A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II — Daniel James Brown

A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II — Daniel James Brown

A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II — Daniel James Brown

He opened the door to an important part of history … Daniel James Brown’s bestselling book perfectly captures the bravery and heroism of the Greatest Generation during World War II. Facing the Mountain pulls readers right into the action and covers an important part of history that Americans don’t often hear about. Brown discusses his book and the extraordinary sacrifices of the Japanese American soldiers with host Charles Mizrahi.

Topics Discussed:

• An Introduction to Daniel James Brown (00:00:00)
• Exclusion Zones (00:03:17)
• Crucial American History (00:07:45)
• The Hawaiian Islands (00:11:37)
• Pearl Harbor (00:14:48)
• Executive Order 9066 (00:19:13)
• 442nd Infantry Regiment (00:29:42)
• Anzio, Italy (00:37:12)
• Little Iron Men (00:39:30)
• Coming Home (00:49:25)
• Facing the Mountain (00:52:12)
• Eradicating Evil Across the World (00:54:03)

Guest Bio:

Daniel James Brown is an award-winning narrative nonfiction writer. Brown’s remarkable storytelling ability is unmatched. His crisp, rich prose has the ability to not only inspire but fully capture significant moments in history. So, it’s no coincidence that his books have climbed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

Resources Mentioned:

