THE 1800TH STORY
By Cedrick Shimo
An MISLS student exiled to the 1800th
Unknown to the general American public and even among many in the Japanese American community is the story of an unusual army unit during World War II called the 1800 Engineer General Service Battalion. This battalion was comprised only of American soldiers of German, Italian and Japanese descent whom the army wanted to keep under surveillance. The German and Italian Americans were placed in this unit for a variety of reasons none of which, of course, related to the wholesale internment as was in our case. As for the Japanese Americans a few were in because of their pre-war occupation or skills but the majority of us were transferred into this unit because of our angry responses not only to discriminatory treatment within the army but primarily because of the injustice of the mass incarceration of our families without due process.
Many refer to us as military resisters, which is a misnomer. Any soldier who resists or disobeys an order would be court-martialed. Instead of resisters, a more appropriate term would be either dissidents or protesters to describe the men of the 1800th. I say this because despite our mental reservations we remained good obedient soldiers to the very end. There is an erroneous image that we were a bunch of trouble making disloyal misfits. But here are the facts.
The mission of the 1800th was to repair damages to property caused by tanks and other heavy equipment during training maneuvers by combat troops. We were a full-fledged engineering battalion with the capacity to build and repair bridges, roads, and fences and even construct our own complete military base from scratch. All this is recorded in the photo exhibit, which today, is being shown to the public for the first time.
Every one of us upon transfer into the 1800 was reduced to the rank of private and denied further promotions despite the fact that many held positions of responsibility. In my case I moved up from wielding a pick and shovel, to a truck driver, the acting motor pool sergeant, acting supply sergeant, and acting company clerk and interpreter. This enabled me (and others) to interact with all the Caucasian officers and non-coms who understood our plight. We were, therefore, treated with respect and understanding. This in turn contributed towards the high morale among the troops. As a consequence our job performance was considered outstanding as attested by the commendations received, and which are also on display. May I call your attention to a long article, which appeared in the January 29, 1945, Nashville Banner. It exposed the inefficiencies of 11 different combat engineering battalions who, according to official reports, "were unable to keep up with complaints from local landowners." These complaints turned to unanimous praise once the 1800 took over. This article also stated "early in 1944 a special battalion of engineer troops was sent into the maneuver area, each soldier of which was fired with the ambition to prove his loyalty to America."
On May, 1945 commendation from Generals M.C.Tyler and G.M Halloran citing the effective flood control performance of the 1800th during the greatest flood since 1937 in the Mississippi Valley. This full-page citation was to be read to all personnel in the next mess assembly and then posted on all organization bulletin boards for one week.
Immediately after the war, we had to appear before a special hearing board to
determine the type discharge to be issued - honorable, without honor or
dishonorable. Most of us Nisei received the honorable whereas most of the
Kibei, because of their inability to articulate their case, were given the
so-called "blue" or without honor discharges. Years later,
attorney Hyman Braven overturn this ruling. This is another story in
Every member had his own painful experience that led to his being exiled into the 1800th. Briefly here is why I was kept under observation for two and a half years of my four plus years in the army.
I had volunteered for the M.I.S. - the Military Intelligence Service -- way back in December of 1942 shortly after a Japanese language school was established in Camp Savage, Minnesota. I was assigned to a special 3 months speed-up class for advanced students. Just prior to graduation we were promised furloughs to bid farewell to our imprisoned families. My application to visit Manzanar was denied. Back then no Japanese Americans, including Nisei soldiers, were allowed in the Western Defense Zone. This restriction was later rescinded, but for me it was too late because I had already blown my stack to the authorities.
It was also the period when our families were getting their first taste of the harsh winter conditions in the camps. News of their frustrations began to filter in to us. It was also at a time when that infamous Loyalty Questionnaire and its notorious #27 and #28 questions were forced upon us. In my anger and frustration I answered No-Yes. No, I am no longer willing to go wherever ordered, and Yes, I remain loyal to the U.S. Had I known then what was to transpire for myself, my father in one camp and my mother in another I, no doubt, out of spite, would have answered No-No. At that time, however, I was mentally prepared for overseas duty but when given this choice I gave an honest reply. In fact I had attached a letter to the questionnaire expressing my reasons for the "No," but willing to serve in the M.I.S only on the home front - that our fight for liberty was over here and not over there. Instead I was among 20 other students and cadre expelled from Camp Savage and eventually ended up in the 1800th.
