Their Fate Was With Shovels and Picks: The 1800th
By Michael Matatall, 8th grade at Sunnyside Middle School
During WWII, a group of American soldiers were sent to a segregated unit called the 1800th Engineer General Service Battalion.
The 1800 Engineer General Service Battalion was a special unit for Japanese, Italian, and German American soldiers, whom the government placed into this unit to keep them under observation for a number of reasons.
One of those reasons was that the Japanese-American soldiers were angry and expressed their opinions about both the mass evacuation of the Japanese-American community, which had been sent to concentration camps, and the segregation in the U.S. Army. Some of the Japanese-American soldiers were angry with the government because they denied them the right to see their families afier basic training while they were on furlough. The government did not let the soldiers see their families because of unfounded concerns that the Japanese-Americans were spies for the Japanese government and the soldiers would tell secrets to their families in the Western Defense Zone, the states along the west coast of the U.S. The Japanese-Americans had been looking forward to seeing their families after basic training and this angered them to be denied this opportunity, because at one time, the soldiers where told they could.
Japanese-American soldiers and the "inmates" in the internment camps had to answer a loyalty questionnaire that was given by the government. Two of the questions (question number 27 and question number 28) basically read: (27) Would you go overseas for combat duty for the United States if you were able and ordered to, and (28) Are you loyal to the United States and will you defend America. This appalled the Japanese-Americans, for as one Japanese-American soldier said, "Didn't the army believe me when I said that?" referring to the swearing in upon induction into the Army. For this reason and the mass evacuation of all Japanese-Americans from the "public" U.S., and the segregation in the army, many Japanese-American soldiers answered "no" to question 27 and "yes" to question 28. They answered "no" to question 27 because they did not believe that their war was overseas in Europe. It was here in the United States, a war to fight for liberty, because they were being treated as if they were the enemy of their country, which they were not. All the negative answers were looked over and the soldiers scheduled for an interview. The soldiers who answered negatively were sent to the 1800th.
Eventually the ban of family visit was lifted, but many soldiers remained upset and did not change their answer to the questionnaire.
Upon arrival in this unit, these soldiers were issued mops and brooms, shovels and picks. The Nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans, had already been stripped of all their weapons after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, so they did not have any weapons to forfeit when they entered the 1800th. Their task was to repair roads, bridges, and fences damaged during military training maneuvers held in the southern United States. The 1800th basically cleaned up someone else's mess. Many of them became skilled in their position, but they were denied all promotions. No matter what rank they held, they would still be lowered to private upon entry in the 1800th.
They would be "moved up" to positions of responsibility; if they wielded a shovel and pick they could be moved up to a truck driver, truck driver to acting motor pool sergeant and so forth, but they would never be officially promoted to anything above the rank of private.
The members of the 1800th were not permitted to transfer anywhere unless cleared for a transfer, which means they did not go anywhere unless they had permission from the government.
The 1800th had an excellent overall performance record and the government considered the 1800th for an overseas assignment to repair some of the destruction from the war. Most of the 1800th would have gone, protesting perhaps, but they would have gone. However, the government did not follow up on that.
After the war, each soldier of the 1800th had to attend a special military hearing to determine the degree of discharge the soldiers would receive: honorable, without honor, or dishonorable discharge. Many of the members of the 1800th received "blue" discharges, or discharges without honor. In 1985, 31 members of the 1800 who had received "blue" discharges brought a class action suit against the military to have their discharges overturned and honorable discharges instated. Attorney Hyman Bravin, who had represented many Japanese American soldiers in the initial hearings after the war, agreed to represent these 31 men. As a result of a board rehearing, all 31 men had their military records changed to reflect honorable discharges.
The men of the 1800th were loyal to their country, the United States of America. They were sent to the 1800th because of their frustration and anger about the treatment of their families and the violation of civil rights because of their appearance and ethnic origins.