A reflection on heroism

Twice Heroes: America’s Nisei Veterans of WWII and Korea

Twice Heroes: America’s Nisei Veterans of WWII and Korea

Twice Heroes: America’s Nisei Veterans of WWII and Korea
Written and photographed by Tom Graves. (San Francisco: Nassau & Witherspoon, 2013, 182 pp., $45, hardcover)

Tom Graves’ photobook is the product of an impressive labor of love. Graves, a San Francisco-based writer and photographer, spent 10 years collecting photos and stories of the Nisei contingent of the “greatest generation.” His book is made up of portraits of a wide variety of Nisei veterans, alongside their own words recounting their war experience.

The heroism of the Nisei soldiers of World War II has often and rightly been celebrated within Japanese American communities. In recent decades, the exploits of the Nisei translators of the Military Intelligence Service, whose work remained classified long after the end of World War II and who did not enjoy the kind of public acclaim that their counterparts in the 442nd did, have attained a certain place in the spotlight as well. The book’s title reflects the particular nature of all these soldiers’ struggles and their achievement: as President Harry S. Truman famously remarked in a speech to members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice, and you have won.”

Certainly, the heroism of the Nisei soldiers played an important, if generally unquantifiable, role in the growth of official and popular support for Japanese Americans. This startlingly rapid turnabout in public sentiment not only helped ensure the release of the Japanese Americans from camp and their resettlement before the end of the war, but helped inspire Truman and others to support civil rights measures afterward. Indeed, a comparison of the postwar status of Japanese Americans with that of the Japanese Canadians, the mass of whom who remained barred from enlistment throughout the war, is revealing.

But what is Graves’ purpose in interviewing these veterans, about whom so much has been written, and what is new about his contribution? The answer would appear to be dual. On the one hand, he wishes to celebrate and commemorate the achievements of this fast-disappearing contingent of elderly Americans. At the same time, he deserves credit for seeking out Nisei veterans of the Korean War, whose patriotic service (like that of other veterans of that “forgotten war”) has most often been unjustly ignored. On the other hand, he humanizes these legendary figures, both through the tender and revealing black-and-white images of each veteran’s face, and by the accompanying interview text. Without it obscuring their pardonable pride, often mixed with modesty, in their group achievements, he allows them space to speak about some of the less pleasant aspects of their postwar experience: the continuing prejudice they and their families faced; problems of inadequate medical care from the Veterans Administration; and alcoholism, recurring nightmares, and various symptoms of what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans.

Graves’ book is more than just a coffee table read or a feel-good story of patriotism. In its quiet way, it is a reflection on the nature of heroism.

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