Rich storytelling and deep historical research about the Japanese American experience are the essence of Daniel James Brown’s “Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II.”
The titular heroes are actually two groups of people. The first are the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team – a Japanese American unit led by white officers – that saw ferocious battles in Italy, France, and Germany. The second is the 100,000-plus American men, women, and children who lived out the war crammed into “relocation centers” – concentration camps located on barren land in western states. Their only “crime” was that they were of Japanese descent.
Brown’s descriptions of life in the camps reveal harsh conditions. Deprived of homes, businesses, and even family, the incarcerated nevertheless created an environment that replicated normalcy as much as possible. They would use scrap lumber to build furniture and polish agates into small works of art. Eventually they would even construct community centers, schools, and theater stages.
Additionally, Brown relates the experiences of Nisei – second-generation Japanese Americans – who volunteered to enlist in the armed services. At the beginning of the war, most were rejected because of their race, but as fighting in Europe and the Pacific grew worse and casualties increased, the military became desperate for recruits and eventually began to accept them. On Feb. 1, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the formation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, where many Nisei recruits served.
The book draws heavily from oral histories and documents. A large number are sourced from the nonprofit organization Densho, which works to record and share the personal stories of Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. (“Densho” means “to leave a legacy for future generations,” and it was started in the 1990s by Tom Ikeda, a third-generation Japanese American.)
Brown also conducted his own interviews, including one with 442nd RCT veterans Roy Fujii and Flint Yonashiro. Both men were in their 90s when they met with Brown in a restaurant in Honolulu’s McCully-Mo’ili’ili neighborhood. “Roy patiently explained how to adjust the elevation settings on a 105-milimeter howitzer,” recalls Brown. “They both talked about the terrifying sound of incoming artillery shells, about handing out candy bars to starving children in Italy, about swimming in the Mediterranean, and about picking their way through deadly minefields in Germany.”
One of the most heroic achievements of the 442nd RCT was its rescue of the “Lost Battalion” – the 141st Infantry Regiment composed of former Texas National Guard members that had been surrounded by German forces in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France. Overcoming devastating enemy firepower, two companies – K and I – of the 442nd RCT broke through the German line of defense, liberating what remained of the battalion. One of the rescued Texans, Private Walter Yattaw, told an AP reporter that “It really was ironical that we were so glad to see the Japanese, but boy, they are real Americans.”
But this bravery came at a tremendous cost. “By the time they were finally relieved,” notes Brown, “K Company’s roughly 180 men had been reduced to 17 riflemen still alive and able to fight. I Company had been reduced from approximately the same strength to only 4 riflemen and a handful of machine gunners.”
Not all Japanese American soldiers were in Europe during the war. The Military Intelligence Service Language School began sending trained linguists to the Pacific battlefields as translators and interpreters. They faced extreme danger because they were at risk from both enemy and friendly fire. On the home front, the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion built vital military defense installations on the island of Oahu. By 1943, Nisei women were eligible for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) serving as military nurses and doctors and MIS linguists. Interned women in the U.S. concentration camps also wove camouflage nets, some of which found their way to Italy for use by the 100th Infantry Battalion – a unit composed largely of members of the Hawai’i Army National Guard, in which some Nisei soldiers served.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated unit, relative to its size and length of service, in the history of the U.S. Military. In total, about 18,000 men served; together, they earned more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor, and 29 Distinguished Service Crosses.
Veterans returning from the war used the G.I. bill to attend college and postgraduate schools. Some became lawyers, doctors, dentists, and other professionals serving the same communities that had once rejected them. A few held high political offices, including Sen. Daniel Inouye, Sen. Spark Matsunaga, and Hawaii governor George Ariyoshi. “None of that, though, had much effect on the stark realities that most of the Nisei vets experienced when they got home,” writes Brown. “At the end of the day they were still ‘Japs’ to the vast majority of their countrymen.”
Although the book graphically describes the horrors of battle, it spotlights stories of heroism and endurance. It also commemorates Japanese Americans who “decided they had no choice but to do what their sense of honor and loyalty told them was right” as they confronted and conquered “the mountain of troubles that lay suddenly in their paths.”