From Camp to Congress: My Father's Dream

On Nov. 2, the U.S. Congress honored Japanese-American World War II veterans with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.

My father, Giichi "Byron" Honda, was one of those veterans. In a brutal irony, my father wore the uniform of the U.S. Military Intelligence Service (MIS), while his family lived behind barbed wire in a Colorado internment camp.

The deeds of the 6,000 members of the American MIS -- a unit shrouded in secrecy -- are not often found in history books. The MIS, comprised of bilingual Japanese Americans, served their country courageously as translators, interrogators and Japanese-language instructors.

Not only did the elite unit help win the war in the Pacific by performing secret intelligence work against the Japanese, but its cultural and linguistic understanding of Japanese humanized the enemy and built a pathway to peace after the war. Because their work was classified until 1972, the heroism of MIS soldiers was often hidden from the public.

Born in Walnut Grove, my father was a Boy Scout and bright student, graduating from high school as a member of the California Scholarship Federation. He landed a job as a truck driver to pay his way through community college, pursuing his dream of becoming a doctor. That dream was dashed on the morning of Feb. 19, 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, declaring the West Coast a military zone and forcing more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, my family included, to evacuate. My family and I were hauled to Merced Assembly Center and then incarcerated behind barbed wire at the Amache internment camp in southeast Colorado. I was less than a year old.

Young men of Japanese ancestry were prohibited from enlisting in the U.S. armed forces at the start of the war. Despite their patriotism, despite their willingness to lay down their lives to protect freedom and democracy, countless Japanese-American men were classified "4C" as enemy aliens.

When the military found itself in dire need of servicemen able to read and write in Japanese, 6,000 budding heroes, including my father, were quickly recruited into the MIS. In 1943, Dad left Amache to teach Japanese to the Navy Intelligence Service at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Later on, Dad was transferred to Northwestern University. As a result, he was able to bring our family to Chicago with him.

Life in Amache taught me that being Japanese in America was bad. In the days, months and years after my internment, Dad was quick to teach me that Japanese Americans had been treated unjustly and that our constitutional rights as Americans had been violated. My father's lessons still guide my work in Congress today, as we approach the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

The Congressional Gold Medal recognizes the strength Japanese-American servicemen demonstrated in risking their lives for their country while their families were imprisoned back home. As President Truman told Japanese-American veterans at the end of the war, "You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice, and you won."

On Nov. 2, during a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol, I witnessed the Congressional Gold Medal bestowed on Giichi "Byron" Honda. My father's service with MIS protected America in the darkest of hours. His legacy as a Japanese American is a lodestar for every future generation -- instructing us, inspiring us to work tirelessly to forge a more perfect union.

On Nov. 2, my father's name, along with the names of thousands of Japanese-American war heroes from MIS, the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, were forever etched in American history. Their names, their deeds, their devotion to country, are indelible reminders that we must never let "war hysteria, racial prejudice and a failure of political leadership" derail the ongoing mission of America: to live as one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Congressman Michael Honda is Silicon Valley's Representative. He has represented the 15th Congressional District of California in the U.S. House of Representatives for a decade. In Congress, Rep. Honda is a member of the House Appropriations and Budget Committees and Chair Emeritus of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

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