Beyond Barbed Wire

Beyond Barbed Wire, Kit Parker Films production, is a thought-provoking, emotional look at one of the most controversial events in American history.  The film takes a personal look at the Japanese-Americans affected by the American government’s short-sighted, knee jerk reaction to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and other targets in the Pacific that kicked off America’s direct involvement in World War II.  The message is amplified by the primary focus of the documentary, those Japanese-American men who – despite the humiliation foisted upon their families – still felt duty and honor bound to fight for their country.

This is one of those incidents in American history that has always intrigued me.  And so, it was another foray to the Horsham Library looking for cheap music (Read: Free!) and something interesting to watch.  The interment of Japanese- Americans holds a fascination for me for the following reasons:

  • Only Japanese-Americans were ever interred in large numbers during World War II.  This despite the early war whispers of atrocities being committed by Germans on Jews and other “undesirables”.  Never were German- or Italian-Americans interred nor were they prohibited from fighting against their ethnic homelands. 
  • As the above would suggest, the racial implications are quite telling at a time when most Americans did not even know where Pearl Harbor was located.  Oriental cultures and their people were unfamiliar to most Americans.  Even in areas along the Pacific Coast where Americans of Japanese descent had been living for decades, they were often misunderstood or outright distrusted due solely to their racial and cultural differences.
  • These events occurred during the Democratic administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguably the most socially conscious, socially activist and – some might say – socialist Presidents.  In every other facet of the war’s management, execution and victory, Roosevelt is rightfully praised; which makes it all the more confounding how this suspension of liberty for a people both innocent and in many cases generations removed from direct contact with their ethnic homeland was allowed to occur.

Beyond Barbed Wire focuses on the Nisei (Japanese descendents born in the U.S.) who fought in Europe and in the Pacific theatres of war.  Both the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion served with distinction in France and Italy respectively.  Their actions overcame initial resistance expressed by American military leaders to trust Japanese-Americans to fight during the war.  In fact, Japanese-Americans were prohibited from fighting in the Pacific against hostile Japanese forces  (unlike the the welcomed participation of German and Italian-Americans in Europe).  Many other Japanese men, fluent in their native tongue, were recruited or ordered to serve in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) as spies and translators.

Many of these men came from families that were stripped of homes, businesses and all the comforts of normal American life.  The distinction made between Japanese living on the Mainland as opposed to those living in Hawaii is a story unto itself.  Hawaiian Japanese were treated differently than those on the Mainland.  Many Hawaiian Japanese had no idea what was happening to their Mainland cousins.  One of the interesting segments of the film deals with the visit of a group of Hawaiian Japanese to a Mainland interment camp.  The contrast is powerful.

It is very easy to become misty-eyed over the emotional stories being told and written by the slowly disappearing Greatest Generation.  Those men and women who set aside personal lives, goals and the safety of civilian life to rescue Europe and the peoples of the Pacific.  The stories of war’s horrors, of friends lost, of emotional traumas so difficult to imagine – for those of us who have never had to face war – are magnified by the realization that many of these aging Japanese warriors volunteered despite the way their country treated them and those they loved.

I continue to find this moment in history both troubling and extremely gratifying.  Beyond Barbed Wire is well worth the investment of one’s time to gain an appreciation for a vastly under-appreciated segment of America’s Greatest Generation!

2 thoughts on “Beyond Barbed Wire

  1. I agree that one of the greatest stories out of WW II was the Japanese American performance in combat and their valor as a segment of US population and a mistreated population at that. I also think the Japanese recovery from their WW II treatment must have been very difficult, especially with toughest part being the decision to even stay in a country that treated them in such a way.

    I wonder if the Japanese were just not as widely assimilated into US society back then, which caused mistrust / suspicions that fueled the decisions to intern them. Could the US gov’t / people have considered them to be aliens not connected / assimilated into American life like other immigrant cultures (Germans / Italians) over the decades that preceded WW II?

    Or was it “simply” racism like that which confronted the Chinese in the US? Could the fact that even the spiritual background / traditions of the Japanese made them less “like” Americans which made it easier for them to be treated harshly.

    Of course neither Germany or Italy made direct land and naval attacks on US forces / bases (at any time during the war actually) or exhibited anywhere near the naval power that the IJN did. This very direct threat could have motivated the more strident actions by the US caused by increased suspicions described above.

    On another topic:
    I don’t think however, that suspicions of Nazi atrocities were very common in the early years of the war.

    Oddly enough, FDR was raised in an anti-Semetic family / social circle, his family and the other elites spent their summers abroad and Germany was their favorite destination. Anti-Semetic feelings were in vogue for the socially elite of the 20′ – 30’s.

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