A little gedanken, a thought experiment:
Suppose Portugal, without warning, attacks the big naval base at Norfolk, Va. Nearly 3,000 Americans are killed by Portuguese bombs and bullets.
President Obama declares war against Portugal. Two months later he issues an executive order: all Americans of Portuguese descent must report immediately to detention camps. Nearly all their property is confiscated.
In Merced County, all the Souzas, Escobars, Cardozas, Silvas and Pedrozos find their way to the fairgrounds. They're kept in drafty barracks for weeks, then shipped by rail to crude camps all over the West. They're held in them for the rest of the war.
Nearly all these folks have been born in America. Nearly all of them are U.S. citizens. Even so, most of them are stuck in the camps.
That, of course, is what happened to 120,000 or so Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. It happened to several hundred in our county. The ones who were let go in 1943 were freed only to enter the U.S. military.
Some formed the 100th Infantry Battalion, which joined 4,500 more in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In less than two years of combat, the 442 -- as its members call it -- earned more than 18,000 decorations, including 21 Medals of Honor.
They suffered almost 300 percent casualties, meaning that many of the wounded went back to fight, and fight again. They were the most decorated unit in the U.S. Army.
"Go For Broke!" was their motto and their M.O. as they battled their way through France, Italy and other parts of Europe.
Next Saturday, a documentary, "Only the Brave," will be shown at Merced College at 1:30 p.m. It's about the 442. Director Lane Nishikawa, who'll be at the college theater, shows how the regiment rescued 300 men in "the Lost Battalion" -- at a cost of 700 dead and wounded American soldiers.
The film will strike deep in the hearts of three Mercedians. Hiroshi Asai, 85, of Cortez, and Eric Andow, 87, of Livingston were members of the 442. Sherman Kishi, 84, served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), an elite group of interpreters and translators in the Pacific theater and later in occupied Japan.
Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, Douglas MacArthur's intelligence honcho, wrote that the bilingual work by these soldiers and Marines in MIS helped shorten the Pacific War by two years.
Listening to these three octogenarians, who all returned to Merced County after the war, ran productive farms and raised successful families, makes you wonder:
How, after they were treated as traitors and saw their lives uprooted, could they have signed up for the Army of the country that had forced them and their families into concentration camps?
And why, given that experience, did they march into the valleys and mountains of the shadow of death, waving American flags? And fight as well or better than any other American unit?
"We had to prove ourselves, I guess," recalls Asai, who earned a Bronze Star, Purple Heart (shrapnel in his right arm) and, like all members of the 442, a Presidential Unit Citation. "It was partly our own culture -- don't bring shame to your family or your group. They (the U.S. government) were saying, 'We can't trust you' -- why we got thrown in the camps.
"We wanted to prove we were just as good as anybody else. My philosophy was, in spite of what they did to me, I was going to succeed. I wasn't going to let that get me down. Despite what they did to me, damn if they're going to get me!"
Andow's mother, with him in an internment camp in Colorado, begged him not to join. "When the 442 was formed, I thought it was my chance to get out of the camp," he remembers. In July 1944 he got his orders.