Two Asian Pacific Americans’ Wartime Experiences: Personal Histories from the Veterans History Project

This is a guest post by Bernice Ramirez. Bernice is working with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program.

Like many immigrants to the United States, the earliest arrivals from Asia were motivated by a desire to fulfill their version of the American Dream. Often, these immigrants were met with a difficult reality in their new home. Asian Americans were not always embraced by locals and other immigrants, but they worked hard to earn their place in the history of the United States.

The sacrifices that Japanese Americans made during wartime stand as great examples of the contributions of Asian Pacific Americans. Two personal histories collected by the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress can help students examine the individual decisions that made these contributions possible.

Norman Saburo Ikari on guard at barracks, 442nd Regimental Combat Team area, Camp Shelby, Mississippi

American men from a wide range of backgrounds were drafted to fight in major wars, including World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. Norman Saburo Ikari, an American of Japanese descent, was drafted to the Army shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In this firsthand narrative of the Pearl Harbor attack that changed his life, Ikari describes how, while completing basic training, he learned that his mother and siblings had been separated and sent to different Japanese internment camps. Despite this news, Ikari asked to be transferred to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an infantry unit composed mostly of Americans of Japanese descent charged with very dangerous work. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team would go on to become among the most decorated infantry regiments in the United States Army; 21 of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Asian American women were also forced to make difficult decisions. Early in her memoir, Road Runner, Carolyn Hisako Tanaka describes the traumatic experience of being forced to live in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. Upon her release, she would discover that their home had been burned down. Still, years later, Tanaka was working as an emergency room nurse when she decided to serve in Vietnam. Upon her return to the U.S., she was discouraged by the lack of appreciation she and her colleagues received for their duty. In order to avoid being spat on or called a “war monger,” she was encouraged to change into civilian clothes as soon as her plane arrived in the States.

Plaque memorializing the Poston internment camp, in which Mr. Ikari’s mother and siblings were held

Teaching suggestions:

  • Compare and contrast the experiences of nurse Carolyn Hisako Tanaka and soldier Norman Saburo Ikari. What could have motivated Tanaka to serve in the Army after the traumatic experience she endured as a child? Similarly, Ikari notes that the draft and volunteer enlistment was closed to Japanese Americans soon after he was drafted. What could have motivated him to transfer to an infantry involved in dangerous fighting?
  • Teachers can ask students to articulate their reaction to the two pictures of Tanaka that are included in this blog post.
  • Teachers can guide students in thinking through the link between the two narratives from Tanaka and Ikari. What can you learn from each narrative as individual pieces and from the two together? What is missing in their descriptions?

How can the wartime decisions of these Americans inform your students’ perspectives on immigrant experiences?