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'Facing The Mountain' Tells Story Of Japanese American WWII Heroes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Facing The Mountain," the new book by Daniel James Brown, keeps posing questions to the reader. Why would a democratic government fighting fascist, racist dictatorships imprison more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941? And why would so many of the young people in those camps later fight so valiantly for the country that locked them up? Daniel James Brown, author of the previous best-seller "The Boys In The Boat," joins us now. Mr. Brown, thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: We often hear these places that held Japanese Americans referred to as internment camps. In the first couple of pages, you say, no. It should be concentration camps. Why is that important to you?

BROWN: I think the language surrounding the incarceration of the Japanese Americans during World War II has been unfortunately euphemistic. Calling the camps what they were, concentration camps, is one step towards correcting the sort of abusive language that has surrounded that unfortunate incident in our history.

SIMON: You do add you're not comparing them to Dachau or Auschwitz at the same time.

BROWN: Absolutely. They were nothing like that, of course.

SIMON: Boy, so many heroes to talk about. And as you write, utterly American - what's your phrase? They - playing baseball and football, marching bands on the Fourth of July, county fairs. What happened in America?

BROWN: In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, their world was turned completely upside down as a result of executive order 9066 from the Roosevelt administration, which, of course, ordered the incarceration of everybody of Japanese descent along the West Coast. Over 100,000 people were forced to walk away from their homes and their businesses, to leave their schools that they were attending. It was a very traumatic experience.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the people that you write about. Kats Miho was a young man who played football, performed in plays, president of the student body. I guess his friends called him Prezi (ph). And then while other ROTC cadets, including him, were protecting Hawaii from attack after Pearl Harbor, what was happening to his family?

BROWN: His father was being taken into custody and incarcerated, well, first in the Maui county jail. He was later shipped to camps on the mainland of the United States. He spent the entirety of the war in the custody of the Department of Justice.

SIMON: You note there were some rough racial divisions among Japanese Americans, too, weren't there?

BROWN: The population of Japanese Americans in the United States was largely concentrated in Hawaii and on the West Coast. Those who grew up in Hawaii, many of them grew up in very rural and very racially stratified and pretty brutal working conditions. The kids on the West Coast of the United States, on the other hand, mostly led pretty much ordinary American middle-class lives. The two groups, when they wound up coming together for basic training in Mississippi once they were allowed to join the army - there were a lot of clashes between them. It was like trying to mix oil and water.

SIMON: How was the 442nd formed, this utterly legendary U.S. Army outfit?

BROWN: In early 1943, the Roosevelt administration decided to create an all-Japanese American segregated fighting unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. And they're the ones that trained in Mississippi where these two groups came together. They wound up being one of the most decorated units of its size in the course of World War II.

SIMON: I mean, it's worth explaining - 18,000 medals, 4,000 Purple Hearts, 4,000 bronze, 21 Medals of Honor, also, by the way, France's Legion of Honour. It's breathtaking.

BROWN: They fought tenaciously in Italy. Then they were sent to the French-German border and then wound up back in Italy, breaking through what was called the Gothic Line. In all of those three campaigns, they served with astonishing distinction.

SIMON: You also tell the story of a very courageous Quaker warrior for peace and justice, Gordon Hirabayashi.

BROWN: Gordon Hirabayashi is a very interesting young man. There was an 8 p.m. curfew imposed on anybody of Japanese descent in Seattle. And Gordon very deliberately violated that curfew and actually documented it in his journal. The time came for the Japanese Americans in Seattle to be put on buses and taken away to these camps. Gordon refused to get on the bus. Instead, he wrote a long statement laying out on constitutional grounds why he felt both the curfew and the incarcerations were un-American and unconstitutional. And he took that statement. And he went downtown Seattle, turned it over to the FBI and turned himself over to the FBI. That began a long legal battle in which he was incarcerated first in the King County jail here in Seattle, then in a work farm in Arizona and finally in a federal prison.

SIMON: I guess we should note, of course, that, ultimately, the American government agreed with him.

BROWN: Yes. His case eventually was vacated. His conviction was vacated. And after Gordon died, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

SIMON: I want to get you to tell us a story that happened in a movie theater in France where there were a lot of Nisei soldiers, according to the book, who were sitting watching a film after the liberation of France, actually, I guess while it was going on. And for once their lives, being visibly Asian in a mostly white country was (laughter) - was to their advantage

BROWN: For the very first time, really, the 442nd began to get a lot of coverage in the United States and particularly on the newsreels. So there was a brief interlude when the 442 young men were actually stationed along the Riviera. And so some of them wandered into a movie house in Nice, I think it was, and saw themselves up on the screen, you know, footage from the rescue of the Lost Battalion, celebrated as heroes. And it was really a shock to them because it was, in many ways, you know, the first time they had seen themselves and people like them portrayed in such a positive light, at least certainly since the attack on Pearl Harbor.

SIMON: And if you could tell us about the reaction of the crowd in the theater.

BROWN: The crowd stood and cheered. I mean, they were celebrities for a brief while there among their French hosts.

SIMON: Daniel James Brown - his book - "Facing The Mountain: A True Story Of Japanese American Heroes In World War II." Thank you so much for being with us.

BROWN: Thanks so much for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.