Like most Americans, Don Seki and Frank Mitoshi Wada remember the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii as a dark day. For these two “Nisei” (American-born children of Japanese immigrants), December 7th, 1941 was darker than for most, since it led to their being labeled “enemy aliens.”

Still, the service they rendered to their nation in the years that followed as members of America’s 442nd all-Nisei Regiment, not only helped bring an end to World War II; it refuted their own nation’s worst instincts.

The 442nd, like the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment of African-American soldiers in the Civil War, emerged from the shadows of discrimination and deprivation. While all were American-born citizens of Japanese ancestry, few had traveled to Japan or spoke Japanese.

Facing ongoing intolerance and limited opportunities for employment and integration into American society, the Nisei men were anxious to prove their devotion to their country. Fighting in five major campaigns in the European and Mediterranean theaters, and sustaining massive losses, the four-four-two went on to become the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history, receiving more than 18,000 awards for a battalion of 14,000 men over the course of the war. Their battle cry? “Go for Broke.”

“The members of the Combat Team made a magnificent record of which they and all Americans should be proud,” wrote Harold Ickes, U.S. secretary of the interior, in an October 1945 letter to the regiment’s commanding officer. “This record, without a doubt, is the most important single factor in creating in this country a more understanding attitude toward people of Japanese descent.”

When asked what his service and sacrifices in World War II mean to him now, Frank Wada modestly answers, “Nothing.” And yet his Spring Valley, California home is brimming with photos, documents and artifacts from that time, ranging from his original Army shirt and the 442nd regimental banner to a stunningly detailed wooden model he built of the internment barracks where his family was sent to live after Pearl Harbor. 

Even as Wada, 97, clears out dozens of bags and boxes of belongings, the children of his deceased comrades continue to send him their own memorabilia for safekeeping. Don Seki, another alumnus of 442nd, has also become a keeper of his generation’s memory. Living in a veterans’ retirement home in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, the 94-year-old has his own boxes of memorabilia, which his daughter Tracey helps him to sort through.

Both veterans and their families want to share with the world their collective memories—of the dedication, valor and sacrifice of their Nisei comrades—so they won’t die with them.

Growing up Japanese American Before World War II

Before the day that would “live in infamy,” both men grew up in a nation unapologetic in its racist restrictions against Japanese Americans. Born in Redlands, California in 1921, Frank Wada remembers being allowed to swim in the public pool only on Mondays, along with the Mexican American children. That was the day the city drained and cleaned the basin for the white children to enjoy the rest of the week. But with only three Japanese American families in his town, Wada said, he had no choice but to adjust: “Who were you going to complain to?”

Working hard and doing well in school made no difference. “I graduated Friday, Saturday I was down at the farm. You either worked on the farm, or you worked in the produce company, or you became a gardener, or you went fishing. That was all, because no one else would hire you.”

Halfway across the Pacific on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, second-class citizenship looked very different for Don Seki. His parents labored on one of Hawaii’s large sugar plantations. He remembers growing up barefoot, getting his first pair of shoes for $2.99 in ninth grade so he could take dancing lessons. But the Sekis were hardly alone at the bottom of the archipelago’s colonial plantation economy. Two out of five Hawaiians were Japanese American. “We had little discrimination, not as much as on the mainland,” says Seki. “Because there were six, seven different races in Hawaii: Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Filipino, Chinese…”

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A U.S. flag flies at a Japanese-American internment camp in Manzanar, California, 1942.

After Pearl Harbor: Internment Camps and Martial Law

Don was almost 18 when his parents gave up on Hawaii. “My parents decided to leave for Japan—for good. They wanted to take me, but I said, ‘not me!’” Three days after they said their good-byes, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Staying behind, says Seki, “was the greatest decision I ever made. Had I gone with them, I’d be in their military, I’d have been your enemy!” He would not see his parents again until 1947.

Out of high school, Seki was hired for local defense works, digging trenches and building machine-gun nests on the north shore of the island. To the troops, however, he looked like the enemy; twice, military police escorted him off the Pearl Harbor base at gunpoint.

About 800 of Hawaii’s local Japanese American community leaders were shipped off to internment prisons on the mainland, but detaining the entire community would have been impossible. Instead, they lived under martial law and heavy surveillance. “It was the damndest thing, you know. Boy… I, the enemy? I can’t forgive the government for that. I was born and raised in Hawaii. If the Japanese came, I would have fought against them, with my people.”

By 1943, he was finally allowed to volunteer for the all-Japanese American 422nd Regiment.

