Patriotism, Honor, and Going For Broke

100th Infantry

General Mark Clark, inspecting members of the 100th Infantry Battalion in Italy, 1944.
Photo courtesy of

Patriotism, Honor, and Going For Broke
| Published May 5, 2014 |

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

Winners of wars write the history books, and that's why American concentration camps are typically called relocation camps. The United States government forcibly relocated Japanese-Americans at the onset of World War II, displacing families and causing their property to be confiscated. However, even seven decades later, stories of heroism and dignity in the face of adversity still shine through, according to Frank H. Wu.

Wu is chancellor and dean at University of California Hastings College of the Law, and he recently penned a story for, discussing Ansel Adams' photographs taken at the Manzanar, California, camp.

Adams was a friend of the camp's director, and he asked if he might visit the camp and take photos there. The federal government's War Relocation Authority controlled the camps (Manzanar was one of 10), but did not balk at Adams' request although it had its own extensive project documenting life at the camp.

Manzanar, one of 10 such camps in the nation, was in an isolated location of stark beauty in Owens Valley with the Sierra Nevada Mountains as a backdrop. Adams' stark black-and-white photos captured the natural landscape's majesty and the detainees' attempt to recreate a normal life. This included a sense of community, schools, newspapers, a bank, a post office, and numerous other things associated with the outside world. This all occurred behind barbed wire, under gun towers with armed guards constantly at hand.

The government was slightly reticent to publicize barbed wire, guard towers and armed soldiers, so they told Adams that those subjects could not be shown directly, Wu said. You can see all these things in the background, or in the shadows. Adams would be taking a photo of something else, but at the front you might see barbed wire, or the ground would show its shadow. Adams was incredibly clever during his photo shoot, because sometimes you would see blurry outlines of a soldier's shadow, and then he climbed the gun towers to shoot photos downward. How many tall structures are sitting in the middle of a remote desert? The photographs showed everything about the camp—confinement, loss of liberty, dignity, equality, but also a sense that people were struggling to do their best under adverse conditions.

The camp was hastily built in the style of Army barracks, with wood planks and tar-paper ceilings, which were no match for fierce desert winds in the winter. Wind blew right through cracks in the boards, which was bone-chilling for the inhabitants. The summer dust storms were even less pleasant, with temperatures that sometimes climbed well into the 100s.

Adams is considered one of the finest photographers to ever live, so his images give you a tremendous understanding of conditions and confinement. There would be a 20-by-20 room for an entire family, or sometimes two families would be jammed together into the same space. A stove was provided for heat, but no relief was offered for brutal summers. The detainees suffered from tremendous doubt, not knowing what would happen to them.

Their possessions had been taken from them and their bank accounts frozen. They were herded onto trains and buses, with windows blacked out so others wouldn't know who was being led away.

They were not apprised of their future as the war stretched on for months, and then into years. You could see the U.S. would eventually win the war, but it was unclear what would happen to these 125,000 souls—two-thirds of them native-born citizens of this country, almost all of them of Japanese descent.

Would they be welcomed home? The bombing of Pearl Harbor had changed everything. Many people wanted them driven out, openly stating that "California was for white men, for Christians only."

Many of the Japanese Americans were fully assimilated into the U.S. way of life—Christians, baseball lovers, fans of Hollywood movies, prolific in typical American hobbies, and proficient English-speakers. Many Americans, especially those on the West Coast, wanted these citizens excluded. There were alien land laws forbidding first generation immigrants from owning land. Naturalization laws allowed citizenship for only free white people, and the law barred interracial marriage, stopping those of Japanese descent from marrying whites.

However, one of the most incredible stories to emerge from World War II was that of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed almost entirely of Japanese-Americans, which became the most highly decorated U.S. Army infantry regiment ever. Nicknamed the Purple Heart Regiment, many fought while their families were imprisoned in internment camps. Almost all had fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, while some even had children in camps.

Begging and demanding to be allowed to fight for their country, they were eventually trained at military camps in Mississippi and Arkansas. In early May of 1944, after having their unit inspected personally by Chief of Staff George Marshall, most shipped off to combat in Europe—even then the Army brass considered them untrustworthy to fight Japanese. Many would see action in Italy.

The 442nd (“Go For Broke”) and its members were honored with 21 Medals of Honor, 53 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, 4000 bronze Stars, eight Presidential Unit Citations and 9,486 Purple Hearts.

No other unit during World War II—in either the Pacific or the European theaters—received eight Presidential Citations.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Last Fellows of Easy Company; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; March 18, 2014.

For more about the Go For Broke Regiment, visit the website Go For Broke.