Army Pfc. Joe Nishimoto faced discrimination during World War II because of his Japanese lineage, but that didn’t stop him from joining the military when he had the chance to prove his allegiance to the U.S. He never came home from battle, but his efforts weren’t forgotten. Many years after making the ultimate sacrifice, he was bestowed the Medal of Honor.
Nishimoto was born on Feb. 21, 1919, in the Fresno area of California to Japanese immigrants Giichi and Kiyo Nishimoto. He had an older brother, Frank, and two sisters, Akie and Marie. Not much is known about his childhood, but Nishimoto was working on a farm he owned in Fresno when World War II began.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor caused rampant fear in the U.S. of anyone of Japanese heritage, which led to an executive order that forced the internment of about 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in camps across the country. Nishimoto was taken from his home and put into the Jerome Concentration Camp in southeast Arkansas, which held about 8,500 people over the course of the war. Nishimoto’s parents were taken to nearby Rohwer Concentration Camp.
The Marion Star newspaper out of Marion, Ohio, said Nishimoto was eventually granted permission by the FBI to settle somewhere in the east, so he moved to Marion, near where his sisters and their husbands had settled prior to the war.
Nishimoto volunteered for the Army almost as soon as he got there, but it took about seven months for his enlistment to go through. The Marion Star said that during that time, he worked at the Olds Poultry Farm and Hatchery from January to July 1943.
Nishimoto finally entered service on Oct. 4, 1943, and was sent to Camp Shelby in Mississippi to train with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Activated in February 1943, the 442nd was a segregated unit made up entirely of Japanese Americans who were initially barred from military service after the Pearl Harbor attack. Nishimoto’s brother, Frank, was also a part of the 442nd.
After training, Nishimoto and the 442nd deployed to Italy in June 1944, where they joined in combat with the 100th Infantry Battalion, the first all Japanese American unit to be activated during the war. Within two months, Nishimoto earned a Silver Star by leading a daring daylight crossing of a river in which he provided cover for other soldiers, then destroyed a machine gun post and stole enemy equipment.
The 442nd did such a great job in battle in its first few months overseas that it was reassigned to Southern France, where its soldiers took part in heavy combat in the Vosges Mountains. Over the span of a month that autumn, the unit liberated Bruyeres and Biffontaine and helped rescue the 141st Infantry’s 1st Battalion — now known as the Lost Battalion — which had been surrounded by Germans.
By November, the 442nd was near La Houssiere, France, and had been under stress due to enemy fire and hidden mines. On Nov. 7, after his company spent three unsuccessful days trying to dislodge the enemy from the ridge it was defending, Nishimoto decided to step up the fight.
Without concern for his own safety, he crawled forward through an area filled with mines and other booby traps. When he came across an enemy machine gun nest, he destroyed it with a grenade. He then moved on to the back of another machine gun nest and fired his submachine gun inside at point-blank range, killing one gunner and wounding another. Nishimoto then chased after two other enemy soldiers, killing one of them before driving another machine gun crew from their position.
Having lost those three strongholds, the enemy decided it had no choice but to flee — all thanks to Nishimoto’s extraordinary bravery.
Sadly, Nishimoto didn’t live long enough to gain recognition for his actions. The 25-year-old was killed in combat a week later. His parents were notified while they were still in the internment camp they were sent to at the start of the war. When Nishimoto’s body was returned home, he was buried at Washington Colony Cemetery in Fresno.
The young private initially earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery on Nov. 7. But for many years, those who knew him thought he deserved more.
In the 1990s — decades after Nishimoto’s actions — legislators called for a review of his service record and those of other Asian-American service members from World War II. They wanted to determine if any of those men had been passed over for the Medal of Honor due to discrimination of the time.
Considering the 442nd RCT is still one of the most decorated units in U.S. history, the reviews did, indeed, find that discrimination was a factor.
On June 21, 2000, that wrong was finally rectified for 22 men who served in segregated Asian American units during World War II. During a White House ceremony, President Bill Clinton presented Nishimoto’s eldest sister, Akie, with her brother’s long overdue Medal of Honor.
In 2014, the medal was donated by his family to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., to be part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.