfare during the war surrounding the Nisei fighting units, this was a program few Americans even knew existed, and it yielded far-ranging results they rarely if ever heard about.

The army had opened the first MIS Japanese-language school in November 1941 in San Francisco, near General DeWitt's headquarters. It had sixty students—fifty-eight of them Nisei. Soon after Pearl Harbor, the school moved to Minnesota, first to Camp Savage then to Fort Snelling. The move to Minnesota was necessary because all the teachers were Japanese Americans and could have been "excluded" from the West Coast—although they were also the key to the program's ultimate success, since their cultural as well as linguistic fluency provided vital insights into Japanese thinking. By 1945, 5,700 Nisei and 780 Caucasian students graduated. Among their many duties were translating captured documents, monitoring Japanese radio, spying and eavesdropping, preparing propaganda leaflets and broadcasts, and making surrender appeals over loudspeakers to cornered Japanese troops—who were often about to banzai.

Many of these interpreters, historian Stanley Falk notes, "had relatives in Japan, subject to possible enemy retaliation. Many, indeed, had cousins or even brothers serving in the Japanese military. The Nisei themselves faced almost certain torture or execution if captured…while on the other hand there always remained the possibility that, in the heat of battle, American troops might mistake them for enemy soldiers and open fire."

At Fort Snelling, Warren underwent six months of "total immersion" in Japanese; bemused locals watched student-soldiers like him wander around town drawing Japanese characters in the air, to help memorize them. He smiles, "It made me constantly regret that I had not been a better student of it as a kid. It was very difficult." The alternative, for those who washed out, was reassignment to the infantry—hardly an alluring prospect.

After two months of basic infantry training at Camp Blanding, Florida, Warren was shipped back to Fort Snelling, where he and nine other Nisei got their overseas orders and a last leave. "I spent it on a train to Heart Mountain to say goodbye," he recalls. "I was in uniform, but the guard at the gate didn't acknowledge that. He didn't blink an eye."

His mother, like many in the camps, was at the other end of that spectrum. He pulls out a picture: two unsmiling Issei mothers, one his, each holding small banners with four blue stars—the number of sons each had serving in the American military. (In addition to Hughes, Warren had two other brothers in the MIS.) "She didn't understand why I was doing this," he says simply. "I didn't write home a lot either."

On Oahu from early June into August 1944, the new MIS unit underwent jungle training then boarded a troopship for what Warren describes as "a leisurely voyage touching at Kwajalein for a warm beer party ashore and the Manus Islands." Soon he and his buddies "returned" with Gen. Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines, landing on Leyte on October 20, 1944.

The Nisei MIS was a secret weapon that ranked near, if not with, the more celebrated code breakers. Convinced that Americans could never read their complex ideograms, the Japanese maintained extraordinarily lax security about documents, even at the front: orders were carelessly stored and disposed of, and soldiers routinely kept diaries and letters that contained military data right down to the order of battle. In the right Nisei hands, these could be mined for gold. As prisoners gradually began to be taken, their surprise at being confronted with friendly Nisei interrogators often opened them right up, producing more valuable information. And so, unlike the 442nd, the very existence of the Military Intelligence Service Language School and Nisei intel ops was hushed up.

That first night on Leyte, Warren watched Japanese air attacks from a hilltop with his assigned bodyguard: "We weren't fully trusted, but it was also for our protection, they said." He then went to work and was up all night translating captured documents. "They were top-secret operational orders, found on the body of one of the attackers," he says. "They spelled out in detail the mission, objectives, personnel, and equipment of the airborne force." The mission: to knock out airstrips the Seabees were building, then link up with ground forces. "Needless to say," he adds dryly, "their mission failed."

Then came an urgent radio call from the Camotes Islands: the Japanese were slaughtering civilians, couldn't MacArthur do something? Warren and a colleague joined the battalion sent to rescue them. "Bodies were stacked up like cordwood in homes," he reports. "I translated a document that identified the occupying force as a naval engineer unit of perhaps 400 men." He shrugs. "They were wiped out in a banzai attack."

On April 1, 1945, Warren landed on the beaches of Okinawa: "There was virtually no resistance on the beachhead, which wasn't classic Japanese military strategy, but was consistent with what happened on Iwo Jima. We soon found out why. I helped translate the top-secret operational orders that laid out the defense strategy: let the enemy land their full forces and supplies with minimum resistance; take up dug-in defense lines on the escarpment bisecting the island; let the Imperial Navy kamikaze attack and destroy U.S. naval and supply ships; then destroy the isolated enemy at leisure." He adds, "Knowing enemy intentions is half the battle." In this case, the battle still ran eighty-two days and cost over 72,000 American casualties, including some 12,000 dead, and 66,000 Japanese dead, 7,000 captured, and an estimated 30,000 suicides. More than 150,000 Okinawans, a third of the island's population, were killed.

But when it was over, nothing stood between Japan and invasion—except fear of the enormous cost in American casualties and the effect that would have on a country bone-weary of war.

In the summer of 1945, Norman Ikari's service to his country would have one last ironic twist. In early June, he and several other men on permanent limited assignment from the 442nd were shipped back to the United States, given twenty days' leave, and told to report to Camp Ritchie, Maryland. "They asked us," he says, smile a bit askew, "to wear Japanese uniforms, carry Japanese weapons, and stage demonstrations of Japanese infantry tactics to troops at IRTCs [infantry replacement training centers]. We were shocked and dismayed and disgusted, and we all refused. A different officer tried asking us again, in a less offensive way. We refused again." That left them in limbo until Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On October 28, 1945, Norman Ikari was discharged.

Following Okinawa and Japan's surrender, Warren Tsuneishi was sent to Seoul, Korea, where his unit became involved in military administration and translation. He was offered a commission if he agreed to re-up, but declined. "I just wanted to return to civvies," he says. In January 1946, he did.

After joining sixteen million other Americans in the armed forces in war, these Nisei in peace signed on with the hoards of veterans who next headed to college—and, in their cases, to graduate school—thanks to the GI Bill. For decades they both worked as high-rated government employees: "The same government," says Warren, "that interned our families. But that's America. It's a nation that's always in the process of trying to live up to its dreams."


This article was written by Gene Santoro and originally published in the September 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to World War II magazine today!



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