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Read Transcript

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: These people were American citizens and yet found themselves living in very primitive barracks behind barbed wire. At the time, the only other place in the world that that was happening was Nazi Germany.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Daniel James Brown. Daniel writes books that quickly climb to the top of the New York Times bestseller list — and stay there. He has a unique way of writing not only a great inspiring true story but also a fascinating work of history.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: A few years ago, his book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was a New York Times bestseller. It was a fascinating story of how nine working class boys from the American West showed the world what true grit really meant at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: His latest book, Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II, which just came out, is already a New York Times bestseller. It’s a true story that highlights the contributions and sacrifices that Japanese immigrants — and their American-born children — made for the sake of the nation during World War II. The book follows four Japanese American families and their sons who volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and were deployed to France, Germany and Italy — where they were asked to do the near-impossible.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I recently sat down with Daniel, and we discussed how researching Facing the Mountain opened his eyes to the extraordinary sacrifices Japanese American soldiers made — which were never given their fair due.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Daniel, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show today. I want to tell you: I’ve read you from a distance. And I’m so excited to have you on the show because the latest book that you wrote, Facing the Mountain: The True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II, read like a novel. It was absolutely gripping.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Great. I’m glad you found it that way. When I write about history, I’m always trying to use a novelist’s approach to try to pull readers in and make them experience a story in personal terms. So, I’m glad it worked for you.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Well, it’s no accident that you’re a No. 1 bestselling author in the New York Times. It doesn’t happen by accident. By the way, one thing I love about your [writing] style — because I never read any of your other books before — is that your sentences are short and crisp, and there are no wasted words. I guess that’s what you do on purpose. But what a difference! When you’re reading your book, it’s snappy.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. I think a writer’s job is to make it easy for the reader to keep moving down the page. So, I work hard on that part, actually.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Keep doing it man. You’re doing great. I don’t have to tell you that. Sales are telling you that. All right. So, before we get into the book, Facing the Mountain, how did you pick this topic? You live in Washington, right? Spokane, Washington?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Seattle.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Seattle. OK. So now, for those who don’t know — and I think you have a beautiful map in the book — during World War II, right after Pearl Harbor, the eastern part — all the way from Washington, including Oregon, California and Arizona — was called the exclusion zone.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah, that’s right. There was an exclusion zone that ran down the West Coast. It didn’t include all of Washington or Oregon — but a big chunk of both of those states. And then, [it included] California and a little bit of Arizona. Japanese Americans were forced from their homes in those areas and put into camps.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Concentration camps. So, the only reason they were there was because of their ancestry. Even if they were first generation Americans it didn’t matter because they were Japanese — or had Japanese ancestry and looked Japanese. They came to your house, put you in a car and off you went to a concentration camp.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Generally, what happened was the FBI came first, knocked on your door — or sometimes didn’t knock — and ransacked through your house, looking for contraband. Again, whether or not you were an American citizen, you were not allowed to own certain items like binoculars and things like that.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: That all happened within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor. And then, in the two months that followed, people were rounded up. They were usually taken first to what the government euphemistically called “assembly centers.” And these were racetracks and fairgrounds where people were often made to sleep in horse stalls and really primitive conditions.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: And they just dumped people. They knew they had to do something to Japanese Americans. Hysteria was running rampant. They actually believed that they were fifth column communicating with the empire of Japan. And they had to get these people off the streets.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Right. That was the military’s point of view. There was actually quite a bit of debate within the Roosevelt administration. The attorney general, Francis Biddle, thought that this was unconstitutional. And so, there was a debate between December, 1941 and February, 1942 about whether or not they could — and should — do this. But ultimately, the military planners won out, and they began this program of rounding people up.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, this is a part of American history. It’s pretty bad. If you described this to someone without mentioning America or the Japanese, they’d think you were talking about Nazi Germany.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. There are undeniable similarities. It was a very conspicuous thing that these people were American citizens and yet found themselves living in very primitive barracks behind barbed wire. At the time, the only other place in the world that that was happening was Nazi Germany. So, you can’t carry the comparisons too far. Obviously, these camps were not Auschwitz. They were not Dachau. They weren’t slave labor camps. They weren’t death camps.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: But they were in fact — and this is why I used the term — concentration camps. They were designed to remove certain [people] from the general population, concentrate them behind barbed wire and isolate them from the rest of society. At one point, even Franklin Roosevelt called them concentration camps.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Before we get into this topic, there’s two parts to your book. There’s the terrible part, which is the deportation [of] Japanese Americans — Nisei, which was the second generation.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: That’s right.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, those were children who were born in America from Japanese parents. And the Issei were immigrants.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: That’s right.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, how did you come to write about this part of American history — where so little is known about it? Oh, I just remembered what I was going to say. There are really two parts to your book. One is the passive part — which isn’t so passive. They’re rounded up and placed in in concentration camps. And the other part of the book — which I was absolutely amazed by — was the 442nd Infantry. It was one of the most highly decorated [infantry regiments] in military history. Japanese Americans were fighting — and in the worst possible conditions. That’s part two of your book.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So first, how did you come to write a book about a period of American history that many people don’t learn much about in school? I don’t remember learning anything about this in school. It’s something that is not even talked about in terms of military bravery.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: There’s a guy in Seattle named Tom McCada. For the last 25 years, Tom has been videotaping Japanese Americans — mostly older men and women at this point — who talk about when they were younger men and women. He’s been videotaping, recording and saving these oral histories — or first-hand accounts — of what Japanese Americans experienced during World War II.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: So, I met Tom, and he explained what he did. I went home and sat down. He put all these oral histories on a website called thedencio.org. I started looking around there and listening to some of these stories. And I was mesmerized by them. There were a lot of really interesting stories in there. They were the kinds of stories that I’m drawn to. They were about young Americans confronted with really difficult circumstances and having to persevere, be resilient and come together to get through this set of problems that they faced at the beginning of the war.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: It was, thematically, a bit like my previous book, The Boys in the Boat, in that way. I was really drawn to those stories. So, I started talking to Tom. He introduced me to some of the family members of these people. And over the course of several years, I whittled it down to a few that I wanted to focus on. I spent a lot of time with the families doing basic background research. So, the book grew out of that.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: How many years ago do you start this book?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: It was almost five years ago.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, many of the veterans — or people who experienced this — were dying out, right? They were pretty old.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yep.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Did you meet a lot of the people who went through this process/ordeal?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah, I did meet a fair number. It is true, though, that when I started, most of the veterans had passed away. And as I wrote the book, more of them passed away. Actually, one of the four men that I profiled in the book — a guy named Fred Shiosaki — just passed away about six weeks ago, I think. Tom was collecting these stories. And I, as the writer, felt there was a certain urgency to getting these stories curated and telling them on as large a platform as we could — while some of these people were still alive.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK, so let’s set the stage. Around December 6, 1941, about 30% of Hawaii’s population was [made up of] Japanese descendants — American children born of Japanese parents and immigrants — right?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yes.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, they came here, and most of them worked in horrific conditions. They came over because Japan was starving in the late 1800s. They came over here not knowing much. And since Hawaii was not a state, they were coerced into signing documents — which you put in your book — that made them work much longer, harder and for less money than any deals they thought they were signing in Japan.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: So, the Hawaiian Islands were basically run like one big sugar cane and pineapple plantation — mostly cane. So, most of these immigrants came and found themselves working in the cane fields under absolutely brutal conditions. They were really horrific conditions and also racially segregated conditions. And so, it was a very hard life.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Their children, the Nisei — who were born in Hawaii — often also worked in the cane fields. But by the time Pearl Harbor came along, they were beginning to go to college and high school and get some of the trappings of American middle-class life. So, Hawaii was starting to change. But yes, a huge portion of the population was of Japanese descent.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I never knew that. I had no idea. And all of the sudden you had these … Why they were able to get away with this? It was really a slave colony.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: The plantations were absolutely brutal. The conditions that they had left in Japan were also brutal. There was famine, starvation and terrible conditions. Some of the immigrants who came to work in the cane fields, when they realized how brutal that work was, returned to Japan. Actually, very few did. Most of them were determined to stick it out. And as you know — as immigrants to this country always have — they set their eyes on trying to make things better for their children’s generation.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Also, they couldn’t afford a return ticket back unless they signed these cruel contracts in order to work for much less. You depicted how they worked in terms of the insects, snakes and all of the conditions. It was 115 degrees, and they wrap themselves up with babies on their backs. Amazing. I don’t want to give it all away, but it’s well worth it (the book).

