In the middle of the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles, there's a monument dedicated to the 442nd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, which was composed of Nisei, second-generation Japanese American soldiers in World War II.
Named after the regiment's motto — "Go For Broke" — the inscription on the monument reads in part, "Looked upon with suspicion, set apart and deprived of their constitutional rights, they nevertheless remained steadfast and served with indomitable spirit and uncommon valor, for theirs was a fight to prove 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, laid bare for all the world to see what exactly it means 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're reminded daily, never really went away.
Brown's book focuses mainly on four young Nisei men: Katsugo "Kats" Miho, Fred Shiosaki, and Rudy Tokiwa, who would all enlist in the Army after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Gordon Hirabayashi, a Quaker and conscientious objector who would spend the war fighting stateside for civil rights, a decision that would land him in prison.
Miho and Shiosaki had longed to join the service after Pearl Harbor, but at the time, the Army wasn't accepting Japanese American recruits, considering them "enemy aliens." Tokiwa had been imprisoned with his family in an internment camp, forced to endure dehumanizing conditions, but nonetheless enlisted when President Roosevelt lifted the ban on Nisei in the military, despite his country's humiliating and bigoted treatment of people like him.
The atmosphere in America at the time was poisonous toward Japanese Americans. "Cartoons appeared in newspapers, depicting Japanese people as rats, insects, skunks, monkeys, lice, or rabid dogs," Brown writes. "Restaurant owners put signs in their front windows: THIS RESTAURANT POISONS BOTH RATS AND [Japanese people]." And yet, as Brown notes, in Hawaii alone, "The army had called for fifteen hundred Nisei volunteers ... Nearly ten thousand had turned out."
Brown follows the recruits through their training in Mississippi, and their first days in Europe as members of the 442nd. "They couldn't know that they were about to see things and do things that would change them utterly, things they would regret, things that would sear their souls, and things they would cherish beyond all reckoning," Brown writes. They couldn't yet understand that they were about to step off the edge of the world."
The 442nd would go on to fight a series of battles so intense, it almost beggars belief. After exhausting, bloody fights in the Vosges Mountains, the regiment was ordered to rescue the so-called Lost Battalion, stranded and surrounded by Nazi soldiers in October of 1944. The effort was successful, but the casualties were staggering: "Of the hundreds of men who had started up into the Vosges with the two companies three days before, fewer than two dozen in K Company were still alive and able to walk out of the woods; in I Company, there were even fewer."
Meanwhile, in the States, the soldiers' families were still being detained in internment camps, where "the stresses of confinement and regimentation had unraveled much of traditional family life. Traditional norms, values, and ways of living had suddenly been turned upside down." When the surviving members of the 442nd returned home, they were denied the hero's welcome they deserved: "Millions of employers still refused to hire them. What jobs were available to them were mostly low paying and menial. Slurs and slights still met them everywhere they went."
Brown proves to be an adept chronicler of every aspect of the Nisei experience in World War II. He provides ample (and heartbreaking) context around the times, painting a picture of an America choked with hatred, convinced of its own moral superiority while at the same time imprisoning its own citizens because of their heritage.
He tells the stories of the battles fought by the 442nd in vivid detail that never turns lurid or sensational, and relates not only the physical injuries sustained by the soldiers, but the psychological ones as well. In one chilling passage, he recounts Rudy Tokiwa, in the midst of the Vosges battle, thinking, "I wonder, when I get out of this, if I do, whether I'll be a human being."
Facing the Mountain is more than just the story of a group of young men whose valor helped save a country that spurned them, it's a fascinating, expertly written look at selfless heroes who emerged from one of the darkest periods of American history — soldiers the likes of which this country may never see again.