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U.S. Supreme Court,
Military Law,
Civil Rights

Nov. 21, 2017

A different kind of courage

In the early 1980s, I had the honor of representing a group of 11 Japanese-American World War II soldiers. Each soldier had committed an act of disobedience during their military service in March 1944 by refusing to obey a command of a superior officer as part of their training at Fort McLellan, Alabama.

1121 ldj minerich
The DB Boys, circa 1980. Top row from left: Ben Ogawa, Masao Morita, Edmund Zane (Friend), Paul Minerich, Fred Sumoge, Katsumi Taniguchi. Bottom row from left: Kenjiro Hayakawa, Masao Kataoka, Tim Nomiyama, Masao Okamoto.

In the early 1980s, I had the honor of representing a group of 11 Japanese-American World War II soldiers. Each soldier had committed an act of disobedience during their military service in March 1944 by refusing to obey a command of a superior officer as part of their training at Fort McLellan, Alabama. This was their protest to the internment -- imprisonment -- of approximately 120,000 Japanese persons living on the west coast of the United States, including their families and friends. They received prison sentences ranging from five to 30 years to be served at the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The men served approximately 27 months before their sentences were commuted at the end of the war. They have since referred to themselves as the "DB Boys."

One of the resisters was my father-in-law, Tetsuo Tim Nomiyama, who, along with DB Boys Henry Itano, Katsumi Taniguchi, Masao Oyama and Ben Ogawa lived in Orange County after the war. All DB Boys have passed on, except for Fred Sumoge, age 98, who lives in Downey. Almost all of the DB Boys, including Tim Nomiyama, were "Kibei" -- persons born in the United States and raised in Japan. Some, like Fred Sumoge were "Nisei" -- second-generation Japanese-Americans born in the U.S. My father-in-law, born in 1916, chose to return to the United States from Japan in the late 1930s, relinquishing his Japanese citizenship despite strong pressure from the Japanese military, who called him a traitor as Japan was preparing for war.

All of the DB Boys were drafted just prior to Pearl Harbor -- December 7, 1941 -- or shortly thereafter. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's infamous Executive Order 9066 was signed February 19, 1942, and within a few months all Japanese persons along the west coast of the U.S., except those already in military service, were imprisoned in one of a number of prison camps hastily built around the country based on the false government claim of military necessity.

Following Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American soldiers were not treated as equals. They were given menial duties, assigned to segregated units, investigated for loyalty by their officers, discharged with less than honorable discharges, and were initially not allowed to visit their families in the camps. Dramatic evidence of their treatment came in the spring of 1943, when President Roosevelt spoke at Fort Riley, Kansas. Prior to the speech, the Japanese-American soldiers were assembled, marched away, and confined in the motor pool under guard by soldiers with machine guns pointed at them.

President Roosevelt and the Japanese American Citizens League favored a method by which the imprisoned Japanese-Americans could prove their loyalty. The 100th Battalion consisting of primarily Hawaiian-born Japanese-American soldiers were already fighting with honor in Europe sustaining heavy casualties and needed replacements. The segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team had been formed in February 1943, consisting of Japanese-Americans primarily from Hawaii (where Japanese-Americans were not imprisoned) and from volunteers from the mainland prison camps. These segregated units fought in Europe with heroism and distinction.

In March 1944, before the 442nd shipped out to Europe, a group of over 600 Japanese-American soldiers were also assembled at Fort McClellan, Alabama, to begin combat training. It was at this point that the DB Boys had to make their choice to protest if they were ever going to. They were profoundly conflicted about their duty given the internment.

One company of men, having only arrived a few days earlier, met early on the morning of March 21, 1944, at Fort McClellan, attempting to confront their commanding officer about their protest of the internment. They wanted someone to hear their point of view and to pass it on to the powers-that-be in Washington D.C. They did not intend to refuse training. They were rebuffed and told it was not the Army's job to deal with their situation. A sergeant called them "yellow bellied Japs." They were ordered to "march to the field house" where they were to be given an orientation speech. On the way to the field house, the formation came to a disorganized stop. They were arrested and sent to the stockade.

Tim Nomiyama, who was in a different company, actually heard the orientation speech by the fort's commanding officer and understood it to mean that if they had a problem he could talk to his commanding officer. Tim went the next morning to his commanding officer to voice his grievance to internment but was similarly rebuffed. He told the commanding officer he wanted to be arrested and go to the stockade with the others and his request was granted.

By the end of March 22, 1944, there were 106 Japanese-American soldiers in the stockade. Those men were given another speech by a Lieutenant Colonel Johnston. Some understood Johnston to say that the men who remain in the stockade will be shot. Others heard him to threaten that they know what happens to people like them in Japan or Germany, inferring they would be shot. They were given a choice: exit through the right door and go back to train, or exit through the left door and continue your disobedience. Tim Nomiyama was the first through the left door. He said it felt like a long time before somebody else joined him. He thought that he could be shot for his choice. Twenty-eight men went through the left door. The rest went through the right door and continued to train. From the military point of view, these men, mostly Kibei, had become indoctrinated with the military philosophy of Japan and their disloyalty was to be expected.

The following day, some of the men who went through the right door took a risk of their own and wrote a letter to the commanding officer supporting the other men. The letter explained that the men who went through the left door wanted an audience for the problems of the imprisoned Japanese-Americans, that their effort to bring the problem to the attention of the commanding officer was not successful, the problem was too big for the officers at Fort McLellan, and that they had to do something dramatic. The letter further explained that those men were 100 percent loyal to the United States, but they were stubborn and this was their last chance to do their part to correct the injustice.

Twenty-one of the 28 men who exited the left door, including Tim Nomiyama, were convicted of disobeying a lawful command of a superior officer. At the first trial, the defendant Masao Kataoka said: "If I should join the combat unit and sacrifice my life and the present condition exists toward the Japanese people of this country, I shall die in vain." He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Efforts after WWII into the 1950s to upgrade the dishonorable discharges were not successful. The time was not yet right. With the civil rights movement, the internment redress movement, and the wisdom of leaders like Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, we were able in 1980-1982 to upgrade the dishonorable discharges to honorable and restore the military benefits of the DB Boys. However, we were not able to set aside their convictions following a hearing at the Pentagon. After all, this was a time of war and the DB Boys were soldiers required to obey orders.

History and the government documents uncovered at the National Archives during the internment redress movement in the 1980s have shown us that there was no military necessity, espionage or sabotage to justify the imprisonment of Japanese and our government knew it. The commission established by Congress to investigate the legacy of the camps concluded the imprisonment was a result of wartime hysteria and a failure of leadership. The U.S. Supreme Court in Yasui, 63 S. Ct. 1392 (1943), Hirabayashi, 63 S. Ct. 1375 (1943), and Korematsu, 65 S. Ct. 193 (1944), deferred to executive orders based on unfounded claims of military necessity.

Most Japanese-Americans responded to their imprisonment with stoic resignation. A relative few resisted by violating curfew orders, draft notices, or military orders to train. Given the unique and compelling circumstances they faced, how does one best demonstrate loyalty, bravery and duty to one's family and country? The DB Boys acted with integrity and honor. They exhibited a different kind of courage.


Ben Armistead

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