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Now, it’s December 7th. Your description — the narrative of what happened the morning of the attack — kudos. I’ve never read an account that was so on-the-ground of things that you’ve never thought about — houses, what people were thinking, what they were doing, where they were running to and what they were witnessing. How did you get all that information?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: I’m always trying to put my reader in the moment. So, I spent a lot of time doing what I call “micro-research” — which is finding out little tiny details like what time the sun came up over Oahu and what the cloud patterns were like. And then, I listened to these recorded oral histories — not just of the four guys I was writing about, but also of other families that were there that morning.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: You listen to enough of those recordings and take enough notes that you can eventually piece together the jigsaw puzzle and get a very granular, detailed view of what unfolded minute by minute — from a somewhat different perspective. We’ve all seen movies about Pearl Harbor. We all have a sense of that narrative. But I really wanted readers to see it through the eyes of Japanese Americans — Nisei.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: A lot of the Japanese imperial pilots who came over the islands on bombing raids that day flew in so low that people on the ground could see them looking down. And the people who were looking up at them, in many cases, were of Japanese descent. So, it was an interesting shock to all these young Americans of Japanese descent — seeing people who looked like them bombing the place that they considered home. And that’s sort of what sets the narrative in motion.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, December 7 is the demarcation point for Japanese Americans. In a matter of hours, they’re looked at as dangerous. The dangerous fifth column. The Constitution does not protect them. They are stripped of all the rights that every American has. And you do a profile in the book in which you talk about Gordon — who I thought was an amazing person and challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court. And what they went through…

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, on December 8th, some of these Japanese American kids were walking to school. Their friends didn’t look at them the same anymore. It was a different ballgame.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah, just having a Japanese face or last name completely isolated you from the rest of the world you’d been living in up to that moment. So, for the most part — both in Hawaii and on the mainland — the Nisei kids had been going to high school, playing on the football team or [serving as] yearbook editors — or whatever kids that age were doing. So, they had groups of friends. Some of those were Asian friends and some were Caucasian. And they were integrated into American life. And then, boom!

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Like that, on December 8th, they walked into their school buildings, and people turned away from them and looked the other way. Or in some cases, they beat them up. There were all kinds of things that happened. But again, from the perspective of those young Americans, that was the reality they faced. And they had to figure out: What do we do with this? How do we move forward in this country now that this thing has happened?

CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s what was happening in the Hawaiian Islands. Now, we have the mainland — which is Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona. You could take a map — go a few inches inland — and just draw straight down. That whole section is what the American government — or the military — considered to be … Any Japanese American in that area had to be considered hostile.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Right. What happened was Roosevelt issued an executive order 9066 on February 19, 1942. And within weeks, the FBI had already ransacked their homes. But now, they come back, and people have to get on buses and be taken to camps.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: What that means — in a practical sense — for these families is they have to walk away from the family farm with crops in the field. They have to close the doors on the laundry or shops that they run. They have to try to sell off their possessions for pennies on the dollar — or simply give them away to their neighbors. They had to abandon the schooling that they were in the middle of. Children had to give up beloved pets.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: If you put yourself in that situation, you can imagine how traumatic it would be. And everybody had to go. Little old ladies with walkers, tiny children and everybody in between had to get on the buses and go — with very little preparation. So, it was very traumatic.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, they’re given some time to take whatever little possessions they have. At this point, the government has no idea what to do with these people. So, they put them in these “assembly centers” — which are already built — or open areas. They’re using stalls and all that stuff. Then, the army figures [out] it has to be a little smarter. So, it stops building these concentration camps. Describe — you do it so amazingly in the book. Some of the places they put these camps — you feel the heat just by reading.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. There were 10 of them. And if you tried to pick 10 places in the American West that were brutally hot in the summer and brutally cold in the winter, they would be those 10 spots. The one I write about most — one of the families I followed was incarcerated there — is Poston, Arizona. It’s out in the Mojave Desert. As you can imagine, it’s 112 to 114 kinds of temperatures during the summer.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: But yeah, these were bleak camps that were surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Often, [there were] guys with machine guns in them. They were living in flimsy barracks. Part of what happened was that family life disintegrated. Morale disintegrated — particularly among the older people who had been running businesses or whatever. All of the sudden, the parents had lost everything they’d tried to build during the preceding decades.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: So, it was a physical shock to live in these places, but also a mental and psychological shock. One of the problems within the camps was this despondency that came over people — partly because they became extremely bored in the first year or so. Initially, there was very little to do in these camps. Sit on the steps of the barracks and stare out through the barbed wire. Over time, they started to build schools and began organizing themselves. And that’s actually a pretty interesting part of the story. But it was a huge blow to them.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: What happened to their assets? They had money in the bank. What happened there?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: So, what happened was that the Issei — the first-generation Japanese immigrants…

