Overlooking the mountain, by Daniel James Brown Viking hide caption
In the middle of the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles is a memorial to the 442nd Infantry Regiment of the US Army, which was made up of Nisei, Japanese-American soldiers of the second generation in World War II.
Named after the regiment’s motto – “Go For Broke” – the inscription on the memorial reads in part: “Viewed with suspicion, separated and deprived of their constitutional rights, they nevertheless remained steadfast and served with an indomitable spirit and unusual bravery Struggle to show loyalty. “
In his excellent new book, Facing the Mountain, Daniel James Brown tells the story of the men of the 442nd and their families who “through their actions have shown the whole world what it is exactly to be an American.” It’s a fascinating account of some of the bravest Americans who ever lived, and a sobering reminder of a dark chapter in American history – years of anti-Asian racism that, as we are reminded daily, have never really gone.
Brown’s book focuses primarily on four young Nisei men: Katsugo “Kats” Miho, Fred Shiosaki, and Rudy Tokiwa, who would all join the army after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Gordon Hirabayashi, a Quaker and conscientious objector, who had the money would spend warfare in the states for civil rights, a decision that would put him in jail.
Miho and Shiosaki had longed to enter service after Pearl Harbor, but at the time the army was not accepting Japanese-American recruits and considering them “enemy aliens”. Tokiwa had been detained in a detention center with his family, forced to endure dehumanizing conditions but still enlisted when President Roosevelt lifted the Nisei ban on the military, despite the humiliating and bigoted treatment of people like him by his country.
The atmosphere in America at the time was toxic to Japanese Americans. “Cartoons appeared in newspapers depicting the Japanese as rats, insects, skunks, monkeys, lice, or rabid dogs,” writes Brown. “Restaurant owners put signs in their front windows: THIS RESTAURANT POISON BOTH RATS AND [Japanese people]”Yet, as Brown notes, in Hawaii alone,” the Army had called fifteen hundred Nisei volunteers … Almost ten thousand had turned out. “
Brown accompanies the recruits through their training in Mississippi and their first days in Europe as members of the 442nd. “Little did they know that they would see and do things that would change them completely, things they would regret, things that would burn their souls and things they would cherish beyond measure, “writes Brown. They couldn’t understand yet that they wanted to leave the edge of the world. “
The 442nd would wage a series of battles so intense that they are almost believing. After strenuous, bloody fighting in the Vosges, the regiment was ordered to rescue the so-called Lost Battalion, which was stranded in October 1944 and surrounded by Nazi soldiers. The efforts were successful, but the losses were staggering: “Of the hundreds of men who had started with the two companies in the Vosges three days earlier, less than two dozen in the K company were still alive and could get out of the forest go; there was even less in I Company. “
In the United States, soldiers’ families were still in internment camps where “the stress of containment and regulation had unraveled much of traditional family life. Traditional norms, values and ways of life had suddenly been turned upside down.” When members of the 442nd returned home, they were denied the hero’s deserved welcome: “Millions of employers still refused to hire them. The jobs available to them were largely poorly paid and low. “
Brown proves to be a skilled chronicler of all aspects of the Nisei experience during World War II. Providing a broad (and heartbreaking) context about the time, it paints a picture of a hate-stricken America convinced of its own moral superiority while imprisoning its own citizens for their inheritance.
He tells the stories of the battles of the 442nd in vivid details that are never garish or sensational, and tells not only the physical injuries of the soldiers, but also the psychological ones. In a terrifying passage he tells Rudy Tokiwa in the middle of the battle for the Vosges and thinks: “I wonder if I’ll be human when I get out of this situation, if I do.”
Facing the Mountain is more than just the story of a group of young men whose bravery helped save a land they despised. It’s a fascinating, expertly-written look at selfless heroes who emerged from one of the darkest periods in American history – soldiers like these who this country may never see again.