Background: World War II
Substantial numbers of Asian-Americans served in America's armed forces during World War II, but the total number is unknown. Some 25,000 Japanese-Americans had proved their loyalty in uniform. More than 6,000 Nisei (first-generation, American-born Japanese) trained as interpreters and translators at the Army's Military Intelligence Service (MIS) Language School in Minnesota and 3,700 MIS linguists served in combat. The U.S. Army's 442d Regimental Combat Team (RCT), comprised of about 4,500 Japanese-Americans, fought heroically in Italy and Central Europe. The unit received more than 18,000 individual decorations and seven Presidential Unit Citations. More than 20,000 Chinese Americans served in the armed forces, many as integrated members of Army units. Smaller numbers of Filipino-Americans and Korean-Americans formed small units for the nation's war effort.
Numbers Served and Their Jobs
Unlike in World War II when there was the Japanese-American 442d RCT, there were no separate Asian-American units during the Korean War. The Department of the Army dropped the designation "Asian-American" after World War II, so even an approximate number for the Korean War has not been determined. But the National Japanese-American Historical Society has estimated that 5,000 Nisei served in Korea with American forces and concluded that 213 of them lost their lives. Several units did remain predominantly Asian-American like the 100th Battalion, 442d Infantry, U.S. Army Reserve and the 5th Regimental Combat Team, both from Hawaii.
Nisei in the Military Intelligence Service
When the Korean War began, many Nisei were among the first American troops sent to the peninsula. The United States lacked Korean translators, and because Japanese was the language mandated during Japan's colonial domination of Korea (1910–45), Nisei soldiers were able to provide valuable linguistic support. During the Korean War, Nisei in the Military Intelligence Service served as interpreters, interrogators and translators and provided other linguistic support. During the Korean conflict, there were more Nisei in higher enlisted ranks, in company grade and in field grade ranks than had been the case during World War II.
Paul Hosoda volunteered for the 442d Regimental Combat Team in July 1943 and served with that unit until he was injured. After the war, he became a unit administrator for the Idaho National Guard Combat Engineer Company. He was appointed a warrant officer when his unit was activated in August 1950 and sent to Korea. Hosoda served in both Korea and Japan as an administrative officer, prisoner-of-war interrogation officer and interpreter/translation officer.
Shigeo Uchino, a native Hawaiian, began a 30-year career with the Military Intelligence Service in 1945. Uchino was assigned to Korea for one year beginning in October 1950. In addition to earning the Purple Heart, he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and the Combat Infantry Badge.
Asian-Americans in Combat Units
Many Asian-Americans also served in combat units in Korea. Some were recognized for bravery on the battlefield.
Chew-Een Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants, first enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1944 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1946. Before hostilities broke out in Korea, First Lieutenant Lee served with the 1st battalion, 7th Marines. As a platoon commander in that unit, Lee received America's second highest combat award, the Navy Cross. On Nov. 2–3, 1950, Lee's platoon came under heavy attack. Despite being outnumbered, Lee exposed himself to fire as he personally reconnoitered the area to better re-deploy his machine gun posts within the defensive perimeter. He reorganized his unit and moved up the enemy-held slope. Despite serious wounds, he pressed forward ultimately driving the hostile forces from the area. Lee's brothers also served.
Young Oak Kim, a second-generation Korean-American, fought as a young officer with the 442d RCT in Europe during World War II. The Army asked Kim to return to active duty after the Korean War began because of his fluency with the Korean language. Kim agreed, but he wanted assignment with a combat unit rather than as a linguist. Major Kim commanded the 1st Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, and 7th Infantry Division and was in Korea for a year. He remained in the Army after the Korean War and retired as a colonel in 1972.
Asian-American Medal of Honor Recipients
Several Asian-Americans who served in the U.S. Army in Korea received the Medal of Honor. Two of these men were members of the 7th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division: Corporal Hiroshi H. Miyamura of Company H, a Nisei soldier born in Gallup, New Mexico, and Sergeant Leroy A. Mendonca of Company B, a native of Honolulu.
On the night of April 24, 1951, Miyamura's unit occupied a defensive position near Taejon, South Korea, when it was attacked by the enemy. As the enemy force overran the Americans' position, Corporal Miyamura, a machine-gun squad leader, leaped from his shelter and, in close hand-to-hand combat, killed 10 of the enemy with his bayonet. After the first attack, while Miyamura administered first aid to the wounded and ordered the evacuation of his men, the enemy dealt another savage blow. Miyamura delivered devastating fire with his machine gun until he ran out of ammunition. He then bayoneted his way to a second gun emplacement and covered the withdrawal of his unit with machine gun fire until his ammunition was depleted. Miyamura killed more than 50 of the enemy before he was severely wounded and later captured. He spent 28 months as a prisoner of war and was released in August 1953. Word of his Medal of Honor was kept secret during his time in captivity for his protection.
Sergeant Leroy Mendonca's platoon of Company B had captured Hill 586 near Chich-on, North Korea, on July 4, 1951. A large enemy force assaulted his platoon during the night, and Mendonca volunteered to remain in an exposed position to cover the platoon's withdrawal. Under heavy enemy fire, he fired his weapon and hurled grenades at the enemy. When he ran out of ammunition, Mendonca used his rifle as a club and his bayonet in hand-to-hand combat. It is estimated he killed 37 enemy soldiers before falling mortally wounded. Mendonca's bold action stalled the crushing enemy assault, protected his platoon's withdrawal to secondary positions and enabled his unit to repel the attack and retain possession of its key hilltop position.
Private First Class Herbert K. Pililaau of Company C, 23d Infantry Regiment, 2d Infantry Division, another Hawaiian native, also received the Medal of Honor for gallant action. On Sept. 17, 1951, Pililaau's platoon was defending key terrain on Heartbreak Ridge near Pia-ri, North Korea, against succeeding waves of enemy troops. Almost out of ammunition, his unit was ordered to withdraw, and Pililaau volunteered to cover the withdrawal. He fired his automatic weapon into the charging enemy ranks, threw all of his grenades and finally closed with the enemy in hand-to-hand combat with a trench knife and bare fists until he was mortally wounded. When the position was later retaken, more than 40 enemy dead were counted in the area that Pililaau had defended.
Other Asian-Americans Who Served
Thomas Tang, a Chinese-American, entered the Army in 1942 through the ROTC enlisted reserves. He served in World War II and was recalled into action with the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. Tang was stationed in Tokyo as a military intelligence officer, but also served in Korea interrogating prisoners in Pusan. As judge in civilian life, Tang was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit by President Jimmy Carter in October 1977.
Clifford Uyeda, a Nisei pediatrician, was a captain in the United States Air Force. From 1951 to 1953, he served in Korea as a medical doctor.
Private Ichiro Miyasaki, a Nisei from Rexburg, Idaho, posthumously was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary valor in the Korean War. The Army Reserve building in Rexburg is named in honor of Miyasaki. Five Miyasaki brothers served in the U.S. military during either World War II or the Korean conflict.
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