What We’re Fighting For: America’s Servicemen on Hypocrisy on the Home Front

Soldiers and Marines urged fellow Americans to fight against anti-Japanese American racism at home as they were fighting for democracy overseas.

Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark of the Fifth Army and James V. Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, inspect troops from the 100th Infantry Battalion in Italy, 1944. Courtesy of the Seattle Nisei Veterans Committee and the US Army.

Toward the end of World War II, Japanese Americans were leaving the prison camps and resettling in communities across the nation only to encounter racist and sometimes violent attacks. Anti-Japanese sentiment still ran rampant, and news of what Japanese Americans faced traveled through articles in popular periodicals for men in the military stationed around the country and overseas. Serving alongside Nisei (or second-generation Japanese Americans born in the United States), who were cleared by the War Department to enlist in 1943, prompted many servicemen to seek an outlet for their disapproval of Japanese American incarceration and anti-Japanese hatred in the United States.

In 1945, the War Relocation Authority (the agency that oversaw the day-to-day operations of incarceration) released a report titled “What We’re Fighting For,” a collection of statements by servicemen on “Americans of Japanese Descent.” The War Relocation Authority (WRA) collected letters to the editor submitted by Marines and soldiers who had returned home or were still stationed or recovering from injuries overseas. Because of budget cuts and growing concerns about the impact of incarceration on the morale of Nisei, the WRA wanted to liquidate the prison camps as fast as possible and resettle Japanese Americans in towns and cities across the United States. 

WRA administrators were thwarted, however, by the still-prevalent anti-Japanese sentiment manifesting in calls to permanently exclude Japanese Americans from states or strip them of their political rights. The WRA hoped that presenting supportive statements from those who fought for democracy and freedom would convince Americans to trust in the decision to release Japanese Americans from the camps.

Servicemen were quick to note the violation of the Constitutional rights of American-born citizens of Japanese descent under incarceration and its aftermath. An anonymous veteran of Guadalcanal wrote to TIME magazine in December of 1943 after hearing stories of anti-Japanese sentiment and pleaded with his fellow Americans to abandon their prejudiced views. “As a U.S. Marine, I am not in the habit of begging anyone for anything, but there is one thing I will beg for,” he began. “I beg my fellow citizens to give the loyal Japanese Americans their God-given right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that, I sincerely hope, is guaranteed by our Constitution.” Second Lt. Morris Kritz, stationed in the Pacific, wrote a letter to the editor of the PM New York after reading an article about prejudice on the West Coast:

“My own sentiments…are that Japanese-Americans should have the same rights guaranteed to them as are guaranteed to any other Americans—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Other servicemen spoke bluntly on the racism that fueled the shameful treatment of Japanese Americans. In The Chicago Sun, Joe Fromm expressed how “disturbing to overseas soldiers—especially those who are liberal and tolerant—are the growing race hatreds at home.” While stationed in Cassino, Italy he and his fellow soldiers “read in American magazines and newspapers letters condemning all Japanese, regardless of birth, in the most bitter, intolerant and un-American manner.” 

Fromm was horrified by the “most vile attacks and discrimination” that Japanese Americans faced, as were his fellow soldiers. When he discovered that the unit he and his mates were relieving in Cassino was none other than the Nisei 100th Battalion, he was even more enraged. “You can well imagine what we thought of this bigoted group in the United States which was seeking to make life unbearable for the parents and families of these men who, we learned, protested their withdrawal from Cassino although they had been decimated by wounds and disease.”

Celebratory descriptions of the Nisei who served in the Army, despite knowing that their families and friends were still in camps or victims of racist attacks at home, were also included in the report. “I just came from Italy where I was assigned to the Japanese 100th Infantry Battalion. I never in my life saw any more of a true American than they are,” 2nd Lt. E.D. Chasse wrote in TIME. Another spoke disdainfully of the “4-fers” deemed ineligible for military service who thought they had the right to speak poorly of Japanese Americans fighting abroad. 

Members of the 442nd Combat Team in France, 1944. National Archives and Records Administration photo.

 

Pfc. Dudley C. Ruish was in awe of the Nisei soldier’s ability to commit to the war cause while also knowing the reality of race relations at home. “When I meet a Japanese-American on the street in the same uniform as my own, I know he is fighting two wars, our war and his own private war for his people against public opinion and racial discrimination.”

On a more personal level, servicemen also felt betrayed by their fellow Americans who became “race-baiting bigots” at home. “I am one of the fortunate Marines who have recently returned to this country after serving in the offensive against the Japanese on Guadalcanal,” Pfc. Robert E. Borchers wrote in a letter to the American Legion, but he was stunned to find that “American citizens, those of Japanese ancestry, are being persecuted, yes, persecuted as though Adolph Hitler himself were in charge.” These actions “made [his] blood boil,” but he remained dedicated to fighting “this injustice, intolerance and un-Americanism at home!” “It makes a fellow feel pretty bad to see some people at home trying to destroy the very thing that we are trying to save,” another soldier wrote.

As the ones who were on the frontline of war, servicemen felt they were best equipped to fight racism on the home front. Sgt. William Leung, a Chinese American soldier, was convinced “that only men who have fought the Japanese will be able to save Constitutional Americanism…and to preserve decent democracy in the country.” Men like Leung were unwilling to let Americans give themselves over to racism while they fought against fascism. “We servicemen—those who are across and those of us who are preparing to go across-do not intend to fight this war only to lose the peace.”

Unpatriotic treatment of Japanese Americans not only challenged principles of democracy, but also undermined what those in the military risked their lives for throughout the war. “They say many of us don’t know what we’re fighting for now,” one soldier wrote. “You keep up the good work and we’ll know right well what we have to fight for, and against, when we get back.”

Contributor

Stephanie Hinnershitz, PhD

Stephanie Hinnershitz is a historian of twentieth century US history with a focus on the Home Front and civil-military relations during World War II.

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