Within the Japanese American community, the exploits and bravery of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team has achieved near-mythic status.
Made up of Japanese Americans, the World War II Army unit stands as the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history. Documentaries have been made about the 442nd, and Hollywood even produced a 1951 feature film on the unit, titled "Go for Broke."
But unlike the well-publicized heroics of the men of the 442nd in Europe, the actions of the Japanese American soldiers who served in that war's Pacific campaign have gone relatively unnoticed.
This is a primary reason why gayle yamada spent 20 months producing, writing and directing "Uncommon Courage: Patriotism and Civil Liberties." The 60-minute documentary airs tonight on KCET and focuses on the contributions the Japanese American soldiers made to their country in the Pacific theater.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 286 words Type of Material: Correction
Japanese American soldiers--An index item in Tuesday's Calendar incorrectly stated that the PBS documentary "Uncommon Courage" focuses on members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in the Pacific theater in World War II. In fact, the 442nd's members fought in Europe, and the film documents the exploits of Japanese American soldiers who fought in the Pacific.
"A lot of Japanese Americans don't even know about the nisei [second generation Japanese American] soldiers in the Pacific campaign," says yamada, a veteran Sacramento-based writer and broadcast journalist, who says she began spelling her name lowercase in high school. "She says that while making the film, "I would run into people in the community who would tell me it was the first time they had heard about these men. I was stunned."
Unlike the soldiers of the 442nd and the 100th Infantry Battalion (another all-Japanese American unit that fought against the fascists in Europe), those who saw action in the Pacific were predominantly linguists who interrogated Japanese soldiers and translated documents.
They were part of a U.S. Army group called the Military Intelligence Service, or MIS. While some found themselves on the front lines, they didn't incur the enormous casualties that befell the nisei soldiers who were in the thick of battle in Europe.
But the experiences of the Japanese American solider in Europe and the Pacific are similar from the standpoint that while they were both serving their country in war, most of them had family members back home living in American internment camps. After the United States and Japan went to war in 1941, all people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were quickly dispatched to camps enclosed by barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers.
Brothers Harry and Ken Acune were just 21 and 18, respectively, when they volunteered for U.S. military service in 1942. At the time, both were interned at a camp in Colorado.
"Before the war, I didn't have the full freedoms that other Americans had," recalls Harry Acune, a Gardena resident who is featured in "Uncommon Courage." "For example, I wasn't allowed to swim at the public swimming pool. But I still felt very free. When we lost that freedom, I was in shock. It made me very angry. We could have objected, and young people today feel like we should have. But in my mind, actions speak louder than words. We felt that somebody had to stand up and say we are Americans too. And when they gave us an opportunity to prove that, we did and volunteered for military service."
"Uncommon Courage" documents how important Japanese American soldiers were to winning the war in the Pacific against the Japanese. People like the Acune brothers were invaluable because they possessed fluent Japanese and English language skills. While both were born and raised in the U.S., they spent three years during their teen years living in Japan, where they learned how to read and write Japanese.
Harry Acune helped save many American lives after parachuting behind enemy lines in the Philippines, translating a note found on a dead Japanese soldier that indicated there was a much larger Japanese force in the area than first thought. The U.S. Army quickly changed its strategy to a defensive posture.
The documentary also reveals a few incidences of overt and subtle racism that nisei soldiers faced in the American Army. A group of Japanese American soldiers was once required to dress up as Japanese soldiers so that other American soldiers could get an idea of what the enemy looked like.
Even though they were clad in U.S. military fatigues, Japanese American soldiers were often closely accompanied by non-Asian American escorts when they approached battle areas for fear they would be mistaken for the enemy.
One of the most fascinating aspects of "Uncommon Courage" are the stories of Japanese American soldiers who had brothers fighting for the Japanese military. The Acunes, who had been sent to the United States to work and help support the family, had two brothers who were drafted into the Japanese army who were living in Japan with their father at the time.
"Before the war ended, we were slated to go into the area where my father and siblings lived in Japan," says Harry Acune. "It was a dreadful thought for me. I knew the Japanese were going to [arm civilians]. But if it came to pointing guns at each other, I wouldn't have hesitated. I just hoped that if I ran across my brothers or father that I wouldn't recognize them and that I would look at them only as an enemy."
For yamada, making "Uncommon Courage" was partly a personal journey, since her father served in the Military Intelligence Service and is featured in the documentary. "After making the film, I have a better understanding of how my parents' generation fought for us and how they passed their values on to us," she says. "It also made me see that Japanese American history is important to Americans of all ethnicities."
"Uncommon Courage" airs tonight at 10 on KCET.