On Dec. 7, 1941 — 75 years ago — an attack on U.S. naval forces at Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into World War II.
The ensuing war challenged not only America’s resolve, it also challenged us to change how we viewed and treated our fellow Americans.
During World War II, African American enlistees had to wait longer to receive military training and were assigned to segregated units. African American guards noted that German prisoners of war in U.S. camps could visit segregated restaurants that they could not. Finally, in 1948, President Truman desegregated the military.
Despite having been sent to internment camps, many Japanese Americans enlisted because they considered themselves first and foremost to be Americans. The 442nd Infantry Regiment — a fighting unit composed almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry — became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. The late Roy Matsumoto of San Juan Island enlisted while at the Jerome, Arkansas, concentration camp and went on to become a decorated member of the famed Merrill’s Marauders. When asked why he enlisted to serve a country that had imprisoned him because of his ancestry, he answered with emotion: “I didn’t want my country to think I was a traitor.” For his battlefield heroism, he was inducted into the U.S. Army Rangers Hall of Fame, the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame, and received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Even while the U.S. government was seeking to end its relationship with Native Nations with whom it had signed treaties, Native Americans served at a higher rate — at least 99 percent of all eligible American Indians enlisted — than any other demographic. The Navajo Code Talkers, serving tirelessly and without breaks between battles, altered the course of the war in the Pacific. “War Department officials have stated that during WWII, if the entire population had enlisted at the same rate American Indians did, Selective Service would have been unnecessary,” Indian Country Today Media Network reported.
Today, war again tests America’s resolve. And again America’s military personnel prove to the world that, as a multicultural nation, we are Americans based on nothing more than our willingness to defend that which is stated in our founding document: that all are created equal, that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of World War II — Americans all — challenge us to examine our racial and social views, and to stay the course for progress at home as we stay the course for freedom here and abroad.