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Nisei cadets among first active duty Asian servicemembers

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Amber R. Kelly-Herard
  • Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month Committee
The month of May is designated as Asian and Pacific Islander month by a 1978 joint Congressional Resolution to recognize the contributions of people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent in America.

Originally the first week of May was designated as Asian and Pacific Islander week because it coincided with the first arrival of Japanese immigrants to America May 7, 1843, and the transcontinental railroad which was completed by many Chinese laborers May 10, 1869. It became a month-long celebration in May 1990, and was officially established as a month-long celebration in 1992.

During and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nisei cadets of the University of Hawaii's Reserve Officer Training Corps helped the wounded, gave blood and helped bury the dead. Despite their efforts, the Nisei cadets, who were American-born children of Japanese immigrants, were discharged along with all Japanese Americans, and the Army changed their draft status to 4C, or enemy alien, Jan. 19, 1942.

They petitioned this act to the government while continuing their U.S. service and voluntarily forming the "Varsity Victory Volunteers." The VVV members built barracks, dug ditches, quarried rock and surfaced roads in Hawaii.

Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy, saw the VVV during a visit to Hawaii. Following the visit, the War Department announced, Jan. 28, 1943, the formation of an all-Nisei combat team and needed 1,500 volunteers. Ten thousand answered, including some from the VVV.

The War Department tried to recruit 3,000 men from the continental U.S. for the team, but only 1,182 volunteered. This was still a good number since more than 110,000 Japanese people, most of them American citizens, were sent to internment camps.
From this enlistment call, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was born and would go on to be the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. military.

The 442nd RCT was composed entirely of second generation Americans born of Japanese immigrants. About two-thirds of the soldiers were from Hawaii and the rest from the continental U.S. This diversity caused friction inside the unit because of their different backgrounds. Since the Japanese in Hawaii were not interned, they did not understand why the Japanese in America felt inferior to Caucasians.

Differences in skin color, language and financial standing almost led to the separation of the 442nd RCT.

To bridge the gap between the two groups, the Army sent the Hawaii volunteers to visit internment camps in the United States. Once they saw the barbed wire fences, guard towers with machine guns pointed at residents and entire families in small compartments with no privacy, the groups understood one another better. It was then that they banded together, enabling them to fight against prejudice in America and the Germans in Europe.

"Go for broke" was the 442nd RCT's motto, which was appropriate because they risked everything in hope of achieving something great.

More than 14,000 men served in the 442nd RCT and earned 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and eight Presidential Unit Citations.

Editor's note: Some of the information for this story is from