The 298th and 299th Story

The U.S Army, the National Guard & the Nisei Soldier in Prewar Hawaii

All but unknown, Japanese American guardsmen played a pivotal role in prewar Hawaii by gaining the respect of resident U.S. Army personnel, setting the Army’s Hawaiian Department on a course at odds with Washington’s policy of discrimination and exclusion.

From its beginning in the early 1900s, the Army garrison in the Territory of Hawaii was undermanned. In this light, the Territory’s Guard was an attempt to bolster the islands’ defensive capacity. To what extent men of Japanese ancestry would be allowed to participate was a long-standing issue.

An ethnically Japanese unit of mostly Issei, the first generation immigrants, was formed during World War I. But like most of Hawaii’s Guard of the time, it was not deployed overseas. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a small number of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans continued to serve in the Guard, but even this small representation dwindled under pressure from Washington. In 1939, by far the largest ethnic group in the Guard was native Hawaiian and part Hawaiian (767), followed by Portuguese (320), Chinese (238), and Caucasians other than Portuguese (208). There were more Puerto Ricans (86), Filipinos (53), and Koreans (53) than Japanese (37).1 Of forty members honored for twenty years of service that year, only three had Japanese surnames.

In late 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt issued a plan to expand the country’s National Guard. The territorial government’s adjutant general, Colonel Perry Smoot, complained that none of the 250,000-man increase had been allocated to Hawaii. Smoot told the Army command that the Territory of Hawaii, if given freedom of action, could raise twenty five thousand men, proportionate in its population to the forty-eight states. Smoot proposed assigning local officers to lead a local mixed-population Guard.2 The chief of the National Guard Bureau wrote back immediately saying that the War Department did not want to expand Hawaii’s Guard.3

The Hawaiian Army Department commander, General Charles Herron, next proposed that Washington authorize a multiethnic reserve regiment that included Japanese American officers, arguing that Nisei, second generation Japanese, were going to prove themselves loyal to America. A majority of the General Staff vetoed Herron’s proposal, erroneously predicting that white soldiers would resist serving under Nisei officers.

Given the rapid change to a war footing in 1939 – 1940, Herron’s proposal was possibly Washington’s last chance to develop a racially integrated reserve regiment that trained together, gained experience, and enjoyed the support of the Army.

In 1940,  Herron criticized Washington publicly, telling Collier’s magazine, “The Army is not worried about the Japanese in Hawaii. Among them there may be a small hostile alien group, but we can handle the situation. It seems people who know least about Hawaii and live farthest away are most disturbed over this matter. People who know the Islands are not worried about possible sabotage. I say this sincerely after my years of service here. I am sold on the patriotism and Americanization of the Hawaiian people as a whole.”4

 The Draft of 1940

The makeup of the Guard in Hawaii was about to change dramatically. In September 1940, the President and Congress instituted the first peacetime draft. As a result of lobbying by African American organizations, the new law contained a provision making the draft apply to all males, regardless of race. It also opened the service to qualified volunteers regardless of race. Although it failed to ban the segregation of Army personnel into ethnic units, it at least removed the barrier by which people were rejected from service for purely racial reasons.

Suddenly the many Nisei now coming of age were drafted into the U.S. Army. They were given thirteen weeks of basic combat training at Schofield Barracks. Herron noted that while other draftees headed for the showers at the end of the training day, many of the Japanese American draftees remained on the drill field practicing their skills. This seems particularly interesting because in this prewar period the training units at Schofield Barracks were of mixed ancestry. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nisei had not yet been put “on the spot,” but nonetheless a sense of history was at work. One of the first draftees, Thomas Taro Higa, wrote, “Not only I but all the troops were thinking about the high expectations set upon our shoulders.”5

Within a short period, more than two thousand Nisei were in U.S. military units in Hawaii at varying states of readiness to bear arms and engage in combat.6

 The 298th and 298th Infantry

Simultaneously with implementation of the draft, the War Department federalized Hawaii’s Guard, reassigning command from the adjutant general of the Territory of Hawaii to the Hawaiian Department of the U.S. Army. By unit these were the 298th Infantry Regiment, which was based on Oahu, and the 299th Infantry Regiment, which was based on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, Kauai and Molokai.

 Herron’s positive view of the Nisei was expanded upon by his successor, General Walter C, Short, who ascribed to the view that trust breeds trust. In mid-1940, the FBI investigated and recommended prosecuting the 240 community volunteers of Japan’s consulate, charactering them as “consular agents” who had failed to register with the U.S. State Department under terms of recently-passed U.S. security legislation. Short opposed this move, arguing that it would diminish the good will that was developing with the Nisei soldier. If we expect loyalty from a second generation citizen,” he said, “we must show the same loyalty to him.”7

 He took his argument to the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, who agreed with Short by saying, “In my opinion fair play demands that warning be given to consular agents to register by a certain date on penalty of prosecution. I believe development of loyalty among the Japanese population more important than punishment of a few individuals.”8

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