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Profiles in Courage: Terry Shima

Profiles in Courage

Found In: human & civil rights

Terry Shima was a 17-year-old student when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the world as he knew it changed. As the former Executive Director of the Japanese American Veterans Association and current Chair of its Outreach and Education Committee, Shima preserves the legacy of soldiers who fought overseas even as many of their families were relocated to internment camps at home. Shima talks with NEA about his experience.

You were a Japanese American teenager in Hawaii during WWII. Do you remember where you were when news broke of Pearl Harbor?

I was headed for the beach with my brother to spearfish when the police stopped us to ask, “Do you know you people bombed Pearl Harbor? We said, “What people?” When we asked them to explain, they said we’d better go home and turn our radio on. That’s when we found out Japan had attacked the U.S.

What was the public attitude toward Japanese Americans?

There was mass hysteria in America against all persons of Japanese ancestry. Martial law was imposed and the atmosphere in our small country town grew very cold. We were all viewed as collaborators and saboteurs for imperial Japan, despite the fact my siblings and I had been born and raised in the U.S. The second blow came two months later, when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, leading to the forced internment of 118,000 ethnic Japanese on the West Coast, over half of them U.S. citizens. After Japanese American soldiers on the West Coast were discharged from the Army, many went home, helped their families pack, and went to the internment camps with them.

Were your family members incarcerated?

Fortunately, there was no mass incarceration in the territory of Hawaii. I served in a voluntary defense force that patrolled the coastline of the island. In 1944, I was drafted into the army, trained for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and arrived in Italy just in time for VE Day in 1945.

Wasn’t the 442nd a famous Japanese-American fighting unit?

We were a segregated unit under intense scrutiny because the army doubted our loyalty. But even though the government had given up on us, we did not lose faith in America. The 442nd sustained huge casualties and became a highly decorated regiment.

The regiment started with 4,000 men. By the time the war ended, 16,000 men had served in Europe and another 4,200 in the Pacific fighting against the homeland of their parents. Yet they were 100 percent loyal to America.

How did soldiers feel about risking lives overseas while their families were in camps at home?

That’s what we petitioned the government for—to prove our allegiance. Our company’s motto was “Go for broke.” We put everything we had on the line, including our lives. After the war ended, the 442nd paraded down Constitution Avenue and was told by President Truman, “You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home, and you won.”

How were the soldiers treated when they returned from the war?

Some individuals had humiliating experiences: a number had their homes shot at and burned, many weren’t served in restaurants and bars, and one wounded soldier with a chest full of ribbons was disrespected by an internment camp sentry when he went to visit his parents. As a group, however, we gradually began to enjoy a much more level playing field that allowed us to reach for the highest plateaus in the military, politics, academia, and business.

What lesson should students learn from the Japanese American experience during WWII?

When the Japanese American Veterans Association visits schools and universities, we tell our stories to remind students and the public that what happened to one ethnic group during the war must never happen again.

At the same time, our nation has come a long way. During WWII, the late Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was given draft classification 4-C, which stood for enemy alien. Seventy years later, this same Japanese American was selected to serve as president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, third in the line to the U.S. presidency. That is the greatness of America.

Terry Shima is awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal by President Obama.