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'Defining Courage' tells the story of WWII 'Nisei' soldiers


The struggles of Japanese Americans who fought for the U.S. in World War II are being remembered and presented in a live multimedia show that's now on tour.


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DAVID ONO: Monte Cassino and Italy are where the Nisei began to mold their reputation. On December 7, 1941, they watched as Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, their homeland. And without question, they wanted to fight back. Well, their first fight was not on the battlefield but actually against prejudice. That disrespect fueled their passion to prove themselves.

DETROW: That is a clip from longtime Los Angeles television journalist-turned-show creator David Ono from his new live production, "Defining Courage." The show shares the story of World War II Japanese American troops known as the Nisei. They were born in the U.S., but they were viewed as the enemy by their own government simply because of their Japanese ancestry. "Defining Courage" makes its next stop at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, D.C. But first, David Ono is with us here in the studio. David, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ONO: Thank you so much. It's an honor to be here.

DETROW: There are so many parts of World War II that have become pop culture and known history that everyone seems to know, and there's really important parts that have kind of faded a little bit or are more in corners of memory. And I think the Nisei probably are not that top-level common knowledge. So can you start off by reminding us who they were?

ONO: It's a great point because I myself had never heard of these guys. I'm Japanese American. I grew up in Texas. I lived on military bases. My father was in the Army - a lifer in the Army. So I thought I had known so many different chapters, at least, of our military. I got to California as a 30-year-old anchorman, which is kind of the concentrated area of Japanese Americans when they had to endure being taken out and put into camps and as well as the Nisei soldier. And so when they started asking me, was my family incarcerated? Was your father or grandfather a Nisei soldier? And I'm like, I don't know what you're talking about.

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And so after I discovered that and being a journalist and being on the air in LA, I thought, this is a great American story. And basically, it's about American citizens who were incarcerated during World War II because they weren't trusted. They were seen as the enemy. But out of these camps - you know, they were thrown literally into concentration camps. And I know a lot of people don't like that term, but it's truly what it was. So what was interesting was out of these camps, the young men were willing to fight for the very country that incarcerated these innocent people.

DETROW: Generally speaking, from your research, from working on this, do you have a sense of why someone would make that choice, why somebody would say, I'm going to put my life on the line fighting for a country that doesn't trust me, that views me as the enemy that is taking away my freedom?

ONO: That's one of the important lessons you learn from these guys. They knew that by showing their loyalty, they had a better chance of acceptance within the United States of America and a better chance of acceptance for their own family. Even if they did not survive the war, they knew they were doing the right thing because they were truly here to be Americans and to find a way to live the American dream. There is a saying that each of their parents would tell them, and that is, die if you must. Come home if you can, but don't bring shame unto the family. What's important to know about the Nisei soldier is they are considered the greatest fighting unit in American military history for their size and length of service - the greatest. Yet nobody learns about them, hears about them, sees a movie about them. Is there a miniseries about them? No.

DETROW: So that brings us to the show. You were telling us that, even as a Japanese American with military legacy in your family, this was not something that you were super-familiar with. You start to learn about this. Tell me about the decision to go from, this is something to talk about as a journalist, to, I think I'm going to make a show about this.

ONO: It started with a request to do a keynote speech for an organization that keeps their legacy alive called Go For Broke. And the vets join us each year, and each year there's less and less and less of them. I've learned so much from the vets and from the family within this organization. When they asked me to be a keynote speaker, I'm like, there's nothing I could tell them that they didn't already teach me. So at first, I said no. But then I happened to be going that summer to Europe to shoot some of their battlefields and work on a documentary, and then I got to thinking, the one thing I could give them is this hallowed ground. And I'd kind of fly you into France, and I'll fly you into Italy via drone and do some ground video, but then I'll show you old film as well. And we just kind of melded together this kind of multimedia experience.

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DETROW: We started this conversation by talking about that this is a forgotten chapter of World War II, and I feel like so much of living history now comes through pop culture, right? And you said it yourself. There's no miniseries about these guys. One of the biggest movies of the past year was, separately, about the death of hundreds of thousands of Japanese people in which Japanese people did not appear in the movie at all.

ONO: Right.

DETROW: How important is it for you to have your audiences leave with a sense, a visual sense, an immersive sense, of who the Nisei were, to put a face to the idea of these soldiers?

ONO: Well, it's vitally important because I'm meeting these guys in real life. Back then, there were hundreds of them where you could get their stories, and they were so modest. The vast majority didn't even want to talk about what they had accomplished. So my hope is that people see this and feel it and give them mass respect. But in addition to that, I'm hoping that this is part of the evolutionary process of getting this story in a much bigger way in front of a huge audience, and that could be still through a movie or a "Band Of Brothers" miniseries 'cause imagine how deep that would be and how wonderful that would be. But it may not happen by the time we lose the last one.

DETROW: I know Tom Hanks listens to NPR, so, Tom Hanks, get on it. You talked about the fact that there's so few left. We spoke to one of them - Terry Shima, 100 years old.

TERRY SHIMA: As far as the Nisei were concerned, Americans of Japanese ancestry was the only group who volunteered for combat to prove their loyalty to their own government. I think in the end, we achieved that objective.

DETROW: What does it mean to you to meet somebody like Terry Shima and hear his story and see his response to this show?

ONO: Terry is one of the most modest people you'll ever meet. He's the last one that's going to talk about himself, but he will talk about their legacy and the importance of what they did 'cause he understands it. The vast majority of these guys just wanted to assimilate back into American society and forget about what they had done.

DETROW: For somebody who isn't in a city where the show is playing, what's the most important thing that somebody listening needs to know about the Nisei?

ONO: They're truly some of America's greatest heroes, some of the toughest guys we've ever created. They are American, and they were born in America, and that's part of what they were trying to prove. To learn about these guys and learn about their adversity and how they overcame it and then how they just kind of faded back into the background, never to be adored, never to be thanked or congratulated - and most of them have now passed on without even getting a bit of attention.

DETROW: That's David Ono. He's an anchor for KABC News in Los Angeles, and he's one of the creators of the live stage show "Defining Courage." Its next stop will be here in Washington, D.C., on Veterans Day. Thanks so much for talking to us.

ONO: Thanks a lot.

DETROW: And thanks also to Terry Shima for speaking to us about his World War II experiences.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) And you, through the sky (ph)... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gabriel J. Sánchez
Gabriel J. Sánchez is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. Sánchez identifies stories, books guests, and produces what you hear on air. Sánchez also directs All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Kathryn Fox
Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.