Going for Broke: The Life and Death of Tom Haji

When reading about the great and monumental moments in human history, the perspective typically used to view these events is often one that looks at the bigger picture. People, save the leaders and the renowned heroes of the day, are reduced to numbers. It becomes harder and harder to truly understand the magnitude of these stories without faces to look at or stories to hear. One person’s story and perspective on these moments in history can totally change how we as people, usually many years and many miles away from any of where any of these individuals lived., interpret the past. More often than not, these individual stories are seldom heard, drowned out by the millions of others in any given world changing event or never known by more than a handful of people. In this exhibit, the life of one Japanese-American is brought to light. It is a story of potential lost, duty, sacrifice, and atonement. This is the story of Tom Haji.

Tom’s story begins in the small town of Bluestem, Washington located west of Spokane on December 22, 1925. His parents were Japanese immigrants, which were known as “Issei” or first generation Japanese in America. Tom’s father Itchimatsu was a worker for the Great Northern Railroad and the job would move the family around as the years went by. Tom would be the youngest of three children and the only son, the children being known as “Nisei” or second generation Japanese-American (Parry 4). This background was not uncommon for many Japanese during the era. Many Japanese immigrated to the West Coast before quotas and restrictions on immigration would effectively shut it down.

Ichimatsu would move the family across the Cascades as the railroad transferred the family to work in Skykomish, Washington in 1933. Here we see the two older Haji daughter’s interaction with largely white students in school. Even though they obviously stand out from their peers the Haji daughters were very active within their school, participating in student government, sports, and a few different clubs (Parry 6). As we’d see later with Tom, the ease to which the Haji children would blend into their surroundings would be one of the more interesting parts of their story. Race didn’t seem to play much of a role in the Haji’s lives until a later date. Once again the Haji family would to another small town, Monroe. Tom would follow the example of this sisters before him, becoming a part of the community with no hint of opposition. “Without exception, people who remember Hiro and Tom recall nothing but good things about them, including their friendliness, academic skill and all-around athletic ability” (Parry 12). Tom’s race meant little if anything to the people around him. Despite his size, Tom was a star athlete in football and basketball. His size was made up by his plucky competitiveness and speed as his friend Bob would remember saying “Tom could really carry the mail” (Parry 28). Well respected and liked by his classmates, Tom and his family as a whole would see the harmony shattered on December 7th, 1941.

At first, nothing seemed to change much for Tom or his family. The residents of Monroe still treated the Hajis as they had always. Tom had feared the community would turn on him, but all his friends reassured him and would keep on defending Tom. Not only was Tom defend, but so was the entire family. When Tom’s father was anonymously accused of sabotaging a railroad which, the community dismissed the accusation (Parry 30). Days after the attack, Tom would be prevented from going to a basketball game in Port Angeles by federal authorities. The local paper would state “Tom Haji, an American citizen of Japanese parents couldn’t go” (Parry 28). This would be the only incident until Executive Order 9066 was signed and the Hajis were shipped off to their internment camp in Tule Lake, California.

Japanese and Japanese Americans everywhere would suffer the same fate as the Hajis. Even Japanese Americans already in the military faced discrimination and distrust. One such soldier remembered “We were wearing uniforms but they put a guard on us! They put an armed guard on us, watching us, you know! Boy, what a comedown…That’s the way it was when Pearl Harbor hit. It was a bad day. We were all categorized apart from the rest of the army” (Tamura 51). While Japanese everywhere in the States had been effectively changed from ordinary citizens to enemies overnight, there was a way out coming.

The government saw an opportunity with the many interned fighting age men in the camps. “Besides allowing Japanese Americans who wished to serve the opportunity, government officials knew it would also be a showcase for their loyalty to their country and would counter Japanese propaganda in the Pacific theater that said that the United States was engaging in a racial war” (Komai 114). Tom would be one of the thousands of Japanese Americans who leapt at the chance to prove their loyalty to the country that turned its back on them. US officials would be proven correct in their assumption that the Japanese Americans would serve the country well. Tom’s regiment would go down as one of the greatest in American history. “Comprised of Japanese American volunteers from Hawaii and the mainland, the “Go for Broke” 442nd is one of the most decorated units in American military history: twenty-one Medals of Honor and nearly 10,000 Purple Hearts” (Hughes 4). After rigorous training in the states, the 442nd would be shipped off to fight in the Italian campaign.

