For U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the answer is unequivocal: “Yes, it was.”
In his keynote address at the dedication of the Heart Mountain Interactive Learning Center Saturday, Inouye recounted his wartime experience as a Japanese-American serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He spoke of the importance of remembering the events of the war, including the internment of Japanese-Americans at Heart Mountain and the other camps. He told of a poll of high school seniors taken during an anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, which found less than 50 percent of them knew the significance of the date, Dec. 7, 1941.
“We’re looking to the future, but to forget the past, we may be repeating the past,” Inouye said.
As a Hawaiian resident, Inouye witnessed Japanese planes flying over his home in Hawaii on their way to Pearl Harbor Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, and understood what it meant.
“I knew my life was changed,” he said.
After the attack, all Japanese were classified 4C, the designation for enemy agents, and they weren’t allowed to volunteer for the military until 1943.
“To think I was called an enemy agent was not only horrifying, it was insulting,” Inouye said.
Inouye recalled being marched to the transport ship, after he enlisted, to be taken to San Francisco, then riding the train from Oakland to Mississippi.
He and other soldiers rode with the shades drawn because people might see he and his fellow Asian soldiers in uniform, assume they were Japanese prisoners of war and take action against them.
In Mississipi, Inouye and his Hawaiian comrades had the “strange experience” of meeting mainland Japanese Americans.
“They were different,” he said. “They were fairer, they were neater, and they spoke beautiful English.”
Fights broke out between the two groups, and the Hawaiian soldiers were taken to visit relocation camps in Arkansas where the mainland recruits had come from. There, they saw the barbed wire and armed guards that confined Japanese Americans from the West Coast.
“Everyone was asking themselves the same question: ‘Would I have volunteered if I had to volunteer from that camp?’” Inouye said. “It was a question that I have asked myself many, many times, and I honestly can’t tell you how it would be.”
Some Japanese-American internees at Heart Mountain refused to serve in the military while their families were interned, and they served prison terms because of their refusal.
“I don’t blame them,” Inouye said. “It took a lot of guts to come out and do something that the majority did not agree with. It takes a lot of courage, but these men stood their ground.”
Of his own combat experience with the all-Japanese-American 442nd Combat Team, Inouye rejected the idea that he was a hero, despite serving with the most decorated unit in the U.S. military during the war. He earned a Distinguished Service Cross that was upgraded after a review of his record in 2000 to the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“I have been introduced (today) as a great hero. I’m not a great hero,” Inouye said. “I think I was just lucky.”
Inouye missed two of the 442nd’s major battles — the crossing of the Arno River because he was hospitalized with an infected ingrown toenail, and the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” because he had been called to headquarters to receive a battlefield commission.
When he was wounded by a sniper and a grenade during an attack on a German position at a crossroads in April 1945, it was nine hours before he reached a field hospital, where, after a quick examination, the doctors “moved away, mumbling.” Shortly after that, he was visited by a chaplain, who told him, “God loves you.”
“I said, ‘I love God, too, but I’m not ready to see him yet,’” Inouye said.
The chaplain then spoke to the doctors and convinced them to talk to Inouye. He began receiving treatment, during which he received 17 bottles of blood, mostly donated by members of the 92nd division, an African-American division that operated the hospitals.
“So, I think I got more African American blood in me, ah, but somehow, my hair is still straight,” Inouye said.
After his return to the U.S., a barber in California refused to cut his hair. But a bigger shock came in his hometown of Honolulu, “a place where racism is not supposed to exist.”
“But we did have segregated school systems,” Inouye said.
When a friend invited him to lunch at a restaurant, he was told they would not serve him there.
“I was stunned,” Inouye said.
The 442nd originally was made up of 5,500 men, but, counting replacements for those who were casualties, more than 12,000 served in the unit by the war’s end.
Inouye said he believes the sacrifice was worth it because of the progress Asian-Americans have made since the war. A 1924 law preventing immigration by Japanese immigrants was repealed in the years that followed, as was a law preventing Japanese immigrants from being naturalized as citizens.
Hawaii was admitted to statehood in 1959, becoming the only state where Caucasians were not in the majority and Asian-Americans were the largest group within the population.
The 1988 passage by Congress of a redress bill acknowledging the violation of Japanese-American civil rights by interning them during the war was particularly important.
“It’s not easy for Americans or any country to say, ‘We did something wrong,’” Inouye said. “But America is very strong, and we did admit we did something wrong.”
Inouye also cited the career of former U.S. Representative and cabinet member Norman Mineta and other Asian Americans who achieved public office and asked again, “Was it worth it? Yes, I think so.”
Inouye said the Heart Mountain center was an important achievement, because people need to remember the violation of human rights that happened here. He said it must never happen again.
“It wasn’t easy for me to come here,” Inouye said, “but I wanted to come here, because it is important.”
“You have to help keep this (center) going. You have to keep supporting and advertising it,” Inouye said. “We need to keep reminding people that (the internment) did happen, and it could happen again.”