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Top Shelf: Facing the Mountain

By David Cordero

My son loved to read when he was little. I recall a conversation between him and his third-grade teacher. “It’s like I am inside the book!” he exclaimed with wonder.

Readers may encounter a similar immersive feeling while devouring Daniel James Brown’s Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II. A peer of Brown’s wrote, “you don’t just read a Daniel James Brown story, you go there.” The best-selling author, perhaps most famous for his “The Boys in the Boat” about the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team, guides readers through a shameful episode of American history juxtaposed against what some consider our nation’s finest hour.

The Nisei Americans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team are celebrated for their extraordinary acts of courage during WWII. The most decorated unit of its size in the war, the 442nd earned 18,000 medals, including 4,000 Purple Hearts and 21 Medals of Honor. They fought tenaciously in Italy and France, sustaining heavy casualties while earning respect from comrades and foes alike.

They represented the very best of the American spirit, yet in the United States, they were vilified following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The depths of hysteria and racism displayed are astonishing. Incidents of mistreatment and injustice permeate the text, reflecting the hardship forced upon a group of people whose only mistake was simply looking like the enemy.

It should be mentioned that hundreds of thousands of U.S. Army personnel were of German ancestry, thus bearing a resemblance to their chief foe in the European Theater. Experiences of prejudice for them were few and far between.

Executive Order 9066 led to the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans from the western United States — two-thirds of whom were American citizens. It made no difference if they had a thriving business, starred for the local high school football team, or were veterans of the U.S. military — it was off to the Spartan wartime camps where armed guards loomed.

Brown focuses on the experiences of four young men — three of whom fought in Europe; the other waged a resolute legal battle at home. Their journeys are told through vivid passages, revealing unceasing camaraderie, courageous moments on the battlefield, and the moral dilemmas inherent in war.

Falsely accused of being saboteurs and ostracized by fellow Americans, those Nisei who fought in WWII emerged as loyal and heroic. Their responses to bigotry and oppression are inspiring beyond belief. They deserve our abiding respect.


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