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Could you translate Nisei and Issei?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Issei means “first generation.” Nisei means “second generation.” It was interesting. The Issei were not allowed to apply for American citizenship because they were Asian. No Asians were allowed to apply for American citizenship. Often, they were only citizens of Japan because, otherwise, they had no country at all. Their assets were frozen. Their bank accounts were frozen, initially. And then, they were allowed to withdraw a certain amount per month. I forget what it was.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It was $100. And you wrote that it was a concession. They got it to $100. Originally, many didn’t even want that much.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. And that would have left them completely unable to pay any bills. Even when they went off to camp, they still had bills to pay from before — for life insurance or dentist bills back in Sacramento. So, the assets of the Issei were frozen for quite some time. The American citizens in the camps could continue to have bank accounts outside the camps, but they had virtually no income to replenish those bank accounts. So, in sheer financial terms, life got really hard.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: You talk about — and we learn it as a line item in American history — The Chinese Exclusion Act. It was signed by President Chester Arthur in 1882. It barred immigration of Chinese labor. A little before that, you go through — it’s a pogrom. It’s a big lynching of the Chinese people. They were killed in horrific ways. Touch on that because I think that was an amazing point. It speaks to your brilliance and your micro-telling of history. It’s those little points that clarify the big picture.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. So, I found that I needed to learn a lot about this in writing it. There was this explosion of anger against anybody of Japanese descent right after Pearl Harbor — which you can understand, in the context, where the anger would come from. But actually, there had been a long history of anti-Asian discrimination and violence on the West Coast — especially from 1849 on — when the gold rush happened in California.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Large numbers of Chinese immigrants came to work in the gold fields — not digging gold so much as doing laundry for the miners, working on the railroads and doing very menial tasks like cooking in the camps and things like that. So, there was a pretty large influx of Chinese immigrants in the 1850s.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: That unleashed a huge wave of violence against Chinese immigrants. So, there was lynching, burning and people driven out of their homes and towns. All the Chinese people in a particular town were rounded up and driven out. And so, that all happened much earlier in our history. But it laid the foundation for what came later.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: A little later, there was a period in which the notion of what they called “the yellow peril” came up. American newspapers — and Hollywood — took to portraying Asian immigrants as locusts, rats, or snakes — particularly bringers of disease. They equated them with disease. All of that had been worked into the American psyche long before Pearl Harbor. So, when Pearl Harbor happened, all those images and associations were already there. And they came bubbling up to the surface.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I like how you put it. “In June of 1919, Senator James Faslane of California testifies before Congress about the unfair advantages of Japanese immigrants. He said: ‘The problem there is they work too hard…they’re being too ingenious.'” So, he said: “They’re tireless workers in preserving and clever agriculturists. They know how to get the last penny out of the soil. I regard them in their economic destructiveness … their competitive ability as enemies to be rejected … to keep away from as a plague of locusts … not to be compromised with, but to be eliminated.” They’re too good. They work hard.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: They work too hard. They’re too ingenious in how they farm. That’s an incredible statement to make.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s only 21 or 22 years before Pearl Harbor. This isn’t ancient history. These are the enlightened 19th and 20th centuries.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Right. And so, as I say, that was baked into the pie before Pearl Harbor happened — particularly in California and on the West Coast.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I want you to also point out that an Asian person marrying a white woman was against the law in many states.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah, it was. And those laws stayed on the books in some states — through the 40s and into the 50s. The “anti-miscegenation” laws prohibited Asians and whites from marrying.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. So now, this is going on. You have the first generation and the American-born Japanese. They’re fuming about what’s being done to them. They’ve learned American history. They understand the Constitution. They’ve learned all of this. And they’re now in camps. The war continues to go on. And all of the sudden, the United States government says: “You know what? We could use these guys.” What happens?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: In the spring of 1943, the Roosevelt administration reversed course and created an all-Japanese American army unit — the 442 Regimental Combat Team. And so, all of a sudden, young Japanese American men were allowed to enlist. Up until that point, if they had gone down to the Selective Service office to enlist, they were simply turned away. They were told they were enemy aliens — even though they were American citizens.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: But then, all of the sudden, they could enlist. And so, that set off a big debate among young Japanese American men and their parents within these camps — especially about what the right thing to do was. “The government has locked us up. They’ve ruined us financially. We’re living behind barbed wire.” And yet, many of these young men wanted to fight for the country. So, there was this debate about what to do.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: And there was also the Japanese culture of respect to the elder of the family — the father. He was all-knowing and all-saying. Whatever he said, you did. And here, you have a clash of cultures.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. So, many of the Issei — none of them were ever proven to do anything disloyal. Many of them had been born in Japan. Their families were in Japan. They had affection for Japan. Their children basically didn’t. Most of their children didn’t even speak the language. So, there was tension within families about whether or not joining the American Army was the right thing.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: But most of the tension was among the young American men themselves. Many of them were furious that all their liberties had been taken away. And yet, as I said, thousands of them wanted to enlist — and ultimately did.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. I think the number you gave in the book was only 20% of that age group. There was a two-part question. I forgot what the two parts were. What was the question that they had to answer?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. There was a questionnaire in which they had to renounce any loyalty to the emperor of Japan — in which they had to promise to serve in combat. All Japanese and Japanese Americans had to fill out this form. A certain number of young men declined to answer those two questions — not because they had any loyalty to the emperor of Japan, but because no other Americans were being asked to sign a loyalty form.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I just want to point out that Japanese Americans were the only ones. German Americans didn’t have to sign this. Italian Americans didn’t have to sign this. Any other country that had descendants here did not have to sign. It was only the Japanese.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: That was exactly one of the reasons that a number of young men came to be called the “No-No Boys.” They said: “No, I’m not signing that. I’m an American. I shouldn’t have to sign that.” They were then segregated from within the camps, sent off to a particular camp in Tulelake, California and labeled as disloyal.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s amazing that in this cohort, only 20% did that. But 80% said: “We want to serve. We’re loyal to this country.”

