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Regiment’s Reunion Is Bittersweet : World War II: The Japanese American veterans return to Camp Shelby. Highly decorated 442nd was formed there.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Roy Uyeda arrived in Mississippi for Army training in 1943, one of the first things he saw when he stepped off the train were signs marking “white” and “colored” public facilities.

“I was standing there looking and a GI came along and said: ‘What you doing, buddy?’ ” remembered Uyeda, who is Japanese American. “I said I was trying to determine what I was. He said: ‘You are white.’ ”

That was news for Uyeda. Although he was American-born and had enlisted for Army Air Corps training before the United States entered World War II, he had been treated as the enemy ever since Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

“War broke out and we got slapped in the brig,” he said in a tone that had long lost any trace of bitterness. For the crime of having Japanese forebears, he and more than two dozen other soldiers were jailed for 33 days at his previous base in Missouri.

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Meanwhile, in the name of national security, the U.S. government evacuated 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants from the West Coast, which had been laid bare to enemy attack by the destruction of the fleet at Pearl Harbor. Uyeda’s family was split up and sent to internment camps--Uyeda calls them concentration camps--in North Dakota and Arkansas.

“It was a period when you didn’t know what the hell was going on,” he said.

For the almost 4,000 Japanese American soldiers who trained near here at Camp Shelby--many of whom had volunteered after initially being branded “enemy aliens"--venturing into the mysterious South and being declared honorary whites was just one more shock to the system.

This weekend, more than 300 former members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and their families returned to Camp Shelby, most for the first time in more than 50 years, to reminisce, to meet old friends from the base and from the community, and to honor the members of their team who did not come back.

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The 442nd was formed here and went on to become the most decorated military unit in U.S. history, considering its size and length of service. With constant personnel replacements, it lost 300% of its men. Another Japanese American unit, the 100th Infantry Battalion, preceded it into World War II and also distinguished itself.

The Japanese American soldiers fought extra hard, even after sustaining injuries, because they had to prove their loyalty to America, said Dick Narasaki of Seattle, a member of the regiment.

Then the war ended.

“The battle really just began when they came back home,” said Herb Sasaki, a native of Los Angeles who trained at Camp Shelby and later decided to make Mississippi his home.

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“Most of the troops were happy when the war was over because they could go home,” he said. “The 442nd men had no home. The government took it all away. Just as the Germans did for the Jews, the U.S. government did for the Japanese.”

A memorial dedicated at the base Saturday carries a quotation from President Harry S. Truman: “You fought not only the enemy--you fought prejudice and won.”

As much as Sasaki admires Truman, he begs to differ. “The West Coast didn’t want the Japanese back,” said the retired businessman. “They wouldn’t let them back in business, wouldn’t let them buy homes.” Asserting that the relocation was a ruse concocted so that whites could take away successful Japanese-owned businesses, Sasaki said: “They had to fight for all that all over again. . . . Even to this day we are still fighting.”

For many of the veterans, the experiences are difficult to talk about.

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“When we were young, they never talked about the camps or anything,” Janet Geary said of her parents. Her father, Kow Ito of Chino, served in the 442nd. Most of what she knows about her parents’ experiences during World War II, she’s learned from listening while her father reminiscences with old war buddies at reunions such as the one held here.

One of the participants this weekend was Pierre Moulin, a resident of Bruyere, France, who came to thank the regiment for freeing his village from German occupation. After liberating the town and others near the German border, the regiment went on to one of the bloodiest battles of the war. About 200 were killed and 600 wounded in the fight to free 211 soldiers of the so-called Lost Battalion of the 36th Division, who were cut off by the enemy.

Moulin and other speakers urged the veterans to talk about their experiences with their children or to cooperate in oral history projects so that their stories will live on.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) trained at Camp Shelby and served in the 442nd. He observed that before they came to the South, most of the young soldiers had lived in close-knit ethnic communities with little contact with whites. In Mississippi, after some initial coolness, the soldiers were welcomed into peoples’ homes and formed fast friendships; some even married here.

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He contrasted the warmth of his Southern friends with the reception he received after he returned from the war. He recalled entering a barbershop in Oakland wearing his uniform, four rows of military decorations and a hook where his right hand had been before a German grenade blew it off--only to be shooed away by the proprietor who barked: “We don’t cut Jap hair.”

“I’ve always wondered how well the regiment would have conducted itself in combat if we had not enjoyed the hospitality and the sense of acceptance of the people of Hattiesburg,” he said. “I think we left here satisfied and convinced that America was a good land, that notwithstanding the error made in incarcerating our families, that the people were good, that it was worth fighting for, worth dying for.”

Others concurred that the soldiers generally were treated better in the South than they had been treated on the West Coast, although there occasionally were conflicts. Some soldiers chafed under Jim Crow laws, even though they were free from the restraints that tied African Americans.

Uyeda remembered a bus driver who stopped the bus and angrily told him he couldn’t sit in the back. He was forced to stand because all the seats up front were full.

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Sasaki married a white Mississippian. “They wouldn’t marry us here. We had to go off to Bogalusa, La. There was a Methodist minister who said: ‘If you come down here, I’ll marry you in my home.’ He couldn’t do it in the church because his flock wouldn’t like it.”

After the war, Sasaki said, he stayed on and became one of only three permanent Japanese American residents of Mississippi at the time. “There was the guy in Tupelo, there was the guy in Gulfport, and there was me.”

Everyone at the reunion agreed that things had changed profoundly in 50 years--not least of all Camp Shelby itself, which some described as a “hellhole” in 1943.

Treated initially as curiosities 50 years ago, this weekend the 442nd veterans are heroes. The mayor and state lawmakers turned out to welcome the veterans. And many local people who remembered the soldiers came to greet them.

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“When we were here in 1943, the state was a leader in bigotry, and we had a lot of difficulties,” Sasaki said. “Now, 50 years later, we are welcomed with open arms.”


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