Seventy-five years ago, on May 1, 1944, a unique group of American soldiers boarded transports at Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Like millions of soldiers serving in Europe and the Pacific, they’d completed their training, filled out their wills, and written letters home.
They’d grown up just as American as other boys — playing baseball, earning Boy Scout badges — but only they knew what it felt like to see their parents lose their homes and businesses, sleep in horse stalls at racetrack “assembly centers,” and live incarcerated in camps with names like Manzanar.
Of the over 100,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II, two-thirds were American citizens. Half were children.
Yet they still volunteered to fight to prove themselves just as loyal as any other American.
With an average height and weight of just 5 feet, 3 inches and 125 pounds, they didn’t look like super-soldiers. But they did extraordinary things.
In France, they sacrificed 800 of their own to rescue 211 Texan soldiers trapped behind enemy lines.
In northern Italy, they broke the Gothic line — the German’s last line of defense.
The 14,000 men of the 442nd won 21 Medals of Honor, 560 Silver Stars, and over 9,000 Purple Hearts.
But even this wasn't enough to change the minds of many back home.
Sgt. Jack Wakamatsu recalled finding one comrade sobbing in his foxhole after learning his parents’ home in California had been burned down by local citizens.
Sgt. Shig Doi returned to Placer County, California, to learn his parents had huddled inside their home while drive-by neighbors fired guns at their house and tried to dynamite a packing shed on their farm.
Our history can teach us many lessons. For example, when we’re fearful, we can be quick to perceive enemies, and the easiest people to scapegoat are typically those who look different from us.
Perhaps remembering the 442nd will help us work on breaking this shameful cycle. Because being an American has never been based on race. It’s based on the ideals we share.
Andrew Lam is an author and retinal surgeon who practices in Springfield, Massachusetts. His newest novel, "Repentance," is based on the history of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.