In the annals of military history no soldier of any country is given such a choice. You go wherever ordered -- otherwise you are court martialed. If every non-Nisei draftee were given this choice our battalion no doubt would have been at divisional strength. Only the Nisei were cornered into this most uncompromising no-win dilemma.
While in the 1800th I was once interviewed by a G2 officer and asked,
"If Japan were to invade the U.S., which side would you fight
for?" I gave my standard reply. I would fight for whichever
side that is defending the camps. Everything I held dear to me was now in
the camps - friends and family. All our family possessions were taken
away. Would the guards defend the camps or would they be machine-gunning
the inmates - my friends and family? Who can deny that at that point
in history such a tragic occurrence could have been in the realm of possibility?
Years after the war our third and fourth generation Japanese Americans began to question why the Nisei were so compliant and did not protest or resist. As you have learned today, from me and the other speakers, hundreds in the army and tens of thousands in the camps did protest and some even resisted the draft and suffered the consequences. Patrick Henry would have been proud of their courage as they cried out, "Give me liberty or give me death."
Now, having said that, I would like to close by stating that if all the Japanese Americans had taken our stand we might still be languishing in the "reservations" under the jurisdiction of a newly established Bureau of Indian and Japanese Affairs! It was the courage and bravery of the soldiers of the 100th, the 442nd and the M.I.S. that saved the Japanese American community from experiencing the fate of the Native American Indians.
Involved were two types of courage: one obeyed orders, overcame deadly enemy fire and became heroes. The other protested or resisted unjust directive and orders, cleared their conscience and became discredited. I ask you, who can dare stand in judgment and proclaim that one group was more right and more courageous that the other?
My father, a martial arts kendo instructor, taught me "Bushido" the way of the warrior. He told me many stories about Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary samurai of ancient Japan. One that I passed on to my YMCA boys when I was their adult leader went something like this. "Leave no stones unturned in avoiding trouble - to draw one's sword only when absolutely cornered. To train and hone one's skill so that when finally forced to draw, do so with the confidence to win - or die with honor."
Thanks to the exploits of the 100th, the 442nd, M.I.S. and organizations that protested our mistreatment, government policy changed from one of condemnation to one of commendation. Our future in the United States suddenly improved from one of utter despair to one of hope. As a result I did not have to draw my sword. Otherwise, if the government had not changed its policy towards the Japanese American, I would have been on the forefront with my Watts and Tienemen Square friends brandishing my Molotov cocktail sword screaming, "Burn baby burn."
At one time in 1942 and early 1943 I felt that my country had abandoned us - treating us as a Japanese enemy instead of as an American. Today, as I look back I can only marvel at the innate greatness and goodness of America. I for one, and I'm sure for all Japanese Americans, this experience has forged us into becoming better Americans, truly appreciative of the words "freedom, liberty and justice for all." It behooves every American not to take these values for granted but to be evermore vigilant to make certain that all does apply to all.
One of the tragic consequence of this wartime episode was the extremely
divisive breakup within the Japanese American community which continues to this
very day - a few ultra patriotic and stubborn veterans and their supporters at
one end, and a few equally stubborn resister and protester group and their
supporters at the other end, and the vast middle majority with empathy for both.
THE QUESTION: how and who can bring our community together to speak with one concurring voice - not to glorify a few but all those who had bravely suffered through those agonizing years - the military heroes, of course, but those who defied the evacuation orders in court; those who remained in the "relocation" and the "enemy" alien camps to the very end; those camp and army protestors and resisters; those who ventured out of the camps during the war into the precarious unknown; those renunciants from Tule Lake and Crystal City who had angrily renounced their citizenship; and those Repatriates and Expatriates who went to Japan. Should not they all be given due credit for their immeasurable sacrifice and courage?
No single group should be seeking glorification for itself but should identify itself with all who suffered through this soul wrenching experience. Each individual made a decision depending upon his or her set of circumstances. None need to apologize to anyone for whatever his or her action. Instead, all of us should stand tall and be proud that each, in his own way, fought for the very principles upon which America was founded -- human rights, dignity, freedom, liberty and equal justice for all.