Go For Broke

National Education Center

The history of Japanese American military service during World War II is not a male-only story. By the time the war ended, nearly 500 Japanese American women had served the United States.

When America entered World War II, the country had to raise large armies on both the Atlantic and Pacific fronts. The result was a manpower shortage, which required the military to turn to women for needed support. Servicewomen became military clerks, typists, cooks, drivers, and unit cadre, freeing up men to go to frontline combat roles.

Japanese American women served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), Army Nurse Corps (ANC), and Cadet Nurse Corps (CNC). The ANC began accepting Japanese American women in February 1943, while the WAC began enlisting them in September of that same year. Japanese American women had previously been denied entry to its predecessor WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps).

Private Shizuko Shinagawa, 21, of the Women’s Army Corps. May 1944. Courtesy of the War Relocation Authority.
Private Shizuko Shinagawa, 21, of the Women’s Army Corps. May 1944. Courtesy of the War Relocation Authority.
Female officers, courtesy of the US Government and Bonnie and Ken Kasamatsu.

Japanese American women faced a difficult choice when considering whether or not to enlist. They had to leave family behind, often behind the barbed wires of government incarceration camps. And the women often faced strong disapproval from their family and friends, as they were often seen as breaking traditional gender norms by enlisting in the military.

So why did Japanese American women volunteer to serve their country? Quite often, it was for the same reason as the men: they were patriotic Americans who wanted to serve their country. Many had brothers and husbands in the Army, and they jumped at the chance to help relieve and support military men. Other women joined to escape life in the incarceration camps. Many also sought the travel and adventure that joining the military could provide. For a variety of reasons, Japanese American women from both the mainland and Hawaii enlisted for duty. Through the end of WWII, 142 volunteered for the WAC.

Female officers, courtesy of the US Government and Bonnie and Ken Kasamatsu.

After induction into the WAC, these women went through five weeks of basic training at one of five military training centers. Most went to either Fort Des Moines in Iowa or Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia. Unlike Japanese American men, they were not segregated. When basic training was complete, they received one of 155 different assignments, with the majority being clerical.

Forty-eight Japanese American WACS were assigned to the Military Intelligence Service Language School. They became translators for the Army, trained separately from the men and assigned non-combat roles in document translation. A few were even so successful that they were retained as teachers at the school. Most others were assigned to the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, where they did important work translating captured Japanese documents. The Section was later moved to the Central Document Center in Washington DC.

At the end of the war, eleven Japanese American WACs accepted military assignments in Tokyo under General Douglas MacArthur’s command. As soon as they arrived in Tokyo, however, they discovered that MacArthur did not approve of enlisted women serving overseas. The general ordered them to either return to the States as WACs or continue to serve in Japan as civilians. All remained in Japan as civilians and performed their work honorably.

It is estimated that 350 Japanese American women participated in the CNC. The CNC was non-military and provided free education in nursing programs across the country in an abbreviated 30 month period.

In exchange, Cadet Nurses were obligated to provide nursing services for the duration of the war.

The program actively recruited Nisei women from the concentration camps with the promise of free education. The CNC program maintained a policy of anti-discrimination and was open to all women, though many nursing schools refused to admit Japanese American students.

Those in the ANC were already nurses. Only a handful of Japanese Americans served in the ANC and did not receive overseas assignments.

When World War II ended, the women of the WAC, ANC, and CNC were not only proud of their service, but they also gained valuable education and job skills. And they held their heads high. Like their brothers and husbands, they had answered America’s call in its time of duress, and they served their country with courage and sacrifice despite how their country was treating them.

Haruko Hurt, speaking about her reasons for joining the WAC, explained it aptly but with far too much modesty: “I feel that I belong here… I feel that I’m American, [and] I feel that I’m just as much American as any white person… I felt good that I was doing my little part in serving the country.”

For more information on Japanese Americans women who served during World War II, check out the following resources:

  • Serving Our Country: Japanese American Women in the Military During World War II (2003) by Brenda L. Moore
  • Japanese American Women and the Women’s Army Corp, 1935-1950 (1993) by Stacey Yukari Hirose
  • Nisei Cadet Nurse of World War II: Patriotism in Spite of Prejudice (2005) by Thelma M. Robinson
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