The story of Nisei soldiers in graphic-novel form brings home an important piece of American history in a new way.
Lawrence Matsuda’s new book, “Fighting for America: Nisei Soldiers,” covers a subject we know something about. But it’s done as a graphic novel that moves a reader from facts to feelings through the words of six Northwest veterans and the accompanying art of Matt Sasaki.
The work, crafted by Matsuda from interviews with World War II veterans and their families and other research, reads like a graphic novel, but it is really graphic truth.
There are many accounts of the heroic, all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, thousands of Americans who chose to fight for their country even though they and their families were held captive by their government. This book tries to show each man as a complete person from childhood to old age in a few pages, even incorporating emotions into the telling.
“Fighting for America” book signing
There will be a book release and signing event at the Nisei Veterans Committee Memorial Hall in Seattle, 1212 S. King St., on Saturday, Sept. 12, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Matsuda told me he wants readers to see “That this is an American story, and that it is still relevant today, and that we should not let it happen again.”
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He said the elements of the toxic mix of race prejudice, failed leadership and wartime hysteria that have been blamed for the internment of Japanese Americans still exist and could harm some other group if the country isn’t on guard against that.
The idea for the book was born when Paul Murakami of the Nisei Veterans Committee Foundation told Matsuda the group was having trouble finding veterans to speak at schools. Fewer are left every year.
Matsuda is a retired educator and a poet who has written about internment in previous books. He was born in the Minidoka camp in Idaho. He wrote a piece about Shiro Kashino, a much-decorated sergeant who grew up in Seattle’s Central District, and he got Sasaki involved because he thought drawings would make a book more accessible to young readers.
The piece on Kashino became the novel’s first chapter and attracted funding for a larger project from the National Park Service through the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.
Most of the six veterans are from Seattle and their stories are both similar and distinct.
Frank Nishimura’s father came to the United States as a farmworker. But he had a head for business, and at the time the war broke out, he owned the second largest hotel in Seattle. Nishimura was on a ski trip with friends when they heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor was attacked. On the drive back to Seattle, they felt how quickly things had changed. People stared at them as they drove through town.
Tosh Yasutake’s father was an engineering major at Stanford University when he was young. He came to Seattle as a translator for the Immigration and Nationalization Service, but when the war started, the FBI took him away along with other community leaders.
Later, Yasutake and his family would be taken, too, along with other Japanese and Japanese Americans, first to an assembly center on the Puyallup fairgrounds, then to the concentration camp in Minidoka, one of 10 in the country.
The camps were divided about military service, with some young men refusing to fight for a country that would lock up its own citizens. Yasutake signed up.
Most of the volunteers left behind parents who weren’t citizens, not because they didn’t want to be, but because this country wouldn’t let Japanese immigrants be naturalized.
Turk Suzuki’s parents were both college graduates when they arrived in the U.S., but that didn’t matter. They were Japanese, and America was cool to their presence even before the war. However normal life had seemed before, the war clarified where they stood.
The young volunteers were sent to Camp Shelby in Mississippi for training. When they ventured into the town of Hattiesburg, they were surprised by signs that read “whites only” or “colored only.”
In the book, Suzuki says, “We didn’t know what race we were! So we used the ‘colored only’ toilets. Very quickly they told us to use the ‘white’ facilities. We were amazed to see how different this America was. We were in a segregated Army unit, but the African Americans had it worse.”
Yasutake said that though he could use white facilities, the segregation made him and his friends angry.
Some soldiers came back to Seattle on leave after basic training and found Japanese-owned businesses boarded up and Japantown in the International District mostly empty. Then they were shipped overseas to fight.
Roy Matsumoto, because of his language skills, wound up in Burma fighting the Japanese in the military-intelligence service. He was unusual in that his parents had returned to Japan years before the war, but sent him and one brother back to the U.S. His parents spent the war in Hiroshima and three of his brothers were in the Japanese Army. (They all survived.) His loyalty never wavered, and he made a career of the Army after the war.
Most of the men served in Europe, and one, Jimmie Kanaya, spent part of the war in POW camps watching men die of hunger and exhaustion, escaping twice before being liberated, and always thinking about his family in Minidoka.
The 442nd (with the 100th Infantry Battalion, which was made up of Japanese Americans from Hawaii) would become famous for its bravery and effectiveness in Europe. They first made a name by rescuing the “Lost Battalion” in 1944, though the number of their own men lost outnumbered the white soldiers they saved.
Toward the end of the war, they played a major role in breaking through the Gothic Line, the last enemy stronghold in Italy (while attached to the 92nd Infantry Division, the “Buffalo Soldiers”). The 422nd suffered unusually high casualties throughout its service and became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history. Seeing the battles through the eyes of the soldiers makes the suffering and the heroism both more real.
President Harry Truman greeted the 442nd soldiers when they returned to the U.S., and told them, “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice, and you won.”
Back home, some had trouble finding jobs or buying homes because of discrimination, but they soldiered on.
Matsuda and Sasaki’s book helps keep the stories of a significant moment in American history alive, and it’s both a warning against the urge to exclude and a reminder of the strength of the human spirit.