Date: February 1st, 2007
Eighty-eight year old Joe Ichiuji knows firsthand how easily freedom is lost. In 1941 shortly after Joe was drafted and had completed basic training, the U.S. government moved 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps. Even though many were American citizens, they were suspected of being disloyal. “I was told, ‘You’ve been discharged.’ Because of my Japanese ancestry they thought I was unfit for service.”
His family was moved from Monterey, California, to a camp in Arizona that was surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. “We tried to make the best of it and live a normal life,” says Joe. “I worked five days a week helping the camp director and working with staff in food and health services. On Saturdays we danced to records. Sunday we went to church.”
Despite being forced into an internment camp, six months later, after the government reversed its decision on Japanese Americans serving in the armed forces, Joe enlisted in the Army as one of the original members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. “When the recruiters came, I volunteered even though I had been treated badly,” he says. “I felt that by volunteering it was the best way to get my family and friends out of the camp.”
The 442nd unit consisted of Japanese Americans from the mainland and the Hawaiian Islands. They served with uncommon distinction and became the most highly decorated military unit in the history of the United States Armed Forces, including 21 Medal of Honor recipients. The combat team served in Italy before being sent to Germany where they were among the first to liberate Jews from the Dachau concentration camp in 1945. “It was sad. When I saw the Jews come out, they were wearing black and grey uniforms and they were skin and bones. We gave them some of our rations but they got sick. Our food was too much for them.
“It reminded me of the camp I had volunteered from and where my family still was,” he says. “I wondered when they’d be free.” Still, he is quick to point out that there was a difference. “The Japanese Americans were incarcerated in a camp for the duration of the war. The Jews were in a camp for extermination. Nothing can compare with the horrors of the Nazis,” he says.
Today, Joe spends much of his time volunteering with veterans groups and speaking about his war-time experiences to middle school, high school and college aged students. “It keeps me quite busy,” he says. “Students are learning about World War II but they know little about Japanese Americans and their role during the war.” He points out that even though they were treated as enemy aliens, 33,000 Americans of Japanese descent served in the U.S. Army and 6000 of them were in military intelligence.
“We were looked upon as enemies but I always felt like an American,” he says. “I was discharged for no reason other than my Japanese heritage and had to go home and face evacuation. I had two strikes against me.”
Even before the war, Japanese Americans were not given equal opportunities he says. “Many of my friends went to college and graduated with high honors but they were never accepted in professional ranks because of discrimination.”
Joe is a member of three veterans’ organizations including the Japanese American Veterans Association. “Right now I’m gathering information about veterans for a project involving the National Archives. I’m getting up there in age, but I enjoy the work and staying active,” he says.
The contributions of Japanese-American veterans are often overlooked and he is committed to keeping their memory and history alive. But he also believes that the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II offers an important lesson: that the freedoms we take for granted are easily lost and that freedom is often a victim of racism. His message to young people is clear: “This is a great country and it’s made up of people of many different backgrounds. But we are all Americans even though we look different.”
After the war, Joe returned to his family and helped his father in a shoe repair business. He then settled in Washington, DC, where his sister worked for the State Department. After completing undergraduate and graduate degrees in business, Joe got a job with the U.S. Agency for International Development, where he stayed for 37 years until his retirement in 1979. He and his wife, Susie, have a son and daughter, and four grandchildren.
Despite the injustices he and his family endured, he nonetheless feels gratitude toward the United States. “The way I look at it, when I volunteered for the 442nd, I was given a second chance. It opened a door for me. After I was discharged I was able to go to college and to have a good life. I am grateful that I was given a second chance to prove that I was a loyal American.”