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A Japanese American in Hawaii Fights Back Against Prejudice and the Axis Powers

Despite mass hysteria against Japanese Americans, Terry Shima fought for the U.S.

spinner image world war two veteran terry shima salutes in this photo from twenty thirteen as he is honored at the white house
Terry Shima salutes as he is introduced with fellow recipients of the Presidential Citizens Medal in the East Room at the White House in Washington.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

Terry Shima, 98, has never forgotten the day the dive-bombers attacked his homeland. “The island that was hit was Oahu,” he notes. “Our island, the Big Island of Hawaii, was OK. The news came to us by radio. We were all very angry with Japan. Some of the boys in Honolulu looked up and saw Japanese pilots heading for Pearl Harbor. They just couldn’t believe it. There were no reservations about going to the front line to fight Japan.” 

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Shima had been working as a bookkeeper for a sugar manufacturer. Suddenly, he was regarded by white Americans as the enemy. There was “mass hysteria against all persons of Japanese ancestry. We were viewed as collaborators and saboteurs.” Yet young nisei — second-generation Japanese Americans — like Shima, whose parents had arrived in Hawaii from Japan in 1915, remained intensely loyal. “While the government had given up on the Japanese Americans, we did not lose faith in America,” Shima says. 

Many of his fellow Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, where they had a “huge mental and intellectual shock. They were told this was for their protection.” But people quickly saw the camps were ringed with gun towers — pointing at them. 

As government policy changed to allow Japanese Americans to serve in the military, Shima joined the “Go for Broke” 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed of Japanese Americans. It became one of the most highly decorated U.S. fighting units. 

Shima recalls with pride President Harry Truman’s words to the 442nd in Washington in July 1946: “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice and you won.” 

Shima went on to serve in the U.S. foreign service for 30 years. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal. Two facts give him immense pride: “By the time the war ended, no Japanese American had been convicted of helping the enemy. And not a single nisei soldier had been court-martialed for desertion. We came out clean — very clean.”  

Alex Kershaw is a best-selling author of several books about World War II, including The Liberator, which became a Netflix miniseries in 2020.

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