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. And so, thousands of them enlisted in the 442nd, went to basic training and ultimately went on to fight in Italy and Germany.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Before we get to that — because I thought that was so captivating. It was amazing how the tension between Japanese Americans from different locations — from the “Buddhaheads” …

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Then you had the … what was the sounds of a coconut dropping?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: The Kotonks.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Kotonks. And then, you had the mainlanders. So, there was no love affair between them. There was a lot of fighting among the young Japanese men who were going to serve in the Army.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. Particularly, the guys from Hawaii and the mainland — when they came together — all went to basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. In the first few weeks that they were at Camp Shelby, fistfights immediately broke out all over. Part of what was happening was that the kids from Hawaii had worked on plantations growing up. They had a sort of hang-loose, casual attitude toward life and following the rules. And they all spoke pidgin English. And if you’ve ever heard Hawaiian pidgin, it’s really difficult to understand.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: The mainland guys were mostly middle-class kids. Some of them were students at UCLA, Washington or wherever. They were much more serious — partly because they were coming out of concentration camps, and they didn’t have a hang-loose attitude at all.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: So, when these two groups came together at Camp Shelby, they really clashed. The Hawaiians were speaking pidgin. The other guys couldn’t understand them. They snickered at them. That made the Hawaiians feel as if they were being attacked. And so, all hell broke loose within the camps. They considered abandoning the idea of the 442nd. There was so much strife between those two groups. So, it took a long time to work through that.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: By the way, you have one great line. You have many great lines in your book about Camp Shelby in Mississippi. “The smell of Magnolias filled the air and covered up the stench of death” — or something to that effect. The lynching. How many were there? I think there was more lynching there than anywhere in the country of Black people.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: There was lynching just a few months before these guys arrived at Camp Shelby. There was an absolutely brutal lynching not that far from Camp Shelby. And of course, all throughout this period, that was going on. And to tell you the truth, the Japanese American guys, when they arrived in the South, knew that they weren’t white. They weren’t considered white. And they weren’t sure how they were going to be treated by the locals. In fact, they weren’t allowed off the base for months because the Army wasn’t sure how Mississippians were going to treat them. So, there was a lot of anxiety among these young men about that as well.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: The hanging bridge. A pregnant lady and two young boys — 14 and 15 years old — were killed. Not Japanese. These were Black people who were taken out of prison and killed. And that was Mississippi. That’s where these young men were.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, now: The most amazing part of the book. You have these guys. They’re training and breaking records in Camp Shelby in terms of the obstacle course. They are focused. They are smart. They have a high IQs. They’re acing tests. They’re doing everything right. Before I do that, I want to say one thing that I thought was so amazing. Even the fathers of some of these boys — who did not want them to go and disagreed — also don’t dishonor the family.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Almost universally. It really jumped out at me when I was listening to all these oral histories. The last thing the fathers said to these young men as they were getting on the train to go off to basic training was: “Fight for your country. I understand you need to fight for your country. Fight well. I hope you aren’t injured. I hope you come back alive. But whatever you do, don’t bring dishonor on the family.” And so as American as these kids were, they had some Japanese values at work on them, too. And I think it helped them a lot when they actually got on the battlefield — those Japanese warrior traditions.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: One of the fathers said something to the effect of: “If your commander says to go and get shot, get shot at.” And look, before you tell us a story about the 442nd [Regiment] — the most amazing part of the book— when they saved the boys from Texas in Italy. The 442nd was exclusively Japanese, right?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: All Japanese. And within that was the 100th Infantry. I’m going to throw out some stats. Of course, you know them. The 442nd was the most decorated in military history. There were 140,000 men. There were 18,000 men in the 100th Infantry. In two years, they received 4,000 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars, eight presidential units’ citations and 21 Medals of Honor.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s amazing. This doesn’t come from drinking the water, right? And they all happen to be of the same exact makeup. They’re all Japanese Americans whose families were in concentration camps or being treated as fourth-class citizens in Hawaii.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Absolutely, yes. And I should mention that the 100th Infantry Battalion was one part of the 442nd.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. The 442nd was 140,000 men. And out of that, you had the 100th Infantry — which was amazing. There were 18,000 men.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Now, these guys got to Italy. And by the way, before they went, there were a couple of points when they worked as a unit. The boys from the mainland and Hawaii — everyone joined together. They saw their roles together. And life got a lot more serious.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, they went to Italy — Anzio. [Those were the] worst possible battles there in sub-zero…

