Welcoming home the Japanese American Nisei Congressional Gold Medal

American Heroes: The Japanese American Nisei Congressional Gold Medal goes on display on February 19, 2014, beginning with a special public program on February 19. The medal returns to the museum after a seven-city tour of the United States and will be on view through June 1, 2014. In this post, Chair and Curator of the Division of Armed Forces History Jennifer Jones explores the history of the medal and her personal connection to its story.

Note: "Nisei" means "second" in Japanese and is one way to refer to the children born of first-generation Japanese immigrants. These were the American born citizen children of the Japanese who emigrated to America in the first part of the 20th century, when Asians were denied citizenship.

It started with a phone call one day in early summer of 2011, from a U.S. Mint representative asking me if I'd like to review the designs for the Japanese American Congressional Gold Medal. Huh? I wasn't aware of an award being designed for the Japanese American veterans of the 100th Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service Specialists serving in World War II. But now I knew—and I was intrigued.

The medal's obverse (heads side) design features Nisei (second-generation Americans of Japanese ancestry) Soldiers from both the European and Pacific theaters. The 442nd RCT color guard is depicted in the lower field of the medal. The inscription “Go For Broke” is the motto of the 442nd RCT, and was eventually used to describe the work of all three units.
The medal's obverse (heads side) design features Nisei (second-generation Americans of Japanese ancestry) Soldiers from both the European and Pacific theaters. The 442nd RCT color guard is depicted in the lower field of the medal. The inscription “Go For Broke” is the motto of the 442nd RCT, and was eventually used to describe the work of all three units.

The U.S. Mint representative called me because I had been the collections specialist and research assistant for the 1987 exhibition at this museum titled, A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the United States Constitution and the curator for a later traveling exhibition and website of the same name. So it was with great interest that I reviewed the designs the U.S. Mint sent me and offered my comments.

Later that year, in the fall, I met with the National Veterans Network director to discuss the events surrounding the official presentation of the Medal to the Veterans, in November 2011, and the subsequent transfer to the Smithsonian of that singular Medal.

According to the official public law that authorized its creation:
 "Following the award of the gold medal in honor of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service, United States Army, under subsection (a), the gold medal shall be given to the Smithsonian Institution, where it will be displayed as appropriate and made available for research." (You can read the law in this PDF.)

"President Harry Truman stood in a driving rain near the White House to present the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation to the 100/442nd Regimental Combat Team. July 15, 1946.  The President stated: 'You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice -- and you won. Keep up that fight, and we will continue to win -- to make this great Republic stand for just what the Constitution says it stands for.'"
President Harry Truman stood in a driving rain near the White House to present the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation to the 100/442nd Regimental Combat Team on July 15, 1946. The President stated: "You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice—and you won. Keep up that fight, and we will continue to win—to make this great Republic stand for just what the Constitution says it stands for."

The public law that authorized the creation of the medal also mentioned that the medal would tour the country and then be exhibited in the Smithsonian. Wow, I knew then I'd have a lot of work to do to create a traveling exhibition for this medal.

Seeing the medal brought back so many memories. I was reminded of the World War II-era photographs of Nisei soldiers, with which I’d become so familiar in the process of researching and developing the exhibition and Web projects—the artists had expertly blended those images into the face of the medal. With the words "Nisei Soldiers of World War II" and the slogan "Go for Broke," I recalled the friendships and collecting trips to California and Hawaii that I had made in 1985-1987, where I met Japanese American veterans who generously shared their stories with me so that we would be able to create an exhibition that would tell not just of the history of their incarceration in camps during World War II, but the stories of the soldiers who served in the U.S. military, many coming out of the camps to serve. This medal was for them.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team received a citation for its battlefield gallantry. France, 1944. Courtesy National Archives
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team received a citation for its battlefield gallantry. France, 1944. Courtesy National Archives

The reverse of the medal contains the engraved images of the three insignia representing the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service.

The medal's reverse (tails side) depicts the insignias of the 100th INF BN, 442nd RCT, and MIS. The 100th INF BN insignia features a taro leaf and a traditional Hawaiian helmet, both of which are emblematic of the unit's Hawaiian roots. The "Go for Broke" Torch of Liberty shoulder patch represents the 442nd RCT. The sphinx, a traditional symbol of secrecy, represents the MIS insignia.
The medal's reverse (tails side) depicts the insignias of the 100th INF BN, 442nd RCT, and MIS. The 100th INF BN insignia features a taro leaf and a traditional Hawaiian helmet, both of which are emblematic of the unit's Hawaiian roots. The "Go for Broke" Torch of Liberty shoulder patch represents the 442nd RCT. The sphinx, a traditional symbol of secrecy, represents the MIS insignia.

The inscriptions on the outer rim are the titles of the three units represented on the medal—the 100th INF BN, 442nd RCT and MIS. In addition, the years 1941–1946, the defined years of World War II according to the Department of Defense, are inscribed in the upper right field of the medal.

To those whose commitment and sacrifice—in the face of a two-fronted battle against discrimination at home and fascism abroad—demonstrated a highly uncommon and commendable sense of patriotism and honor: Welcome home, American Heroes.

Jennifer Jones is chair and curator of the Division of Armed Forces History. The Japanese American Nisei Congressional Gold Medal will be on display from February 19th through June 1st. Later this, it will be incorporated into the Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibition.

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