Pearl Harbor attack energizes ‘Nisei’

by Renita Foster


Public Affairs Office

Ted Tsukiyama can still hear the radio announcer’s voice from 65 years ago screaming, “Get off the streets! Get inside! Take cover! Pearl Harbor is being attacked by Japanese planes. This is the real McCoy!”


The blaring news was a drastic contrast to the celebration he’d enjoyed the evening before at his Junior Prom.


A Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) Cadet at the University of Hawaii, he’d danced the night away and was peacefully sleeping until awakened by what sounded like Army maneuvers shortly before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941.


Military training tactics had become routine on the island of Oahu, but this time the distant thunder didn’t stop. Tsukiyama finally roused himself and headed outdoors to take a look.


From his house in the east, he could see the horizon in the west suffocated by thick, black clouds, punctuated by white bursts of smoke. Alarmed, Tsukiyama switched on the radio. 


“That’s when I hear the broadcaster yelling that Japanese planes are bombing Pearl Harbor,” said Tsukiyama. “I immediately realized those were anti-aircraft guns I was hearing and it was indeed the ‘real McCoy.’”     


Learning his homeland was being attacked had Tsukiyama in shock. Finding out the invaders were Japanese left him numb. But there was little time for wonder and explanations as the announcer instructed all servicemen to return immediately to their posts.


All university ROTC cadets were to report to the school armory.


As first sergeant of Bravo Company, Tsukiyama knew time was crucial and scrambled to get in uniform. To his relief, no enemy planes appeared during the 10 minute ride to the school.


Within an hour of the attack, each of the cadets were issued a 1903 Springfield rifle - five bullets with a bolt action. The fact that Tsukiyama and 80 percent of the ROTC students were Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans), made no difference to him or the ROTC staff.


There were no questions or challenges to loyalty when they reported in.


The cadets’ first orders were to deploy at the back of the university and establish a defense line following a report that Japanese paratroopers were landing on the ridge behind the school.


Determined to stop the advance of enemy troops into the city, the ROTC students crouched in the bushes at the bottom of the hill.


For nearly five hours they waited in the hot sun for what turned out to be a false sighting; just one example of many panic-stricken rumors that spread over Honolulu that day.


“We believed that the enemy was there and were horrified at what might happen in the next few minutes. But we were not worried about being Nisei,” emphasized Tsukiyama. “We were treated just like any other Soldier or Sailor reporting for duty.”


Later that afternoon, the governor mobilized the ROTC unit to the Hawaii Territorial Guard.


The cadets were now Soldiers. For the next six weeks, they stood ready to protect and defend the city of Honolulu.


“In 1977, the University of Hawaii Army ROTC was awarded a World War II battle streamer,” said Tsukiyama proudly. “It was the first and only ROTC unit deployed to combat the enemy on Dec. 7, 1941 and the only ROTC unit in the United States to receive military recognition.”  


Like all American Soldiers in uniform, Tsukiyama and his fellow Nisei felt proud to be serving their country in time of need.


But in the early morning hours of Jan. 19,  1942, that abruptly changed. At precisely 3 a.m., the 317 Nisei service members were awakened and informed that all service members with Japanese ancestry were being discharged.


Tsukiyama clearly recalled the tearfully given order that eliminated most of the Soldiers.


Left were Hawaiian, Caucasian, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino young men who had been together all their lives, attending the same schools, playing sports, and training for service in the armed forces with no idea there were supposed to be enemies.        


“Everyone cried when we parted,” said Tsukiyama, still feeling the painful memory 65 years later. “Our country was in need of manpower and yet, we’re declared useless and unwanted. America was the only country we knew. None of us had been to Japan, many didn’t speak the language, or had any relationship whatsoever with Japan. How could they question our loyalty?”


Tsukiyama also described the moment of suddenly being told he was not an American and that he couldn’t be trusted as one, as the lowest point in life he’s ever known.


Unsure of what to do about the situation, Tsukiyama returned to school. A few weeks later, Hung Wai Ching, the University YMCA secretary, inspired Tsukiyama and the rest of the Nisei with a suggestion.


Maybe they were ineligible for military service as enemy aliens and couldn’t be trusted as Soldiers, but surely there was something these Nisei could do to demonstrate their love and support for their country.  


Convinced now was the time to show who they were and where they stood, a petition was sent to the military governor that read, “Hawaii is our home; the United States our country. We know but one loyalty and this is to the Stars and Stripes. We wish to do our part as loyal Americans in every way possible, and we hereby offer ourselves for whatever service you may see fit to use us.”


One hundred sixty-nine Nisei signed the document.      


As a result, The “Varsity Victory Volunteers (VVV)” was established on Feb. 23, 1942 and assigned to the 34th Combat Engineers Regiment at Schofield Barracks.


Divided into 12 work gangs such as carpentry, mechanic, laborer and kitchen, the VVV worked alongside the engineers.


Projects included constructing buildings, furniture, roads, stringing miles of barbed wire, and quarrying several tons of rocks.


While they were authorized to live in Army barracks, eat Army chow, and received less than $90 a month, uniforms and rank were forbidden. Dungarees became their official clothes instead. By the end of the year, the VVV Nisei were ready for something else Tsukiyama believes the contributions made by the VVV may have helped change attitudes toward the Nisei, as well as a chance visit by John J. McCloy, assistant secretary of War.


While inspecting Oahu, McCloy was briefed about the VVV, the university students who had given up their education to serve their country.


The following month, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, announced the creation of an all exclusive Nisei combat unit.


The VVV immediately requested deactivation so its members could enlist in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) activated on Feb. 1, 1943.

Following a farewell ceremony by the Honolulu Community for over 2,500 Nisei volunteers, the new recruits reported for training at Camp Shelby, Miss.


Tsukiyama acknowledges there were some problems, even some fighting between the 442nd and their Caucasian counterparts, but that eventually it was realized “we were American as apple pie.”


After basic training, Tsukiyama transferred to the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) as a Japanese linguist and served with MIS in the Burma -India Theater.


Sixty five years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tsukiyama is still saddened at the treatment of the Nisei at the outset of the war.


“You are born, raised, and educated in an American community just like any other American kid. Yet, because you look different and have a different name, when the enemy is a people of your ancestry, there’s a problem with anyone from that race,” said Tsukiyama. “It was a great misfortune that day I was forced out of the Guard because I was an American and loved my country just as much as anyone else.”


 (Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series about the Nisei during World War II.)