Tag: Daniel James Brown

Facing the Mountain

by Daniel James Brown

ISBN 9780525557418

“Why should they lay their lives on the line for a country that had forced them and their parents into bleak concentration camps? Why, if they fought for America, would America not at least release their family members, grant their parents citizenship, and restore their civil rights?”

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the lives of thousands of Japanese Americans changed forever. Prominent first generation Japanese immigrants—the Issei—were arrested on pre-emptive suspicion of disloyalty. At the same time, many of their sons—the Nisei—were trying to volunteer for military service, only to discover they were barred from enlisting as “enemy aliens” despite their American citizenship. The ban would hold until 1943, at which point the Nisei became subject to the draft, even as many of them were living in concentration camps following their exclusion from the West Coast under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat, follows the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit, a segregated unit set up specifically for Japanese American soldiers, and headed predominantly by white officers. Fighting in the European theatre of World War II, the unit served with distinction, taking heavy casualties, and becoming the most decorated unit in the American military.

Brown predominantly focuses on three young Nisei men—Kats Miho, Rudy Tokiwa, and Fred Shiosaki—who volunteered for military service despite the discrimination they faced, although two older Japanese American chaplains also play a prominent role. Many of the young men tried to volunteer shortly after Pearl Harbor and discovered they were barred from doing so. Later the draft would be expanded to include Japanese Americans, and some would refuse to enlist due to the discrimination they and their families had faced. These are the no-no boys, and while they are mentioned occasionally, they are not the focus of Brown’s work. We get glimpses of life in the camps and other trials of those who remained behind through stories of the families and friends of the young men who are Brown’s primary subjects. But the main body of the narrative moves to Europe, where the 442nd served in Italy, France, and Germany.

One interesting aspect of the Japanese internment that Brown teases out in Facing the Mountain is the differences in the experiences of the Hawaiian and mainland Nisei. This comes particularly to light in section entitled Kotonks and Buddaheads, which were the nicknames for the mainlanders and the Hawaiian-born Nisei respectively. Because so much of the working population of the Hawaiian territory was of Japanese descent, it was deemed impractical—even economically catastrophic—to incarcerate them all. Some prominent Issei men were imprisoned, but otherwise the families of the Hawaiian-born Nisei remained largely at liberty. This was a sharp contrast to the harsh realities faced by the families of the mainland boys in the internment camps. Fred Shiosaki’s family was not incarcerated because they lived outside the exclusion zone, but their laundry business was almost destroyed by a boycott. The rifts created by the misunderstandings between the two groups almost tore the 442nd apart before they ever went into battle.

One outlier in Brown’s narrative is Gordon Hirabayashi, who was a conscientious objector even before the conscription of Japanese Americans. While most of Brown’s subjects fought on the battlefield, Hirabayashi fought in the courts, arguing that the curfews, exclusion orders, and evacuation zones were unconstitutional discrimination based on race. Inside the facilities where he was jailed a result, he also fought against the segregation of these institutions, exposing their hypocrisies and absurdities. For example, in a southern prison, Hirabayashi was assigned to be housed with the white inmates, but in a Washington State prison, he was assigned to the non-white dorm. Hirabayashi used these inconsistencies to peacefully agitate for prison reform. Alongside the combat troops, Hirabayashi and the two chaplains form a more philosophical contrast, helping to round out the narrative. Hirabayashi’s story alone would merit a book in its own right.

Sifting through the Densho archives, as well as many more sources such as letters provided by the family of Chaplain Hiro Higuchi, Brown has woven together strands of personal stories that come together to shed light on a vast and complicated chapter in American history. As with The Boys in the Boat, he succeeds in bringing to life the personalities of his primary subjects, while also maintaining a view of the wider historical context in which their stories took place. With none of the main subjects of the book alive any longer—the last, Fred Shiosaki, died in April 2021—the work of organizations such as Densho becomes even more important to preserving the memory of the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Americans during World War II. Brown’s work adds to that with a very readable account of some of those experiences, and a young reader’s edition is also expected in Spring 2022.

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The Boys in the Boat

Cover image for The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brownby Daniel James Brown

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014.