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I remember watching Band of Brothers. Stephen Ambrose spoke about World War II. They interviewed some of the people who fought in Anzio from the Band of Brothers. And he said: “There has never been a colder day in my life than the period in Anzio.” Any time he felt cold, he said: “It’s not as cold as it was in Anzio with bombs blowing up. It was living hell. It couldn’t get worse.” And these guys went into the Italian theater and were faced with amazing odds against them.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. They almost always had the odds stacked against them. One of the things that happened in the Italian part of the campaign was they were always fighting their way up the side of some mountain or another. The Germans — because they were there before the Americans arrived — always held the high ground.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: And so, the 442nd had that series of pitched battles. Every single one of them involved fighting their way up some mountain into machine gun and tank fire aimed downhill at them. And that’s partly why they had the extraordinarily high casualty rates. They were always disadvantaged in that tactical way.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: And after the first few months in Italy, the 100th Infantry was called the Purple Heart Battalion because so many were injured. So many suffered wounds in their first few months in Italy.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah, it was extraordinary. And yet, they kept fighting. Most of those Purple Hearts were sent off to field hospitals someplace. And a few weeks or months later, they were back on the battlefield again — depending on their wounds of course.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: What I find amazing is that there is one part in the book — I’m trying to look through my notes here, and I can’t find it. But you’ll know it immediately.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Two of the boys who were there — one of their sons or brothers dies. He’s killed. And he sends a note back to his father. He says: “Regardless of what they’re doing to us in America, there is no greater country and no greater cause than to fight for our freedom.”

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. Those were the Saito brothers — both of whom died in the 442nd. But yeah, their father was working as a houseboy in a rich lady’s house in Massachusetts. He saved all of his correspondences. And sadly, first, there were letters from two sons. And then, there was a telegram. And then there were letters from just the one son. And then, there was another telegram and no more letters.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It was tragic reading that. But it’s amazing. They still believed in the American way of life. They didn’t even know what they were coming home to. They didn’t know if they had a home. Everything was taken away from them.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Most of them didn’t really have a home. And they knew they were going to come back to the same kind of racial situation that they had left.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. Bring us to the part — I was reading it on the train this morning. I couldn’t catch my breath at some points. I said: “My gosh, don’t tell me that they’re going to have to go.” Talk to me about the Texans and how they were surrounded by the Germans. And by the way, what were they called? What did the Nazis call this unit?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: The Little Iron Men. They garnered such a record that even the Nazis became aware of their battlefield success. And then, they started calling them the Little Iron Men. But yeah. After a series of battles in in Italy, they were shipped to northern France — to the French-German border. This is now when the American the allied armies are starting to try to push into Germany. But they’re not quite there yet.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: So, they were under a commanding general named General Dahlquist. And the 442nd was just one of the units under his command. A large part of his command was called the Texas Army — a division of soldiers who were mostly from Texas. The 442nd was tasked with liberating a town called Briere. They fought under miserable conditions for days, finally liberated the town and started to move into the Vosges forest — this dark, mountainous region.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: In the meantime, General Dahlquist ordered some of his Texas soldiers to fire into the Vosges forest — on the end of a ridgeline on a mountain. They’d gotten cut off and surrounded by the Germans. Many of them were wounded, and they ran out of medical supplies. They ran out of food, and they had no drinkable water. Some of them had gangrene. They began to die on that mountain top.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Dahlquist sent several other Texas units up that mountain to try to break through and get to them. And none of them could. So, finally, he woke up the Nisei soldiers in the middle of a dark, rainy night and ordered them up the mountain. For the next five or six days, the 442nd fought its way up the side of the mountain in rain, snow and sleet — with superior German forces above them.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I want to interrupt you for a second because this book is still fresh in my mind. Many times, they were fully exposed to mortar fire and snipers — out in the open.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah, and even to direct tank fire.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: It was used against ground troops. Yes, they fought their way up that mountain. And eventually, after taking terrible losses, they did. They broke through. They got to these Texas soldiers. They gave them cigarettes. The Texans patted them on the back and came down the mountain. But then, Dahlquist ordered the Nisei soldiers to keep pushing deeper into the Vosges forest. And so, they fought for another four or five days under horrible conditions before they finally got pulled back off the mountain.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: And you describe that when the Texas boys saw these Japanese boys, there were guys around 5.5′ tall. Their uniforms were extremely baggy. Their pants were very blousy because they were so big. Their helmets — think of putting adult clothes on a kid. That’s one of the descriptions you put in the book. And these big Texas guys patted them on their backs and said: “I love you guys. You saved our lives.”

