Service Before Self: The Story of a Selfless Japanese-American Hero

  • Published
  • By Special Agent James Stone
  • Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 207 commander
In 2006, I had the honor of meeting and speaking with Sgt. Grant Hirabayashi, a combat veteran who shared his experiences as a Japanese-American serving the U.S. Army as an interrogator during World War II. Sgt. Hirabayashi's remarkable service touched me personally and inspired me to share his story. This vignette illustrates the true sacrifice of an American hero who persevered through hardship and discrimination and serves as an important model for each of us regarding the true meaning of "Service Before Self."

Sgt. Hirabayashi enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with hopes of becoming an aircraft mechanic. When he reported to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri, the Army placed him in protective custody and confined him along with 22 other Japanese-American soldiers. This was necessary since Caucasian service members harassed Japanese-Americans forcing the Army to segregate them. At the time, the U.S. government had discharged numerous Japanese-American service members and reclassified them as enemy aliens. The Army stripped those who remained of their weapons and relegated them to menial jobs until the background investigations were complete.

After 40 days, the Army released Sgt. Hirabayashi and assigned him to his unit, where he worked as a flight clerk and a plans and training technician. In mid-1942, he was released from the Air Corps and reassigned to Fort Leavenworth Station Hospital, Kansas, where he served as a sick and wounded clerk. Shortly after beginning his new assignment, he received a letter from the commandant of the Army's Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) asking for his resume with an emphasis on his Japanese language education.

After receiving the request, Sgt. Hirabayashi mailed off his resume and was subsequently reassigned to the MISLS at Camp Savage, Minnesota. After six months of intense language, culture and intelligence-related training he applied for leave to visit his family. Regrettably, his parents and siblings were no longer living at his hometown in Washington State. Soon after the war broke out on December 7, 1941, they had been forcibly evacuated to the Tule Lake internment camp in the desert of northern California - the largest and most controversial of the ten War Relocation Authority camps used to carry out the U.S. government's system of exclusion and detention of persons of Japanese descent.

When Sgt. Hirabayashi arrived at the camp, he was shocked to see rows and rows of tarpaper barracks behind a perimeter of barbed wire. The feature that troubled him most was that the armed sentries who were guarding the compound were wearing the same uniform he was and facing inward instead of out. Although his visit was brief, he described this event as one of the most unpleasant experiences of his life. Understandably, he was very confused to find himself, an American soldier who had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and fight for liberty and justice, agonizing over the treatment of his family. Remarkably, his parents encouraged him to serve honorably and do his part as an American citizen in defending the nation. It was after this visit, that Sgt. Hirabayashi said he understood the true meaning of freedom and completely realized the challenge ahead.

After returning from leave, Sgt. Hirabayashi learned about a call for volunteers for what President Franklin D. Roosevelt described as "a dangerous and hazardous mission." Over 200 soldiers stepped forward to answer the call and the Army selected Sgt. Hirabayashi, along with 13 other Japanese-Americans, based on their physical stamina and command of the Japanese language. These men were selected to serve in the Burma Campaign under the command of Brig Gen Frank D. Merrill. The unit was christened "Merrill's Marauders."

Merrill's Marauders were an elite commando unit responsible for clearing North Burma of Japanese military forces and capturing the town of Myitkyina and its strategic airfield. Control of the town ensured the free flow of war materials by air and surface to Chinese nationalist forces. Armed with firsthand knowledge of the Japanese language and culture, Sgt. Hirabayashi served Gen Merrill as an interrogator responsible for collecting enemy information crucial to the successful prosecution of the war effort. Throughout the campaign, Sgt. Hirabayashi interrogated dozens of enemy prisoners. Over seven months, the Marauders fought their way through 700 miles of Burmese jungle and achieved their mission. They defeated the Japanese 18th Division, the conquerors of Malaya and Singapore, in five decisive battles and over 30 smaller engagements.

Despite racial harassment and the forced internment of his family, Sgt. Hirabayashi enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and served our military through one of the most chaotic and troubled periods in our nation's history with honor and distinction. This American soldier persevered through hardship, discrimination and incarceration and no doubt exemplifies the true meaning of "Service Before Self."

U.S. Army, Military Intelligence Service, 1941 - 1945

After his time in the Pacific, he decided it was time to return to the United States to take advantage of the GI Bill. After earning a Bachelor and Master of Arts in International Relations from University of Southern California, he served with the Department of State, Culture Exchange Program, Library of Congress and retired from the National Security Agency in 1979. Today, 90 years young, Mr. Hirabayashi is an active member of the Japanese-American Veterans Association promoting the spirit of patriotism and national pride among the younger generation, particularly those of Japanese ancestry. His military decorations include the Combat Infantry Badge, Presidential Unit Citation with one oak leaf cluster and the Bronze Star Medal with one oak leaf cluster. In July 1997, by order of the Secretary of the Army, Mr. Hirabayashi was granted and assigned the distinction of Distinguished Member of the 75th Ranger Regiment and in July 2004, he was formally inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame, Fort Benning, Ga.