Saturday, January 2, 2010

Honor by Fire

Review by Bill Doughty

Honor, courage and commitment in the face of prejudice, fear and disenfranchisement: This book shows the story of triumph of American democracy over small-mindedness and bigotry as its author introduces us to a special group of service members from World War II.

Lyn Crost, correspondent for AP, Star-Bulletin and Honolulu Advertiser, documented this important slice of history just three years prior to her death in 1997 at the age of 80.

One hundred years ago Imperial Japan considered Okinawa a stepchild. Okinawans were treated as second-class citizens. Many emigrated to a land of opportunity Hawaii.

Japanese from Okinawa and mainland Japan who came to the Hawaiian islands and the West Coast of the United States embraced their new country, a land of freedom and opportunity.

Their children (nisei, or second generation), became loyal Americans, willing to serve in the U.S. military and risk their lives for the country of their birth.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, however, many non-Japanese Americans questioned the patriotism of Americans of Japanese Ancestry (AJAs).

Racism brought about internment imprisonment of Japanese families, mostly those living in California, including some of the families of the AJAs serving in the military.

Ironically, AJA service members exemplified by the 442nd Regiment, 552nd Field Artillery Battalion (pictured at right with Crost), Military Intelligence Service, and others fought against racist German Nazis, Italian Fascists, and Japanese imperialists, while their families experienced discrimination back home.

Nisei demonstrated superior intelligence collection, communication skills and bravery under fire. Crost’s history of AJAs in WWII in Honor by Fire is a chronological work of love, a tribute to the achievements and legacy of these proud Americans, both in the Pacific and in Europe.

There are universal timeless lessons in this book.

Crost shows the success of the nisei approach to treating and interrogating prisoners by building trust and showing empathy.

Each of the Marine divisions at Iwo Jima had a team of nisei linguists who worked with Marines and Seabees in clearing caves (pictured below), trying to persuade Imperial Japanese soldiers to surrender instead of committing suicide, then interviewing them to gather intelligence.

Linguists also translated diaries and documents that revealed vital information about the enemy, information provided immediately to Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and Army and Marine Corps leaders.

The AJAs used their trust-building techniques to communicate with Japanese civilians and soldiers on Okinawa near the end of the war, persuading hundreds hiding in tunnels or caves to surrender. Unfortunately, many women and children chose to believe Imperial Japanese Army propaganda and jumped from cliffs into the rocks and sea below.

Crost tells compelling stories of AJA heroism, taking readers to New Guinea, Italy, Burma, Anzo, Philippines and German death camps. She introduces us to dozens of individual soldiers along the way.

Tech. Sgt. Herbert Miyasaki, Gen. Frank D. Merrill (of Merrill’s Marauders) and Tech. Sgt. Akiji Yoshimura. Merrill's evaluation of the nisei: "As for the value of the nisei group, I couldn't have gotten along without them. Probably few realized that these boys did everything that an infantryman normally does plus the extra work of translating, interrogating, etc. Also they were in a most unenviable position as to identity, as almost everyone from the Japanese to the Chinese shot first and identified later."

Among the best known of the AJAs of WWII: then-2nd Lt. Daniel K. Inouye, whose platoon engaged in combat against fascists in Italy at Mount Nebbione on Apr. 20, 1945. Crost reports what happened:

Inouye’s platoon encircled and destroyed an enemy patrol and mortar observation post, then advanced to within forty yards of the main enemy force, which was shielded in a hilltop rock formation with three machine guns hidden in a bunker. There was no cover on the hillside leading to it. Inouye crawled up the hill alone to locate the weapon emplacements; as he was taking out a grenade, he was hit in the stomach by machine-gun fire. The blow knocked him down, but he managed to get up, pull the pin from the grenade, run to within five yards of the nearest machine gun, and throw the grenade inside the position. As the gunners struggled to their feet, he raked them with his tommy gun.

His men ran to help him but were pinned down by enemy fire. Inouye, bleeding from the stomach, staggered farther up the hill and threw two more grenades into the second position before he fell again He dragged himself toward the last machine-gun nest, stood up, and pulled the pin from another grenade. He had just drawn back his right arm to throw it when his right elbow as smashed by a rifle grenade, which almost tore off the arm. By reflex action, his right hand was still clenching the grenade and its safety handle. His men ran to help him but Inouye yelled at them: “Go back!” Reaching down with his good left hand, he took the grenade out of the clenched fist of his shattered right arm and threw it at the remaining machine-gun next, destroying it. Then, with his left hand controlling his tommy gun and his right arm flapping against his side, he started finishing off the surviving gunners. Before he was through he was hit again by gunfire, this time in his right leg and he fell down the hill... Inouye refused to be evacuated until his men were deployed in defensive positions against a possible counterattack.

In this attack, twenty-five enemy troops were killed and eight others captured. Inouye’s right arm had to be amputated. His dream of becoming a doctor was ended...

At the war’s end, Inouye, like a lot of AJAs, had to deal with racism back in the United States.

Passing through California on his way back to Hawaii, Capt. Inouye tried to get a haircut at a barbershop near San Francisco. An attendant met him at the door and said, “You’re a Jap and we don’t cut Jap hair.”

Today, Senator Daniel K. Inouye, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, is the second-most senior member of the U.S. Senate, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations and senior member of the Commerce, Rules and Indian Affairs Committees.

The outright racism Inouye experienced 65 years ago is thankfully less overt today, though one could argue that fear-borne incivility is making a resurgence.

Educated voices, on the other hand, call for collaboration, embracing differences to achieve harmony. Crost's conclusion:

“I have learned that we are dependent on each other, and that the future will be based on the ability of our diverse races, religions and cultures to weave an understanding that will rise above inevitable conflicts. My Japanese-American friends have taught me this lesson.”

While this book is not on the Navy’s Professional Reading Program list, it is recommended by the U.S. Army Center of Military History on its history site about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Other titles referenced include Masayo Duus’s Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and 442nd, Thomas Murphy’s Ambassadors in Arms: The Story of Hawaii’s 100th Battalion, Orville C. Shirey’s Americans: The Story of the 442nd Combat Team, Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, Chester Tanaka’s Go for Broke, and Daniel K. Inouye’s Journey to Washington.