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On November 1, 1943, in the midst of WWII, thousands of Japanese-Americans gathered in protest at the Tule Lake Segregation Center in northern California. The protestors, people who in the year prior were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps, surrounded the center’s administration building.
The internees confronted War Location Director Dillon Myer, demanding better, more humane living conditions.
Between 1942 and 1946, more than 125,000 Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps. Nearly 2,000 died in the camps over the four years.
And yet, at the same time, more than 30,000 Japanese-Americans were serving to defend the freedom of a nation that had stripped their freedom from them.
One of those soldiers Thomas Sakamoto, was a 27 year-old who immigrated to the US from Japan with his family while he was a teenager.
Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, Sakamoto joined the US Army and deployed to the Pacific. Even as thousands of families like his were subjected to deplorable conditions by the United States, Sakamoto felt compelled to serve and protect the country he called home.
For years, he and other Japanese-American soldiers translated key Japanese intelligence documents into English for the military. Their actions thwarted further attacks on the United States and saved countless lives.
Sakamoto’s story is one of millions of soldiers who fought for a country that, in many ways, refused to fight for them.
This past Veterans Day marked eighty years since the height of WWII called millions into military service. As the world faced an unparalleled evil, Americans still facing the evils of discrimination at home chose to fight back.
Black servicemembers served in segregated ranks to win the war, only to return to segregation at home.
“Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?” James Thompson wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Philadelphia Courier.
Thompson, a Black soldier, gave public voice to the hypocrisy of America’s fight for global liberation at the time. Black soldiers were risking everything to secure democracy overseas, while being denied that promise of democracy at home.
Thompson is one of more than a million Black men and women who served in all branches of the US military during WWII. When these soldiers entered into perilous roles in service to their nation, they found the military ranks rife with racism and segregation.
Records from the time show that German prisoners of war were provided entry to facilities reserved for White Americans. Black soldiers, however, remained barred from entering those same spaces.
It took until November 1945, four years into the war, for the Marine Corps to allow Black soldiers to become officers.
Archives chart multiple accounts of Black Marines being accosted or even arrested for “impersonating military officers”.
Still, Black soldiers pushed past the blatant attacks on their humanity in defense of the nation and its allies. Black battalions downed hundreds of Nazi war planes and won battles that would prove decisive for America’s victory.
Yet, despite their courage and sacrifice, Black soldiers would return home after the war to a nation ruled by Jim Crow and legalized discrimination.
It wasn’t until 1948, two years after the war, that the military was desegregated. It would be another 16 years until the 1964 Civil Rights Act would outlaw segregation nationwide.
LGBTQ+ servicemembers removed, prosecuted for their sexuality during WWII
Marvin Leibman was 19 years old when he enlisted to serve in the US Army. World War II was still raging in Europe and Leibman, barely of age, wished to defend his country from despotism.
However, shortly into his service, the young serviceman received a “blue discharge”, forcing him out of the Army.
A “blue discharge” was a means for officials to oust LGBTQ+ servicemembers under a military code known as “Section 8”.
But being charged with a violation of Section 8 often resulted in far more than discharge from the military. LGBTQ+ servicemembers who often became branded as “perverts” and “psychopaths”. According to the National WWII Museum, they were “purged” from bases and often forced into mental institutions.
Over the course of WWII, more than 9,000 servicemembers received a “blue discharge” for the crime of being gay while serving their country.
When Leibman and others faced discharge under Section 8, they received a “blue ticket”. At the top of the ticket was a stamp with the letters ‘HS’, denoting “homosexual”.
When these soldiers returned home with the blue ticket discharge, they faced immediate discrimination in their home communities. They also faced potential legal perils as “sodomy” remained a felony nearly everywhere across the nation.
Still, queer servicemembers created outlets for their authenticity that created places of refuge.
The separation of men and women on bases and in battlefields created opportunities for gender norms to become more fluid. Some queer women were able to lean into what were consider more “masculine” roles on assembly lines. At the same time, queer men leaned into drag on bases as they conducted live performances as women for their fellow soldiers.
Marginalized Veterans made America a freer place simply through their courage to serve.
It would be another 65 years after Leibman’s discharge for gay soldiers to be able to serve openly in the military without fear of consequence. Years later, President Trump would issue new rules barring trans military members from serving openly. President Biden would reverse that ban in 2021.
Yet, it was the courage of veterans like Liebman, Thompson, Sakamoto and countless others that not only changed the direction of the war, but that altered the course of history for the better.