Vietnam was America's longest and most controversial war. It divided the nation like nothing since the Civil War. It sent over 2.7 million young Americans to fight in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. More than 58,000 Americans died there. Over 300,000 were wounded. Nearly 30,000 Americans left the United States to avoid military service and went into self-imposed exile in Canada and Sweden.
Over 25,000 Americans refused induction into the armed forces and faced federal prison rather than participate in what they felt was an immoral war. Vietnam toppled the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson and revived the political fortunes of Richard Nixon who won the Presidential election of 1968 claiming he had a "Secret plan" to end the war with honor. The War was hotly debated in the halts of Congress, engendered protests on the campus of colleges and universities, and violence in the streets across America.
Americans of Japanese ancestry stood on both sides of the controversy. Many Sansei, 3d generation Japanese Americans, especially college students marched and protested against the War while others volunteered or were conscripted for duty in Vietnam.
Approximately 4000-5000 Americans of Japanese ancestry served in Vietnam. Their average age was 20 years. Nearly all were high school graduates who had at least one year of college prior to entering the military. The majority were from California or Hawaii. Many had fathers, uncles or older brothers who had served in World War II with the 100' Battalion, or the 442d Regimental Combat Team or the Military Intelligence Service, or fought in the Korean War. Two Japanese Americans Terry Kawamura and Rodney Yano won posthumous Medals of Honor in Vietnam. Four Japanese Americans were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Those who survived returned to a nation divided and frustrated over the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. Many Americans come to blame the War on the warriors. Instead of parades, bands and welcome home speeches they met cold indifference or overt hostility. Anti-war zealots shouted obscenities at them, called them baby--killer and drug addict. No one seemed to care what the veterans had seen or done. No one was interested in what they had to say. There were no politicians to speak for them. In the ten years of the War, not one U.S. Senator's son, not one U.S. Representative's son died in Vietnam. The GI Bill benefits for the returning Vietnam veterans were materially inferior compared to what the government provided the veterans of WW II and Korea.
Even family members and friends seemed to treat the veterans with an embarrassed silence. So many Vietnam veterans responded to America's silence with a silence of their own. They took off their uniforms as quickly as they could. They buried their medals in the bottom of a drawer and tried not to think about the most momentous experience of their lives. They tried to repress the memories of Vietnam the same way America tried to ignore them.
But in 1982 with the erecting of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC veterans singly and in groups began to stand up and speak their minds. And America began to listen. Books and films on Vietnam became popular. The memorial or "the Wall" became one of the most visited monuments in our nation's capital. Its dignified, simplistic design listing the names of over 58,000 Americans that perished in Vietnam became a place of healing. Several Japanese American Vietnam veterans who visited the Wall wanted to replicate that sense of closure and healing for the JA veterans.
In Vietnam Japanese Americans shared the hardships and dangers of combat along side their White, Black and Hispanic comrades. They experienced the frustrations of not being able to distinguish friend from the enemy. But Japanese American soldiers faced an additional occupational hazard that other Americans did not...they looked like the enemy. Often firefights took place in dense jungle terrain where visibility was extremely limited. In the heat and confusion of battle a white soldier from Iowa or a Black trooper from Alabama who had never personally known a Japanese American in his life might see an Asian face behind a hedgerow and start shooting.
This problem especially manifested itself at night or when new replacements came into the unit or working with different units who didn't know there were Asian Americans in the company. It was not advisable for a Japanese American to take a shower or bathe in the field unless other non-Asians were with him. To a trigger--happy gunship pilot or a grunt-short-timer a 3rd generation Japanese American from Maui or Gardena, California was just another naked "Gook" and fair game.
Looking like the enemy posed another problem for JAs, this one psychological. The Viet Cong included in their ranks women, old folks and children. The people who were trying to kill them and whom they in turn were killing often resembled their families in America. It made more difficult what was an already lousy job.
Capt. Mukoyama at My Tho, Vietnam in 1969
Reprinted from the Japanese American Historical Society Journal, 2001
Keynote speaker Judge Vincent Okamoto (center, standing) with fellow Japanese American Vietnam veterans and Rep. Maxine Waters in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial replica in Gardena’s Mas Fukai Park (April 2018) Photo : Terry Weber