[December 7th marks National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, so this week I’ll remember and AmericanStudy some histories related to the 1941 attack. Leading up to a special post on how we remember such infamous days.]
On a post-Pearl Harbor group who embody the best of the war, Hawai’i, and America.
I learned a great deal while researching and writing my fifth book, We the People: The 500-Year Battle Over Who is American (2019). I had a general sense of the exclusionary and inclusive histories I wanted to highlight in each chapter, having talked about most of them in a number of settings over the last couple years; but in the course of working on each chapter I discovered new histories related to those central threads, stories that surprised me yet also and especially exemplified my topics and themes. So it went with Chapter 7: Everything Japanese Internment Got Wrong: I knew that I wanted to focus in that chapter on Japanese American World War II soldiers as a central, inclusive challenge to the exclusionary histories and narratives of the internment policy and camps; but it was only when researching those respective World War II communities further that I learned about the amazing, inspiring, foundational story of the Varsity Victory Volunteers(VVV).
There were quite simply too many Japanese Americans in Hawai’i (and they were too integral to the community’s economy and society) for internment camps to be possible. But the island featured its own forms of World War II anti-Japanese discrimination to be sure, and it was out of one such discriminatory moment that the VVV was born. The day of the Pearl Harbor attacks, all of the island’s ROTC students were called up for active duty as the newly constituted Hawaii Territorial Guard (HTG). But when federal officials learned that Japanese American students were among those numbers, they dismissed those students from service, deeming them 4C (“enemy aliens”) and thus ineligible to serve. Frustrated by this treatment, many of the students met with Hung Wai Ching, a Chinese Hawaiian community leader who had become an ally to the group. On his advice they drafted a letter to the territory’s military governor, Delos Emmons, which read in part: “We joined the Guard voluntarily with the hope that this was one way to serve our country in her time of need. Needless to say, we were deeply disappointed when we were told that our services in the Guard were no longer needed. Hawaii is our home; the United States, our country. We know but one loyalty and that is to the Stars and Stripes. We wish to do our part as loyal Americans in every way possible and we hereby offer ourselves for whatever service you may see fit to use us.”
Emmons accepted the VVV’s offer, and in February 1942 they were constituted as a labor battalion (attached to the 34th Combat Engineers) and assigned to Schofield Barracks. Over the next year they would contribute both their labor and their presence to the community there, becoming such an integral part of its operations and society that when Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy visited in December 1942 (escorted by none other than Hung Wai Ching), he was struck by the VVV in particular. Not at all coincidentally, in January 1943 the War Department reversed its policy and allowed Japanese Americans to serve in the armed forces; the VVV requested permission to disband so they could volunteer, and nearly all of the VVV members ended up in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the all-Japanese unit that would become the most decorated in American military history. I knew about the 442nd before I wrote the chapter and book, but I had never heard of the VVV—and I know of few stories that exemplify the best of American military, social, and cultural history more fully than does this post-Pearl Harbor, volunteer Japanese American student community.
Last post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?