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Years later, in 1962, Governor Connally of Texas actually made them all honorary Texans. So, it’s really quite something.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: And Dahlquist was a terrible general. Terrible. He was so out of touch — a suicidal general in terms of sending his men into hazardous conditions. He wanted to have a review where he would walk by and see them. Tell us about that.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. When the 442nd finally came down the mountain, Dahlquist ordered them to do a retreat parade to pass in review in front of him. The morning of that ceremony, Dahlquist arrived in a Jeep, stood up on a platform and looked out. I don’t remember the exact number. But instead of the thousands of troops he expected to see, there were less than 1,000 because the casualties had been extraordinarily high.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: He snarled and demanded why everybody else hadn’t turned out. He said: “When I ask them to turn out, we turn out. I want the cooks. I want everybody to turn out.” And Lieutenant Colonel Purcell — who the Japanese American guys absolutely adored — had to turn to him and say: “General, these are all the men I have left.” And he was crying when he said that. I think that was first time that Dahlquist realized what had happened up on that mountain in terms of the human cost.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. OK. So, the story progresses. The war is over. Take us from there.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: So, the war is over, and these guys come home in dribs and drabs. Many of them had to stay in Europe for months as they waited to come home. When they got home, for the most part, their parents and families were coming out of these camps and trying to make their way back to the West Coast.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: It would be lovely to say that there was this glorious, happy ending — that they were all welcomed as war heroes. But the reality is that, for the most part, when they got back home, they came back into communities that still didn’t want them to be there — despite their battle records. And so, on the West Coast — this was not true in Hawaii so much — a lot of them continued to struggle to be recognized as fully American — even after all they had been through.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I remember that when the Black Americans came home, there was nothing worse — in terms of fear — for Black men in the south than to wear military uniforms. They were taken, beaten and killed.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. So, the uniforms didn’t do much to buy the Japanese Americans the respect that they deserved. I should say that some of the vets of the 442nd, who returned to Hawaii…

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: When they left Hawaii, as I said earlier, it was a plantation. It was a very brutal system —particularly in regards to Japanese and Filipino immigrants. A number of the 442nd veterans that came back used the G.I. Bill to go to college. And then, a bunch of them went to law school. For some reason, they tended to go to law school in Washington D.C. — either to Georgetown or George Washington. And that cadre of veterans with law degrees came back to Hawaii. And they began to change Hawaii.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: By the mid-1950s, they had risen in business and government. And they began to wield the levers of power in Hawaii. By the late 1950s, Japanese Americans were probably the biggest single and influential political block in Hawaii. So, they won statehood for Hawaii and began to modernize it. They turned it into the modern state that it is today.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, this journey that you took over the past five years — and now it’s in a book. How’s it being received? What are average Americans — who are reading this for the first time — thinking about your amazing storytelling abilities and crisp writing? When they’re reading this, what’s the reaction you’ve been getting?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: So, I’m happy to say it’s been positive.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I hope it is positive! I mean, are people saying: “I knew this” or “I had no idea”?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Many times, I’m reading reviews on Amazon and getting emails. I’m looking at comments on Goodreads and places like that. Non-Japanese American readers are saying: “Whoa. I had a vague sense about these camps, but I didn’t know the half of it.” So, a lot of them are expressing surprise — as I was surprised at what an interesting and complex story it was.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: And then, I’m happy to say that my Japanese American readers have been embracing it enthusiastically — which was very important to me as a non-Japanese American. I spent a lot of time trying to work with the families, community and leadership in that community to make sure everybody was cool with me doing this. I’ve been pleased — especially by the reactions from those folks.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: In all of your research and interactions with all of these amazing people — the veterans and their families — and watching these oral histories — it consumed you, right? You definitely get that sense. I’m sure you woke up with cold sweats in the middle of the night — sometimes thinking you were in these camps — because I know that when you get involved in a subject, you’re immersed in it, and you live it. So, I totally get where you’re going with that.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: You see through the writing — which is masterful. When you started this journey and learned about this — from ground zero to where you are today — what is the most amazing thing that you’ve learned about Japanese Americans, the 442nd and the 100th? What is that one thing — if I can ask you that? I know there are a zillion things, but while I keep talking, I’m giving you a chance to think. But what’s that one thing that made you say: “Holy smokes”?

