On this day in history, the United States took actions that symbolize the contradictions of the Pacific War, at home and abroad. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which effected the internment of ethnic Japanese (Issei) and Japanese-Americans (Nisei) living in the western United States. Three years later, in 1945, forces of the 4th Assault Corps put two divisions on the black sands of Iwo Jima. In a sense, these linked days were, in their own particular way, indicative of the beginning and the end of the Pacific War. The internments–perhaps the most shameful act of Roosevelt’s Presidency–highlight the confusion, fear, and chaos of the immediate months after Pearl Harbor. Iwo Jima, at the other end, demonstrated the bloody grinding that the war had become by 1945.
The attack on Pearl Harbor had thrown the United States into war with Japan. It also reinforced suspicions that many Americans had about the Issei and Nisei living in the west. “Fifth column” activity had been a constant worry in the U.S. since the war in Europe started and suspicious individuals in the east had been questioned by the FBI for their connection to Germany or Italy. What was different in the American west, however, was the rapid shift–driven largely by racism–from the suspicion of individuals to the suspicion of the entire group. The panic that overtook the West Coast after Pearl Harbor soon focused–at least in part–on supposed Japanese fifth columnnists active in California, Oregon, and Washington. The Attorney General of California, Earl Warren, issued a study claiming that Japanese-Americans lived in greater numbers near sensitive military targets. This, Warren thought, meant that they were concentrating themselves and waiting for an opportunity at sabotage. General John L. DeWitt, the head of the Western Defense Command, echoed Warren’s assessment. The result, in mid-February, was Executive Order 9066, which laid the groundwork for the exclusion of individuals from sensitive “military areas.” General DeWitt quickly issued orders to exclude all ethnic Japanese from “Military Area 1,” essentially the West Coast, and to set up processing centers and internment camps in the inland west to which the Nisei and Issei would be relocated.
The inherent silliness of the military justification for this is revealed most acutely by three things. First, the ethnic Japanese population of Hawaii was not included in the internment, despite their massive numbers and proximity to critical American bases. Second, it was impervious to any counter-argument. When told that there had been no acts of sabotage on the West Coast, General DeWitt responded that such a lack was “disturbing” because it indicated that the Japanese were waiting for the Americans to let their guard down. Third, many of the Nisei volunteered or were drafted for the military and served either in the European theater or (as linguists) in the Pacific.
The relocation of so many thousands of people created horrendous difficulties for the Japanese-Americans. Many were forced to sell their homes and possessions at fire-sale prices. Some destroyed their belongings rather than let them go for insultingly low prices. Nine Nisei soldiers were given furloughs from their units to return home and help their families with the move. In a defiant statement about their patriotic service, some Issei veterans of World War I showed up to the assembly camps in their old uniforms.
The internment was in roughly-built camps surrounded by barbed wire in Montana and Wyoming and Utah. Treatment of the Nisei and Issei there ranged from malevolent to indifferent to kind, depending on the commander. As the war progressed, the internment became looser and looser. College-age Nisei were allowed to leave to go to school. Gardens outside the barbed wire were set up and the internees allowed to farm them. Visits to local towns occurred. Finally, Executive Order 9066 was revoked in February 1945, and the camp inhabitants were given $25 and a train ticket home by the government. They were not, however, compensated for their confinement or for the property that many had lost.
In military terms, Iwo Jima is perhaps most notable not for the style of the American assault, but the method of the Japanese defense. American amphibious landings had become routinized in their execution (though not, obviously, in the experiences of those mounting the assault). The focus was on getting the Marines and soldiers ashore with a minimum of casualties. To that end, massive firepower was rained down on the beach from carrier airplanes, the big guns of American battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, and purpose-built ships such as rocket-firing landing craft. Once the beach had been pulverized, assault forces would go ashore in landing craft and tracked vehicles and fight their way inshore.
At Iwo Jima, however, the Japanese commander, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, took a different tack. Rather than concentrating his defenses on the shoreline and thus prey to American firepower, Kuribayashi pulled them back inland and built a series of defensive lines across the island. The American forces would be pincered between looming presence of Mt. Suribachi in the south and a series of lines in the broken terrain of the north. He conceded the landing to save his forces and focused on preventing the Americans from breaking out of the beachhead. The result was when American marines of the 4th and 5th Divisions went ashore on 19 February 1945 in Operation Detachment, they found the beaches largely undefended. Only as they began to push inshore did they trip into the intricate networks of tunnels, trenches, foxholes, and bunkers that the Japanese had set up. The fight, which started off slowly, quickly achieved a horrendous intensity. Iwo Jima was technically considered part of the Japanese Home Islands and the defenders fought fiercely. The Marines pushed deeper onto the island, using flamethrowers and hand grenades to clear the bunkers and caves of defenders. When these failed, Nisei linguists sometimes managed to convince Japanese soldiers to surrender, but most preferred suicide or death in combat. The island was only finally declared secured on March 25, after five weeks of intensive fighting, and even then several thousand Japanese remained at liberty. The final Japanese holdouts would not surrender until several years after the war was over.
There were 27 Medals of Honor awarded for Iwo Jima (23 Marine and 4 Navy). The 23 Marine awards constituted about 30% of the Medals given to Marines during the entire war. American casualties were roughly 28,000 (with over 6,000 dead). Japanese casualties were over 21,000, almost all of whom were killed. After Iwo Jima, the American staff officers turned planning the invasions of Okinawa and Japan itself.
The memory of both has lasted, though in different ways. Iwo Jima has become perhaps the iconic land campaign of the Pacific War, symbolized by the famous photo of the the flag-raising on Suribachi. The Marine Corps Memorial in Washington, DC specifically reproduces the flag-raising and more movies have been made about Iwo Jima than about any other Pacific battle. The movies themselves have ranged widely, from the uncomplicated patriotic remembrance of John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima to the complex dual projects of Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. In many ways, Pearl Harbor and Iwo Jima are the bookend battles of the Pacific War in American culture, one defeat and one victory.
The memories of the internment have been more contested. Though never forgotten, the American memory of World War II as “The Good War” tended to slide into the background things that did not fit. The 1955 Hollywood movie “Bad Day at Black Rock” touched on the issue, but from the point of view of Spencer Tracy, not the murdered Japanese farmer or his dead son, neither of whom appear in the film. It was not until the 1980s that Congress, under pressure from the “Redress Movement” acted to apologize and compensate the internees, with a lump sum payment of $20,000 for all those sent to the camps. In 1996, Congress ordered the Pentagon to research all Asian-American recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross to see if they should be “upgraded to the Medal of Honor.” The result, in 2000, was the award of 22 Medals of Honor to Asian-American veterans of World War II. Even now, however, the issue is controversial. Similar fears of an American “fifth column” post-9/11 have lead to the appearance of an internment-denialist literature, which argues that 9066 was justified.
But as both these events indicate, World War II’s status as “The Good War” of the “Greatest Generation” is always complicated and ambiguous. The individual heroism of Private First Class William R. Caddy, who jumped on a Japanese grenade and saved the lives of two fellow soldiers on March 2, 1945 at Iwo Jima sits uneasily with the groups of Japanese-Americans being sent from their homes to inland internment. Both are part of the war; neither are its whole meaning.