ISBN 978-0-14-312547-1

“And which of them, coupled improbably with all those other qualities, had the most important one: the ability to disregard his own ambitions, to throw his ego over the gunwales, to leave it swirling in the wake of his shell, and to pull, not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat.”

In 1933, Joe Rantz arrived at the University of Washington as a freshman with barely enough money to start school. There were no sports scholarships to be had, but earning a spot on the freshman rowing crew would guarantee him an on-campus job that would allow him to support himself through school. Under the tutelage of Tom Bolles, Al Ulbrickson, and boat builder George Pocock, Rantz would become one member of the nine man rowing crew that would represent the United States at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But on that first day, he was nothing more than one of 175 boys who hoped to earn a place in one of the freshman boats. There was a long road between those tryouts and the Berlin Olympics. The Boys in the Boat chronicles the training and formation of this historic crew.

Daniel James Brown centres his narrative on Joe Rantz, the man through whom he learned about America’s quest for gold at the 1936 Olympics, sometimes also known as the Nazi Olympics. The two were neighbours, and in the spring of 2007 Brown began interviewing Rantz, who was slowly dying of congestive heart failure. Rantz embodied the difference between the Husky rowing crew, and the crews produced by elite Eastern universities where rowing was considered a gentleman’s sport; he had grown up poor in various rural areas of Washington State, lost his mother at an early age, and had to work hard every summer to ensure he would have enough money to return to school in the fall. Rantz also provides a focal point for the book, introducing the reader to the world of rowing through his journey, before later bringing in the other team members.

After recounting Rantz’s difficult childhood and his introduction to rowing, Brown turns his attention to the coaching staff, including freshman coach Tom Bolles, and varsity and junior varsity coach Al Ulbrickson, himself a former University of Washington rower. However, the most interesting figure here is English boat builder George Pocock. Although not an official member of the coaching staff, Pocock, whose workshop was above the shell house, was another crucial mentor for the crew. The short but powerful stroke that had made Western rowing teams so successful was called Conibear stroke after former University of Washington rowing coach Hiram Conibear, but in fact it was Pocock who taught this stroke to Conibear. Pocock sold the highest quality rowing shells to any team that could afford them, but he made his home at the University of Washington, and the crew there benefited from his deep knowledge of the sport in addition to his equipment. Brown places an epigraph by Pocock at the beginning of each chapter, and his writing on the subject often verges on poetry, revealing his deep spiritual attachment to the sport, as well as his technical knowledge. By contrast, head coach Al Ulbrickson is a much more inscrutable figure.

Throughout The Boys in the Boat, Brown positions his narrative alongside historical context. As he follows Rantz’s trajectory on the UW rowing crew, he also touches on political events in Germany. The Nazis were rising to power just as Rantz began his university career, and as the team prepares for the Olympics, so Germany is preparing to host the world. The result was an unprecedented level of orchestration and ceremony that has remained with the Olympics ever since. Hitler was initially against the idea and principles of the Olympics, but Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels convinced him it would be “a singular opportunity to portray Germany to the world as a civilized and modern state, a friendly but powerful nation that the larger world would do well to recognize and respect.” Brown documents some of the measures that were taken to hide the extent of Germany’s anti-Semitic policies, such as removing party newspapers from the stands, taking down the signs that barred Jews from certain businesses, and preventing foreign journalists from interviewing Jewish people. He also emphasizes the role of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in documenting and propagandizing the occasion. However there is remarkably little about efforts to boycott the Berlin Olympics.

Although the outcome is known, Brown manages to maintain a remarkable degree of suspense. It is necessary to make us forget what we know, to remove the sense of inevitability that comes with our historical perspective, and take us back into the moment when things were by no means certain. It is not what happens, but how it happens that enables this trick. After overcoming their history of uneven performance, triumphing over Eastern snobbery about Western rowing crews, and arriving at the Olympic final, the American team still faced not one but two remarkable handicaps that make Brown’s account of the final race nail biting.

Even if you are not much interested in sports, the Olympics provide a unique perspective on the political situation in Germany in the lead up to World War II. Though sport receives greater emphasis than politics, Brown never loses sight of the world stage on which this competition is taking place, and the symbolic value that is being attached to it. The result is a unique fusion of sports and political history that has appealed to a wide variety of readers since the book was published in 2013.