Sunday, October 26, 2014


            The indignation of those 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent who found themselves imprisoned behind barbed wire in 1942 was only heightened by the knowledge that their patriotism was so arbitrarily dismissed simply because of their ancestry; especially when a much larger group of people who were of German and Italian ancestry were treated differently. This frustration is captured by a verse written by an anonymous internee at the Poston camp near Yuma City, Arizona:
            We all love life/and our country best/Our misfortune to be here in the West/To keep us penned behind that damned fence/Is someone’s notion of National defense!
            Well, National defense did come into play when Congressional leaders began to wonder if young Nisei shouldn’t be allowed to serve in the military. It began with 1,000 volunteers from Hawaii and grew quickly with volunteers from the Mainland camps, most of whom would eventually be organized into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army Reserve. Although a few would serve in the Pacific as language and intelligence people, the bulk of the 442nd  and 100th, along with several associated artillery and support units would end up in Europe fighting Germans and Italians for obvious reasons.
            They would distinguish themselves in every campaign in which they took part receiving eight Presidential Unit Citations and sustaining some of the highest casualty rates of any infantry unit in WWII. In fact the original compliment of 4000 would have to be augmented two-and-one-half times in replacements, with a total of 14,000 men serving before it was all over. Commanded by white officers for the most part, those who led them would soon learn that the fighting Nisei – with their war cry GO FOR BROKE - possessed an unusual unit cohesiveness and absolutely refused to leave any individual behind, no matter the cost, and that the best way to handle them was to explain the mission but then stand back and allow the NCOs and their troops to work out their own tactical details.
            In late October, 1944, the 141st Infantry Regiment of the 36th Texas Division became encircled and trapped by German troops in the densely wooded Vosges mountains near the German border in Northern France. General John Dahlquist commanding the 36th Division, selected the 442nd RCT to go to the rescue of what came to be known as The Lost Battalion in what everyone realized was a “suicide mission” behind enemy lines; an operation which came to be one of the most costly but celebrated of WWII. On October 29th and 30th fighting became virtually hand-to-hand, or as one survivor wrote afterward, “tree-to-tree and yard-by-yard”. Incredibly, they finally broke through to the dwindling survivors of the Lost Battalion and led them back through German lines and “home” again.
            In that one contest, the 442nd suffered more than 1,000 casualties including three companies which started out with a total of 200 and came back with only 20 still standing.
            By wars’ end, these American warriors of Japanese descent became the most decorated infantry unit in U.S. Army history for their size and length of service with 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 560 Silver Stars (with 28 Oak Leaves), 22Legion of Merit Medals, 15 Soldier’s Medals, and 4,000 Bronze Stars (with 1200 Oak Leaves); and as a testament to the cost involved, 9,486 Purple Hearts; in all, 18,143 decorations including in 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal.
            I wish I could say that these brave and courageous soldiers came home to a grateful and welcoming nation, but that wouldn’t be true. It would be years before the old prejudices would mellow enough to blur the color line with those who had suffered the ignominy of imprisonment and separation. Despite all that had been taken from them, the alumni of those internment camps produced more U.S. Congress members, mayors, poets, composers, playwrights, talented actors and actresses, college presidents and leaders of industry than perhaps any so-called “minority group” in American history. And high on that list of honored citizens-in-uniform who have marched off to all our wars, I hold my hand in proud salute to those whose story I can only briefly acknowledge in these two columns.

  Soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team receive citations from a U.S. Lieutenant General in Europe.
                                                                                                                                                                         U.S. Army Photo


