They entered World War II with different histories and from different stations in life to serve their country in different branches of the military. Some fought in Europe, others in the Pacific.
They may have known little of each other’s existence or accomplishments, yet the Japanese American World War II servicemen, Tuskegee Airmen and Navajo Code Talkers shared one significant bond: they were all part of racially segregated units fighting to win freedom both abroad and at home.
These three unique military groups will soon share yet another bond when the Nisei veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Military Intelligence Service collectively receive the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal at a special ceremony in Washington, D. C., on Nov. 2. Together with the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 and the Navajo Code Talkers in 2000, all three segregated World War II units will now hold this country’s highest civilian honor.
This event will be followed by the Go For Broke National Education Center’s own historic moment at the Evening of Aloha on Nov. 5, to be held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where it will gather together for the very first time members of each of these segregated units.
Go For Broke chose to honor these units at its 10th annual Evening of Aloha, according to its president, Don Nose, because all three “not only played crucial roles in the Allied victory overseas, but also in our country’s march towards racial acceptance and civil rights.”
Though the story of the huge contributions made by the Nisei veterans is well known to those who were incarcerated, the exploits of these two other segregated units have not been known to many in the Japanese American community. Segregated units were sanctioned in the U.S. Armed Forces until well into 1950, despite President Harry Truman’s executive order in 1948 to desegregate the troops as soon as possible.
The Tuskegee Airmen were not only the first African American aviators in the U.S. Army Air Forces, they were the first black Americans to serve in combat. Trained by the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, these men fought a long history of institutional racism dating back to a 1925 Army Air College study deeming them unfit. Due to political pressure, the Army Air Corps eventually opened its ranks to African Americans but still kept them segregated.
They were to prove their worth during the war, when these 992 airmen destroyed or damaged more than 409 German airplanes, 950 ground units, and a destroyer. They were involved in more than 200 bomber escort missions.
Like the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Code Talkers faced opposition from government officials when it was suggested they assist in the war effort, but the need to develop a simple but indecipherable code for reconnaissance ultimately led to their formation. Initially, 29 young men were recruited by the Marines to serve in the Pacific Theater. Utilizing a system of approximately 500 encoded words, these men devised a code that was used in more than 800 messages at Iwo Jima alone, a code that was not broken for the duration of the war.
Navajo Code Talker Raymond R. Smith Sr. was at Iwo Jima, and his daughter, Yvonne Murphy, remembers him relating how the Japanese would intercept their transmissions to impersonate commanding officers. Using perfect English, they would demand to know what their messages meant. “But every day the code talkers would choose a new password,” Murphy recounts, “and if the person speaking didn’t know the word, they would know it was the Japanese.”
Once when the code talkers started making jokes in Navajo, one frustrated Japanese yelled, “You d— people! You sound like you’re talking under water!”
The existence of Navajo Code Talkers was kept classified until 1968, just as the existence of the Military Intelligence Service was not known publicly until 1974. While Navajos were using their sacred language in serving their country, government-run boarding schools were punishing their children for speaking Navajo, posting notices such as “Tradition Is the Enemy of Progress.”
Murphy believes that her Navajo father revered the Nisei soldiers for their contribution to America’s victory in the war. Her father felt it was not right that Japanese Americans were put in concentration camps when they were citizens, yet they took on the call of duty and did their part.
“For my father, if he were here, he would say they deserve the Congressional Gold Medal,” Murphy says. “Japanese Americans contributed to winning the war, and they deserve it.”
The Beverly Hilton is located at 9876 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Registration and silent auction start at 5 p.m., dinner and celebration at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $200 general, $175 for veterans of all wars and their spouses. To purchase tickets by phone, call (310) 201-5033 and ask for Mike Standifer or email [email protected] For more information, visit www.goforbroke.org.