For his part, Frank Wada had no illusions about the perilous position the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor placed him in. Living in San Diego at the time, he remembered that “we used to go to a football game every Sunday…and then we heard it [the attack] on the radio, and we decided that day to better not go—because this was a Navy town.”

Wada learned about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order 9066 from February 19th, 1942—ordering the internment of all Americans of Japanese descent—from a lamppost notice. “Here in San Diego they said each family can have a truck, and we could fill that truck up and did not have to worry. But after three days they said…no more trucks…you just get that one suitcase.” Wada still owns the modest suitcase that held everything he was allowed to bring, along with the original internment notice he pulled off the lamppost.

Wada and his family were put on a train, not knowing their final destination. “We ended up in the Santa Anita racetrack and lived in the stable there, and they were dirty!” After 2-1/2 months, another train took them to Poston in the Sonora desert, just across California border. A concentration camp by the president’s own admission, Poston was Arizona’s third-largest town during the war, with a population of almost 18,000. Here, the Wadas endured extraordinary summer heat, coaxed vegetable gardens out of parched desert grounds and made a home out of the barest of quarters—with no running water, no privacy and minimal healthcare.

Image courtesy of author
Frank Wada.

Signing Up to Fight for the Country That Imprisoned Them

About one year into his internment, says Wada, Army recruiters visited Poston, asking men like him to volunteer for the 442nd—an all-Nisei regiment.

How was it even conceivable for Wada to lay his life on the line for the very nation that had imprisoned him as an untrustworthy alien? “You would have done the same thing,” he says. “You look around in the camp, and you think if nobody volunteers, how are we ever going to get out of there?”

In the end, more than 30,000 Nisei agreed and served in the armed forces, mostly in Europe. Others served in the Pacific theater with intelligence operations and as linguists interviewing POWs.

The paths of Frank Wada and Don Seki first crossed in 1943 in Camp Shelby south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where the 442nd Infantry Regiment trained. “The only white people were our officers,” Wada remembers. “They treated us well. They had to, because we were gonna go and fight with them… They had enough faith in us to train us.” Locals around the camp, however, “did not know who we were. They were confused to see somebody different.” In fact, military authorities preferred to keep the blinds drawn on troop trains with Nisei recruits out of concern over racial unrest.

In spring of 1944, Seki and Wada made the monthlong voyage on a troop ship across the Atlantic to North Africa and Naples, Italy. There, they were to join the Rome-Arno campaign pushing German troops out of Italy.

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Don Seki inside the Japanese American WWII Association building, 2005.

Taking First Fire in Italy

By summer, the men were neck-deep in their first combat experiences. For Assistant Squad Leader Wada, the first taste of enemy gunfire came at a location called Hill 140, just east of Livorno. It was around midnight on an early July night when he heard digging that he knew was the Germans.

I told the men, lay low, don’t move… We were laying there and looking up and I see the German machine gunner with the ammo going up the hill… When fighting started the one kid, he got scared and jumped up, the machine gun went woop, and he was gone… The machine gunners were standing up there, they could not see us, I aimed, shot one bullet and both of them went down. And then the machine gunners shot at me, and missed me by that much [he says, holding his thumb and forefinger a small distance apart].

Don Seki says that his first kill in Italy brought him face to face with the men that shot at him: “Young fellows they were, the Germans. Teenagers, I felt sorry for them. Although they were the enemy, they were so young. Oh man.”

Fast advances didn’t make the loss of friends any easier than bitter yard-for-yard fights, Seki remembers. “We had to keep going, we had to leave them behind, medics took care of them. Two good friends I lost, they’re gone.”

Moments of calm gave tired soldiers the chance to taste the simple joys of being alive. South of the Arno river, they had a break, Seki recalls:

Oh, what a break. There were chickens running all over the place. Chicken, oh man, that guy caught all the chickens, skinned them. We used an Italian kitchen, there was nobody there, a dead war area, we chopped up the chicken, and we got onions, tomatoes, squash and so forth and made chicken soup. Oh, that was great, because we’ve only had C and K rations.

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Four Japanese American servicemen riding in a jeep, towing a supply trailer on a rural road in France during World War II.

The Battle for Bruyères

In mid-October of 1944, after about a month of combat in Italy, Wada, Seki and the rest of the 442nd were reassigned to support the Seventh Army in the push across the Vosges Mountains west of the Rhine River. Their mission: Liberate Bruyères, a small, strategic town on the southwestern German-French border that had been occupied by the Germans since the start of the war. Their secondary objective: rescuing a lost battalion of Texans. Through it all, they faced difficult terrain, bombed-out roads, near-constant rain and relentless enemy fire and shelling.

It would be one of the costliest battles for American forces in World War II.