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: It’s the fact that these young Americans had the same kind of resilience that characterized that a whole generation of Americans — Japanese, Italian and whomever. I’m a big fan of what Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” I think they were challenged in a way that my generation never was. So, I’m a big fan of that generation. These young men were so earnest and determined to do the right thing. They persevered through incredible difficulties. And they were so good-hearted about everything that they did.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: They reminded me a lot of another book I wrote: The Boys in the Boat. The young men in that. Even though they’re Japanese American — so that puts them on a different shelf in some ways — they’re on the same shelf. They typify what’s great about America when America’s working well. And so, it was that. It was how fundamentally American these Japanese American kids were.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I was thinking about that. And I was going to ask you this question from the start. I was thinking about what I learned about this. There were so many things. I have two takeaways. But let me give you the first one. My first one is that, despite seeing parts of America at its worst, these young men — this whole group — were at their best. They were asked to do something that, if I were in that situation, I’d say: “You’ve got to be crazy. They want me to risk my life? My parents are here. We lost everything. We were stripped of our citizenship in a heartbeat. You want me to go fight for this country?” But they didn’t see it that way.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: They didn’t. It’s really remarkable. And I think that that’s what I mean about their character. They had a willingness to do something for their country. I have the same feeling. But I don’t know if I could get myself to do that. It’s an extraordinary leap to come out from behind barbed wire.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let me just compound that before you get out of barbed wire. In a culture where the father is the law giver — and he’s telling you: “Don’t do this!” One called him stupid and cursed him. You go against your father. That’s a book in and of itself. Go fight for the country that’s keeping me in here and made me lose everything. And these guys do that.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. And that’s precisely what I mean about their character. For me, writing these books is always about exploring character. And these guys didn’t disappoint at all.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: The last thing — and we’ll wrap this up here. I could talk to you for hours about this. It’s absolutely amazing. This is probably one of the few books that I’m ever going to read again. I usually never read a book twice. I think it’s a handful of books. In this book, you had so much good stuff there that I was reading it so quickly. I glossed over it. You talk about what kinds of foods they ate. I glossed over it because I wanted to get to the action. But the way you described it — the seafood — I loved that stuff.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: The second thing that I thought was absolutely staggering — it blew my mind — was the humility that you felt from these veterans. They didn’t seek glory. I’m sure many of them never spoke much to their families about what they did. And yet, they were beyond heroes. They changed the course of the war. They shortened the war. And they changed parts of this country in amazing ways. You can see it from the some of the pictures you have in this. They look like people you’d pass on the subway that would not bother you at all.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. I think that’s true of that generation in general — the World War II generation. They didn’t tend to talk about it a lot. But it’s also a Japanese cultural thing. You do not brag about things that you’ve accomplished. So, some of these guys — those who were still alive when I was able to talk to them — were heavily decorated war heroes. And I approached them — so honored to simply talk to them. And they always said: “Oh, no. I’m honored to talk to you.” So, yeah, they tended to be that way.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Amazing. Daniel James Brown — Facing the Mountain. It’s absolutely amazing. I think you opened a door to a part of history that’s not so comfortable. In fact, it’s an embarrassment to us. But it goes to show you the greatness of this country and the American people — especially those who were so afflicted by this.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: At the end of the day, we’re all Americans. To use a pun: We’re rolling in the same direction here. And instead of cursing this country and trying to destroy it — which these people had every right to do — they did the 180-degree exact opposite. They went and fought for the benefits that we all enjoy today.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Yeah. It’s a remarkable story, and I was honored to write it.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Daniel James Brown, you’ve done a great service to this country, history, and most importantly, the Japanese American heroes — all of whom continue to be American citizens, love this country and give their sons as a sacrifice for our freedom. I wish you continued success. Daniel, thank you so much for being on the show. I really enjoyed it.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Thanks so much for having me.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.

 

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