by Sonu Munshi
April 22, 2012
Arizona Republic News
Aug. 22, 1942. On a blazing hot Arizona afternoon with a little dust kicking up, thousands scrambled to find a spot to call home. For MAS INOSHITA’S family of five brothers, four sisters and their mom, it was Block 54, Row 6, Barracks 3 and 4 in the brand-new camp built in the unforgiving desert. Just three months prior, the 22-year-old American citizen was a hardworking California farmer in some ways grateful for the war. He couldn’t hold on to any of the cabbage and carrots he grew on leased farmland. It all went to the Allies in Europe. Inoshita made money “hand over fist.”
But halfway through World War II, the battle for people of Japanese descent in the country had only just begun. Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Shortly thereafter, some 110,000 Japanese-Americans, including many citizens like Inoshita, were rounded up into 10 internment camps. Inoshita’s new home: Gila River Relocation Camp, 30 miles southeast of Phoenix. It housed 13,348 Japanese-Americans at its peak. Enemy aliens, they were called. But none of it made sense to Inoshita, who thought himself as American as the next blue-eyed blond.
Three months into a tedious existence, the U.S Army came looking for Japanese translators. Inoshita, who had wanted to join the Army even before internment, volunteered immediately. He and 28 other internees left in the dead of the night, for fear of being physically harmed as they left behind a camp of Japanese-Americans divided over how to deal with their prisoner-like status. The young man didn’t even tell his family. His father, held in a separate internment camp without any contact with his family, wouldn’t have approved.
Inoshita didn’t question going to fight for the same country that was treating his family as the enemy. “I felt if we paid our price, the country would have no excuse to question our loyalty; then we’d have a legitimate shot at fighting back after the war,” Inoshita said.
He now is 92 and spends his days tending snow peas, bok choy and strawberries in his daughter’s sprawling Phoenix backyard.
The loyalty is no longer in question. In November, veterans from the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service, segregated Japanese-American Army units, were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. This includes Inoshita.
The Arizona chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League on Sunday honored 25 local veterans. The medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, also has been bestowed upon Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and the Tuskegee Airmen.
Inoshita said he is grateful. “I see it as the culmination of my belief as a 22-year-old that my country is what’s most important; I’m glad that others also recognize that we were on their side,” Inoshita said.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were barred from joining military service. But as the need for trained linguists to translate Japanese documents and interrogate prisoners of war rose, the Army started recruiting, such as from Inoshita’s internment camp.
Thousands of Japanese-Americans served the nation, attached to numerous Allied combat units. The existence of the Military Intelligence Service, which is what Inoshita joined, was kept secret during the war and for nearly three decades after. In 2000, the intelligence service was honored with the Presidential Unit Citation.
The 100th Infantry Battalion, mainly comprised of Japanese-Americans from Hawaii, was already participating in the war in Europe. It was later drawn into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The battalion remains the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in U.S military history. The Nisei (second generation) soldiers, known for their motto “Go For Broke,” earned 21 Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, more than 18,000 individual decorations for bravery and about 9,500 Purple Hearts.
The bitter war
After joining the Army, Inoshita traveled to Australia, Sri Lanka and then India, where the ration of liquor he got each month came in handy. India’s tight regulations in those days about sale of hard liquor heightened demand. Inoshita would walk up to a room of soldiers and ask, “What’s this Scotch worth?” The anti-malaria pills and Lucky Strike and Camel cigarettes he got in return came in handy for interrogating sickly, war-beaten Japanese prisoners. “They thought I was the Buddha and gave me all kinds of information just for being treated like a human,” Inoshita said.
Inoshita still has a worn, brown leather satchel that belonged to a Japanese soldier. The satchels were valuable as they often contained documents and maps. Stationed in Burma, Inoshita had to search bodies for bags like these to ferret out information. Time hasn’t entirely erased the smell of rotting flesh and the sight of untreated wounds.
After he returned, Inoshita wouldn’t eat certain meats that reminded him of those smells. Seventy years later, at times he still screams as he sleeps.
The most haunting memories were formed shortly after Aug. 6, 1945. The atomic bomb had flattened Hiroshima, instantly killing an estimated 75,000 people. A lieutenant curious to know what defenses the city had, if troops had landed, sent Inoshita and another partner to survey the decimated city. They found only men, women and children, flesh hanging from their bodies. “You knew he or she wasn’t going to live long,” Inoshita said with a quiver in his voice.
He still questions the need for using “Little Boy,” the code name for the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city. “It was an overkill,” he continued. “You begin to doubt the mind of a president that says, ‘I had to do it. I had to show Russia what a terrible thing we have. I had to do it to end the war.’
“To end the war? They could have walked in any place in the whole of Japan because the war was over as far as they (Japanese) were concerned.”
Inoshita, a staff sergeant by then, took early release after that visit. He returned only to be reminded of the battle he had left behind in Arizona. The internment camp was closed. His family took shelter in barracks set up by a local Buddhist temple for families in transition. “When I saw my own people still struggling for justice, I felt, ‘What a stinking situation to be in.’”
Still, he moved on with regular life, married and had children.
He remains proud to have served his country, but his relationship with his father, who was upset that he left his family and fought against Japan, was never the same.
It is a lesson he wants to leave behind for future generations: “Sometimes tough choices have to be made.”