            Just two-and-a-half months after Pearl Harbor on February 19, 1942 at the urging of major newspapers, an erroneous intelligence report and in the face of a nervous public,(and it might be added, decades of an entrenched anti-Asian prejudice,)  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 giving the U.S. Military almost-unbridled power to place people of Japanese heritage in confinement. In the following weeks and months, 120,000 men, women and children, of whom 70% were U.S. citizens and most of the others residents of 20 to 40 years, would be removed from their homes, businesses and sidewalks of the American West and transported to dozens of so-called “assembly centers” before eventually being transported to ten hurriedly-readied but primitive “relocation centers” across the country – mostly in the west. They would be permitted to carry two suitcases each. Everything left behind would become the property of the U.S. government; homes, private possessions, some of the country’s most beautiful and productive farms, ranches and orchards, bank accounts, investments and savings. Some of the hardest hit would be the industrious commercial fishermen of the Pacific coast who would have no boats – the rewards of a life-long commitment to hard work and careful saving - to return to when the war was over.
            Ironically, Hawaii – the very place where Japanese sympathizers were believed to have aided the raid on Pearl Harbor with advance intelligence and secret radio signals – largely escaped the same kind of treatment as befell the mainlanders. Since they represented more than 40% of the territory’s population, it was decided that internment would be both difficult to accomplish and devastating to the local economy. (By the way, in 1943 Military Intelligence discovered that the Hawaii spies helping the Japanese attackers were in fact Nazi Germans; not Japanese Americans! In fact throughout the four years of WWII there was not a single incident of treason on the part of indigenous people with Japanese family ties.) No matter, Nisei living in Hawaii did not escape the same kind of racial prejudice and mistreatment as those residing stateside, and many did indeed suffer temporary incarceration.
            Most of the Internment camps were surrounded by barbed wire and towers manned by armed guards in remote desert-like locations. Housing consisted of blocks of long narrow tarpaper-covered buildings with the internees crowded together in units consisting of small family spaces with no more privacy than hung sheets separating them from each other, usually with single open rooms for showering and latrines with no dividers; Army cots with flat pads and army blankets for sleeping. Some had small coal stoves for cold weather, but not all. Meals were eaten in common areas.
            Each camp acquired a reputation of its own, from Manzanar situated in California’s Owens Valley which was especially infamous for harsh confinement measures, to Gila River southeast of Phoenix which was the least restrictive and enjoyed excellent relations with the local population. One of the most unfortunate incidents occurred in April, 1943 at Topaz near Delta, Utah, where a guard shot and killed a 65-year old internee who did no more than wander near a corner of the fenced yard. There is no record of any disciplinary action following the event. Tule Lake in northern California was the largest, with nearly 12,000 prisoners at one time, and Rohwer in Arkansas which housed only 8500, but of whom 2000 were school kids!
            Not often spoken of or written about is an eleventh camp located at the old Dalton Wells CCC camp near Moab, Utah. It was selected as a place to send “troublesome” internees (meaning Isei or 1st-generation Americans, who having been born in the USA, refused to sign the insulting “loyalty pledge” at Manzanar.) Their deliberate isolation and cruel treatment is something which the Nazi Gestapo might have dreamed up! It was known by its prisoners as “a living hell.”
            And let’s end this short story with an observation about euphemisms – because that is what the terms Assembly Centers, Relocation Centers and Internment Camps are; Convenient euphemisms. Historians and language experts have finally agreed that when people who have committed no crime are seized and incarcerated behind barbed wire guarded by armed soldiers, and held not because of what they have done, BUT BECAUSE OF WHO THEY ARE, those places are concentration camps. And it happens only because good people allow it to happen.
            In all, 14,000 of those young Nisei volunteered to serve in combat for the country which continued to withhold the freedom of their families at home. Next week we will take a close look at the unparalleled service of those young AMERICANS.

  On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Reparation Act compensating internee families and apologizing for their unconstitutional treatment during WWII

Monday, October 13, 2014


            In what was the first combined use of seaborne and airborne military units in history, the people of neutral Norway found themselves under attack by Nazi Germany on April 9th and 10th 1940. It came as an unmitigated shock to the unprepared people of that Scandinavian country since they had declared their neutrality under international law, just as they had done in WW I. Even with the assistance of British forces and not without some naval losses itself, Germany completed the defeat and occupation of Norway in a matter of three weeks  Because Norway had unwisely required its citizens to register personal firearms, the invaders were able to identify every owner and thus confiscate virtually every gun in the country within hours, leaving the citizenry without the ability to put up any meaningful defense even as their ill-equipped and small military were being overwhelmed. Thus the people of a country known for its love of independence and home rule found themselves looking at four long years of bitter suppression under its jack-booted conquerors.
            While the King and government leaders managed to escape and eventually establish a government-in-exile in Great Britain along with thousands of their countrymen, the spark of patriotism was alive and well in the land the Germans mistakenly believed to be supine and helpless. A resistance movement quickly took shape, and with the clandestine support of Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) began a well-organized and dedicated secret war of their own.
            To understand what life in occupied Norway was like during this period, it is important to recall the name of a traitor named Vidkun Quisling, a former military officer and founder of Norway’s National Socialist political party and admirer of Adolph Hitler, with whom he enjoyed a personal friendship. Quisling was a collaborator of the occupiers from the start, and eventually became the Reichcommissioner – or titular leader – to the utter disgust of the citizenry who saw to it that he was first to face a firing squad in 1945 at war’s end. The very name became an epithet during the war years, and many people were assigned the sobriquet “Quisling” if they were perceived to be traitors.
            And this brings us to a resistance leader named Gunnar Sonsteby who was 22 years old when he traveled to England to receive Special Ops. training and returned home to begin blowing up locomotives, military armories, German aircraft and anything else that could thwart or slow Nazi exploitation of his homeland and its people. The extent and ingenuity of his sabotage activities, even as he provided inspired leadership to other resistance units remains almost without parallel. In one coups he engineered the theft of plates for the printing of Norwegian currency kept in national vaults to be smuggled out to the government-in-exile, and when it was learned that the Nazis were preparing to establish a system for inducting citizens into service on the Eastern Front he blew up the office of forced labor putting an end to the enterprise. And as is now known, the Norwegian Resistance put finis to Hitler’s atomic bomb program by destroying their heavy water plant at Telemark.
            As in other occupied countries, the Germans were bleeding Norway’s agricultural production dry and when an even more aggressive rationing system was about to be put in place, Sonsteby arranged the theft of 75,000 newly-printed ration books setting the program on its heels. Meanwhile, his group continued blowing up trains, repair depots, parts manufacturing facilities, field guns and setting fires to oil storage sites.
            A master of disguise, Sonsteby constantly changed between 40 different identities while known among his fellow resistance leaders simply as “The Chin” and to his SOE controllers as “Agent 24”.
            When Gunnar Fridtjof Thurmann Sonsteby passed away in 2008 at the age of 94, he had been honored by more awards than any other Norwegian, and perhaps more than any Allied fighter in WWII.

  Keeping a proud memory alive, Gunnar Sonsteby’s image appears on the vertical tail of a                                                 
   Norwegian commercial jetliner today.                                   Photo by Chris Cooper