Daniel James Brown’s new book shares some storytelling DNA with his blockbuster bestseller, 2013’s “The Boys in the Boat,” the saga of the University of Washington crew team that vanquished Hitler’s handpicked rowers at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Both books tell the story of young men who bond to face a challenge, reaching deep within themselves to do more than they ever thought they could. But the men in Brown’s latest book face an exponentially more difficult task with far higher stakes.
“Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II” is the story of the young Japanese American men who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II, even as the federal government uprooted many of their families from their West Coast homes and incarcerated them in far-flung camps all over America. Many fought not knowing whether they would even have a home to return to. Many paid the ultimate price. The book starts with the terror of the Pearl Harbor attack, proceeds through the shock and sadness of displacement and crescendos to some of the most brutal fighting you will ever encounter as a reader, as the Japanese American units battled retreating Nazis in Italy, France and Germany itself. One unit the men served in, the combined 100th/442nd Infantry Regiment, became known for its size and length of service the most decorated in U.S. military history.
Why did they do it? Brown, based in Redmond, interviewed their families and descendants and went over hundreds of hours of oral histories to find out. (Of the men who are principal characters in the book, Brown was able to speak personally to Fred Shiosaki of Spokane. Shiosaki died in April).
“Facing the Mountain” publishes May 11 and has thus far received glowing reviews. A film deal is in the works to bring these men to the screen. Ahead of the book’s launch, Brown answered some questions from The Seattle Times about his search for the truth of their experience.
Q: Your new book features young men of the same generation as the men of “The Boys in the Boat.” How did you come upon the idea, and how do the stories compare?
A: I didn’t set out to write a book that parallels with “The Boys in the Boat,” but those parallels are there. The project started with Tom Ikeda of Densho [a Seattle-based organization that preserves the history of the Japanese American incarceration in World War II; Ikeda wrote the foreword to Brown’s book]. He was talking about all these oral histories from the young men who fought; I went home and started going over them. Both stories feature resilience and perseverance and ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
In some ways “Facing the Mountain” is a very different book, but underlying the obvious differences there are these common themes. They were both a band of brothers. They [the Japanese Americans] had a hard time coming together, but they did, and they remained close for the rest of their lives.
Q: I thought I knew this story from reading about the incarceration of Japanese Americans from the Seattle area, but I was surprised by the virulence of anti-Japanese feeling up and down the West Coast, even before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A: Because I grew up in California, I had a background awareness of it, but until I started doing the research I didn’t realize the extent of it. It started with the gold rush — Chinese workers being beaten, cabins burned down, lynching, the concept of a “yellow peril.” It was really a general anti-Asian feeling. By the 20th century it was more directed at Japanese immigrants, who were portrayed with images of rats and snakes and cockroaches.
When Pearl Harbor happened, those images got pulled out and recycled, and during the Trump administration, some of those images were recycled again, associating Asians with illness and disease and plague. I knew the bits and pieces but not the whole story. The tropes and images and the rhetoric were really vicious.
Q: You chronicle divisions within the Japanese American community during the war — those who were eager to enlist versus those who were angry at the incarceration of their families (Gordon Hirabayashi, the University of Washington student who refused to enlist out of principle and went to jail for it, is one of Brown’s featured characters). Explain the rift among the young Nisei men — second-generation Japanese Americans — between the Hawaiians, many of whom enlisted as soon as they could, and the mainlanders, whose families were in concentration camps and were far less gung-ho.
A: There may have been elements of class to it — a lot of kids in Hawaii had grown up on plantations and were really dirt poor. Many kids on the mainland had been thoroughly integrated into middle-class life. One problematic thing was language — the guys from Hawaii spoke pidgin, they would be made fun of, and then they would get mad. The guys from the mainland had come out of the camps. The guys from Hawaii, most of their families weren’t incarcerated. They had no idea what that was like.
Q: Initially Japanese Americans were not allowed to join the military. Why did President Franklin D. Roosevelt sign the order in February 1943 permitting them to enlist?
A: By 1943, millions of young men had been drafted already. With the war raging on two fronts, they needed more men. They realized it was silly not to use these young men who were willing to volunteer.
There were very different rates of volunteering. There were vastly more volunteers from Hawaii as a percentage of the population. In a lot of the [mainland] camps, the kids who did volunteer faced a lot of blowback from other young men who didn’t think they should.
Those who did volunteer felt that, at some point, this is all going to be over. They could go back to life the way it was, pretty racially stratified, or they could go to war and say, hey, look what we did, and push back against institutionalized racism. And some of them were frankly young men who just wanted to go off to war.
The dilemma that draft-age Japanese American men had, they reacted to it in different ways. There were many, many resisters in the camps, but Gordon Hirabayashi was so careful in his reasoning. He made the perfect person to represent that point of view. He carefully laid out the principles as to why this should not be happening.
Q: The units these men fought in engaged in some unbelievably difficult fighting, and some were involved in the liberation of Dachau. What were the challenges of reconstructing their experiences?
A: I frankly was worried about that because I have not been in combat, and it’s precarious if you never have been there. I listened to hundreds of hours of first person accounts. You do that long enough, you get a sense of what they went through. I was able to talk to Fred [Shiosaki] about his firsthand experience. It was just really trying to listen carefully and try to put myself in the shoes of these young men, being 19 and 20 years old and going through what they did.
Q: Their courage was almost superhuman. You write that, as young men, many were influenced by the samurai tradition, that like a samurai warrior, you write, “they had not really expected to return alive.”
A: For a lot of them, it honestly was Japanese tradition to various degrees. Many of them were also essentially American, so it was a compounded sense of motivation. They were convinced that it was better to die on a battlefield in Italy or France than to come back having shamed the family. “Whatever you do, don’t shame the family” — they were told that by their fathers or they just knew that was the way it was.
Q: There’s so much virulent racism in this book, from the abuse endured by Japanese Americans to the horrific treatment of Jews. These fears and hatred are still with us today. It makes you wonder if we are doomed to repeat this dismal cycle.
A: As I was starting to write this book, about Japanese families coming to this country and trying to make their way, it was at the very point when the Trump administration was announcing its immigration bans. I was writing about the camps as families were being torn apart at the border.
It’s really hard to see this part of history and to know where we’re going from here. I’m cautiously optimistic, because I don’t know what else to be. I was talking to someone else about this the other day and we were talking about these vicious racist tropes and images. Someone pointed out that it’s like the variant of a virus. It’s the same but it’s a little different each time. Maybe over time, the exposure of these variants will make us more immune. Maybe this book will expose people to a little bit of history, and they will see the pattern is repeated, and it provides a little bit of immunization. Maybe over time it loses its potency.