Part 52: Japanese-Americans in WWII
From: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek, Muriel E. (Betty) Palecek and their son, Glen Palecek
In the last episode, Mom told you about the Japanese-American Internment camp in Topaz, Utah, where the United States imprisoned Japanese-American citizens during WWII. This episode will tell you more details about Japanese-Americans and the war.
First, let’s be clear that imprisoning American citizens for no reason other than their heritage was clearly as illegal then as it is now. President Roosevelt knew it was unconstitutional to do so when he signed the order to build the camps and imprison these Americans.
Here’s more about this from Mom and Dad:
Mom: “The military necessity which brought about this wholesale removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast can neither be proved or denied, for it involved a potential invasion from the Orient. But one month after Pearl Harbor, these people were living and working as before, and little or nothing was heard about moving them way northward. Here was an opportunity for those who had long agitated against the industrious farmers of Japanese descent. War, hysteria, politics, and past grievances gave impetus to the idea of ridding California of all Japanese. The first evacuation movement did not take place until March 23, 1942, and it was not completed until June 3. Long before, immediately after Pearl Harbor, the FBI had rounded up some 4,000 Japanese-Americans whom they had reason to suspect. More than half of this number were released after hearings. Not a single case of sabotage, either before or after Pearl Harbor has ever been detected.
“On the other hand, the government declared publicly that Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) have given valuable aid to the FBI in hundreds of incidents. All in all, it seems that the potential danger was practically over before the evacuation.
“The average Japanese came to America as a common laborer, but soon bettered his condition through his industry and ambition. The average Japanese was of the comfortable middle class. But to comply with the evacuation order meant leaving homes, property, and businesses. It was a period of hurried decisions. Many sold their belongings at pitifully low prices. Others left them in the care of Caucasians, who they later all too often found were not too trustworthy. Estimated of losses because of the forced evacuation run as high as $300 million. The Japanese played a vital role in the economy of the West Coast, and their loss was felt in more ways than one.
Dad (in a letter to Mom from the battlefields of France dated October 28, 1944): “In your letters you were worried about what I’d think of your job (at the internment camp). In case you don’t receive my letter I which I already told you I think it’s one of the most broadminded and important jobs you could possibly have undertaken in this war. Americans of Japanese descent are fighting in France now. They fought in Italy and did a superior job. I’d rather have them next to me than the entire Italian Army. If they are good enough to fight for our freedom, why shouldn’t they have an equal right to all its advantages? They certainly are not letting us down over here so it is pretty cheap of the rest of our Americans to narrow mindedly let them down over there. Congratulations Darling on the job you’re doing. God be with you till we meet again. Love, Marvin.”
Mom: “In general, the expenses of families with children exceeded their income so that any money saved in the past often became gradually depleted. I received $200 a month for the same job as a Nisei teacher who got $19.
“The biggest job for the staff was relocation — that is, helping the residents to find new homes in which to settle. This was a vital job, of course, but since my job was education, I’ll proceed to that.
“The school block was about one-half mile from the dorms. In appearance it was no different from the other blocks. Each barrack had three schoolrooms, very crudely furnished with long wooden tables and hand-made chairs or stools, or in many cases, benches. The old Army stove stood at one side. In winter, you were only warm if you stood near the stove.”
Me: Mom goes on to describe in detail her role as a high school English and Latin teacher and the life in the camp. To say the least, the conditions were harsh for the Japanese-Americans yet they endured it all with pride and dignity and even had fun and gained the respect and admiration of their captors. I would like to add more of Mom’s accounts, but I want to get back to how Japanese-Americans played a vital role in winning WWII in both the European and Pacific theaters.
Mom: “A great source of pride was the Nisei soldier in the U.S. Army. I hope you know the story of the 442nd, the great Japanese-American division. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed entirely of Nisei volunteers, aided in the capture of Rome. It battled through three other offensives in Italy and France. Together with the 100th Infantry of Hawaiian Nisei, the 442nd accounted for 3,600 Purple Hearts, 500 Oak Leaf Clusters, 810 Bronze Stars, 342 Silver Stars, 47 Distinguished Service Crosses, 17 Legion of Merit awards, and one congressional Medal of Honor. General Mark Clark called it the most decorated military unit in the United States.
“Many Japanese also helped the war effort tremendously by being interpreters and by teaching Caucasian soldiers in Japanese language schools. But perhaps the very best service toward overcoming prejudice was that rendered by the 442nd. [Mom’s high school yearbook from Topaz was dedicated to these brave men. I wish I knew what happened to that yearbook. It disappeared from her room at Lake Winona Manor where she died. Have any of you readers seen it? I offer a reward for its return. Perhaps I should add here that Topaz residents even made models of Japanese ships so that our pilots could easily recognize them. They also helped our pilots learn where key war targets in Japan were located.]
Mom continues, “On New Year’s Day, 1945, the order excluding Japanese from the West Coast was rescinded. As the first of the exiles timorously returned to their old homes, scattered attacks upon some of them occurred. There were cases of dynamitings and arson. But these attempts to renew hatreds were repudiated by the vast majority of westerners. Fair Play Committees sprang up, and in many cities, citizens publicly welcomed the return of the Japanese-Americans.
“Perhaps one of the most touching sights I have ever seen was a Gold Star for a lost son — a Gold Star flag in the window of a tar paper shack put there by a mother whose son had given his life for a country which had interned her.”
Me: So much more to write about this! But I wanted to limit this story to two episodes. It’s time to write about Dad’s brother, Alvin, who about this time, was killed in the war against Japan.