Book Review: ‘Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II’ by Daniel James Brown

An absolutely spectacular book to which I give an enthusiastic 5* rating. Daniel James Brown, who previously wrote: “The Boys in the Boat” has a follow-up book that in my opinion dwarfs any of his other works. He has done a magnificent job in telling the stories of Americans of Japanese Ancestry (AJA) who suffered and sacrificed during WW2. He has used extensive sourcing for this story, including personal interviews when possible as well as oral history archives.

Life was never easy for many people who arrived in both the US or Hawaii (at the time of WW2 Hawaii was not a state). These were hard-working people, people who came to the US and could not attain US Citizenship, but their US-born children were full American citizens. They rose from menial jobs to having their own small businesses, owning homes, being productive farmers, etc. And then came the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Americans don’t want to talk about War Relocation Camps, Exclusion Zones, prejudice, racism, and loss of American liberties, but fortunately for all of us the author does a fantastic job of detailing this and so much more. He makes the reader feel the pain and humiliation that those AJA experienced and felt directly, as the US succumbed to fear and the feeling that anyone who had Japanese ancestry had to be a spy for or loyal to Japan. People were unceremoniously rounded up and sent to holding areas before being shipped off to their horrific Relocation Centers. And to assist in telling the story the author follows about 15-20 different people as we see how this shameful part of our History affected these people or their families.

Eventually, the young men in the camp were given the option of enlisting in the US Army, as we were going to form an All-Japanese division to fight in Europe. We follow them through Basic Training and get a glimpse at the harsh reception they got in Hattiesburg, MS, even when they went into town in their US Military uniforms. They all became part of the 442 Infantry Regiment that made its way over to Italy where they were given assignments and missions that none of the other units were able to complete. They served heroically, bravely and did what nobody else could do. They broke the back of the German army in Italy and their reward was a trip to France and Germany where they once again were given the tasks that no other unit could accomplish, all of which culminated in their rescue of the Lost Battalion. The Lost Battalion was a group of Texans that got themselves surrounded by the German Army and were in fear of being totally annihilated. The 442 was sent in to rescue that group. The weather was horrid, the terrain unforgiving, the Germans pouring massive firepower at them, but eventually these young men (men who were denied their liberties here in the US) broke through. The 442 lost 800 men in order to rescue 200. These were warriors, these were heroes, these were ordinary kids most of whom had their parents still living in the War Relocation Centers.

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But the story continues after the war, as they and their parents many times felt continuing prejudice and lived in fear for their lives and property. And as a bonus, we also get to follow a conscientious objector who challenged the system, who was respected by all he met be they prosecutors, FBI agents, cellmates, etc. He even was allowed to make his own way to the prison in Arizona when there were no funds or agents to take him there, and so he hitchhiked to his own prison term and when he arrived he was treated as a hero by the inmates.

There are stories galore in this book and page after page we meet wonderful characters, shake our heads in both despair and amazement, and by the end, I must give a huge THANK YOU to Daniel James Brown for writing this book, as well as for all those AJA who suffered and who served in WW2. The book is both inspirational and cautionary, it makes us think of service, valor, sacrifice, humiliation, shame and it teaches us many lessons – never take our lives and liberties for granted because if we do some politician or foreign power is always waiting in the wings to try and deny us those very things we hold near and dear.

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A final note, it is refreshing to read a book that focuses on Japanese Americans. Most history books and movies ignore these individuals, as they concentrate on the War in Europe and the Pacific theater we ignored. We still have voluminous books on the treatment of the Jews in WW2, but nobody wants to remember what we did to our own citizens. Thanks, Daniel James Brown what a wonderful book, what an amazing topic, and what a history lesson you teach in a book I could never put down!

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