For Frank Wada in Company E, liberating Bruyères meant securing a hill west of the town. From his foxhole in the cold, muddy ground surrounded by heavy timbers, he was able to look down into the French village. “I could see the [German] tank in the town, and it shot in the trees above me and the shrapnel came down like rain.” Wada’s Battle of Bruyères ended that first day, as he was hit in three places.

And he wasn’t alone. By the time the 442nd had secured the town, only one man in Wada’s squadron remained alive and uninjured.

Wada spent three months in a military hospital in Naples before he returned to France to resume command of his squadron. Stoic about his own injuries, he chokes up recalling the memory of his men. Their bonds stemmed not just from military service, but from connections at home, too. Next to Wada fought a former neighbor, an old Kendo partner, a school friend. His younger brother Ted fought in another company of the same battalion. Wada had reunited with these men by chance in Italy when they were supposed to replace his unit. Instead, he arranged for some of them to join his squad. Today, he holds nothing more dearly than a group photo of him with his childhood friends and comrades.

The War’s Multinational Fighting Forces

In Bruyères, the more than 200 enemy troops the 442nd captured offered a glimpse into the global reaches of the war. On the German side, there were the conscripts from Poland and Russia who had fallen into the hands of the invading Wehrmacht and had met Nazi Germany’s racial standards. Conscripts from Croatia had collaborated with Germany under their own local fascist movement before they, too, were coerced into service in the notorious Waffen SS.

Captured Somali troops had probably made their way into this conscript army from the North African campaign, either fighting British colonial oppressors alongside fascist Italian forces or getting captured on the side of the Allies. Bruyères POWs even hailed from the Free India Legion, which had formed in opposition to the British Empire in Berlin under the leadership of an Indian nationalist.

In October 1944, the battle in the French Vosges Mountains was a true world war.

The roughly 4,000 civilians of the town spent most of their time hiding in basements. They were both grateful and surprised to emerge from hiding and encounter Asian-looking troops in American uniforms. But a few local villagers had made their own contribution to the battle, Don Seki remembers: “One kid stayed with us, he helped us pretty good, showed us how the terrain is. He lost a leg, and the boys later brought him to Hawaii for a celebration, and he walked in a parade with us.”

Saving the Texans—and Losing an Arm

Following the capture of Bruyères on October 18th, 1944, Don Seki’s company was tasked with breaking the encirclement of the 1st Battalion of 141st Infantry “Alamo Regiment” from Texas—the so-called “Lost Battalion.” Combat was fierce, lasted to the end of October, and casualties were high. Of almost 200 men in K Company, which bore much of the brunt of the fighting, Frank Wada’s brother Ted was one of only 17 who walked out alive and unharmed. Indeed, every Texan saved cost three Nisei casualties.

Don Seki became one of them. Four days after the 442nd had reached the lost Texas Battalion, his L Company was conducting “mop-ups” at night when it happened:

The Germans were pretty clever. One machine gun was six feet high, and the one below about three feet. The six-feet high machine gun had tracer bullets. The one below did not have. The one below is the one that gets you… It took my arm off, just about… That was the end of my combat career.

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President Harry Truman inspects the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team on July 15, 1946.

The Long Road Home

The amputation of his left arm sent Seki on a two-year odyssey of recovery. At the time he was shot, he thought, “How am I going to fish now?” He was relieved when rehabilitation and prosthesis training at a hospital in Brigham City, Utah included not just eating and grooming, but horse riding and fishing.

On his long trek through various hospitals, he met a Nisei soldier from Brazil who had lost both legs, probably in Italy. Conversing in Japanese—their only common language—they became lifelong friends. Moral support also came from Utah’s Japanese Americans who came to visit from all corners of the state to keep the men company and bring food. Still, at times Don Seki’s homesickness became almost too much to bear. Only in December 1946 was he finally decommissioned and released home.

Frank Wada returned home after leading his squad in France and Italy for the remainder of the war in 1945. But it was not a simple homecoming. His father had died in internment—a premature loss that visibly pains Wada to this day.

And while he and his fellow Nisei had earned the respect of many of their fellow veterans, plenty of civilians continued to see them as Japanese. One comrade had his home burnt down, another was refused service at a barber shop. His good friend and Kendo partner George Sakato only received his Medal of Honor in June 2000 for his one-man charge in the liberation of the Lost Battalion—along with 19 other Nisei who had previously been denied this highest recognition for military valor.

For Don Seki and Frank Wada, knowing they had done the right thing under the most trying circumstances—that is what gave them the strength to accept lingering hostilities with grace and stoicism.

Volker Janssen is a professor of history at California State University, Fullerton, specializing in the social, economic and institutional history of California.

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