By the time Tom and the 442nd were in Italy, the war was beginning to decisively turn in the Allies favor. The momentum that the Axis had had in the early stages of the war had faded and the Allies, which were pushed to the brink at many points, finally began to take the offensive. The first Axis power to fall would be Italy, but fighting in the country was far from over. “The Italian surrender resulted in German evacuation of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, gave the Allies the Italian Navy, and, in effect, made Italy a co-belligerent with the Allies. Nevertheless, the Germans still had a firm hold on the Italian boot” (World War II History Info). While Mussolini and the rest of the fascists were overthrown and the country surrendered, the Germany army took up the slack in the defense of Italy. What would come from this was another bloody and drawn out front in the war as the Italian landscape would prove to be exceptional as defensive setting and a nightmare for troops scaling mountains and forests under deadly German fire. “In June 1944, the men who signed on with the 442nd would find themselves in Italy, fighting alongside the 100th Infantry Battalion, the battle-tested unit made up mostly of Japanese Americans from Hawaii” (Fighting for Democracy). German resistance would be stubborn and taxing on the 442nd, though they would fight gallantly uprooting machine gun nests wherever they were found. One such machine gun nest on Mt. Carchino would prove to be a fateful one for Tom. On April 9, 1945, three men of the 442nd would be killed assaulting a German position. Tom Haji would be counted among the dead in the assault as the war would end less than a month later. 

When World War II finally came to an end, America had changed. Not only had it become one of two powers in the world left standing, but a great social change was rising within the nation. Minorites of every background had participated and fought in the war for a country that for decades had repressed them. Regardless, these brave men gave up their lives for a country that had belittled them and for the Japanese Americans a country that treated them as the enemy. In response, the 442nd became the most decorated combat group in United States history. In 1951, the movie "Go For Broke!", named after the slogan of the 442nd, was released, depicting the 442nd Combat Regiment and their campaign in Italy. the story revolved around a lieutenant who was transferred in to lead the regiment. Even though deeply prejudice, hard on his men and resentful of his new post, as the campaign wears on the lieutenant's distrust of his men wears off. The courage and the sacrifice of the 442nd is in full display, as well as their mistreatment. The movie was very much ahead of its time and only six years removed from the war. No doubt the world was changing. Japan was now a close ally of the United States by 1951. The movie's central theme of not judging people by their race is evident and it would be an indication of things to come, as the civil rights movement would come about ten years later. 

There is something distinctly interesting and tragic about the story of Tom Haji. Even though I grew up in the town of Monroe and went to the same high school as he did, there was something much deeper about his story in my eyes. His life was cut down in its prime and there was no doubt to those who knew him best knew that the world lost someone with a great deal of potential behind him. Tom is always remembered as an all American boy, charismatic and a natural leader and the community in Monroe treated him and his family no differently then anyone else. The war shattered that happy picture, taking Tom from his friends, family, and the world. The slogan "Go For Broke!" meant giving up everything in your effort or to put all your chips on the table. Tom and the men of the 442nd who perished in battle did so for a country that had stripped them of their freedom, their dignity, and had thrown them into housing no more suitable for farm animals with armed guards in watchtowers monitoring them. And when asked if they would fight for the country that had done this to them, they went for broke.

"442nd Regimental Combat Team." 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Accessed September 20, 2016. http://the442.org/volunteers.html.

"Education Center." 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans. Accessed September 20, 2016. http://www.100thbattalion.org/.

Shiosaki, Fred. The Rescue of the Lost Battalion. Olympia, WA: Legacy Washington, Office of the Secretary of State, 2015.

Parry, Tom. “Tom Haji.” Unpublished biography and scrapbook, Monroe, WA, 2008. Author’s Collection.

Komai, Chris. Proud to Serve: Japanese American World War II Veterans: Salute to the 100th, 442nd, MIS & Other Units. Los Angeles, CA: Rafu Shimpo, 2012.

 Tamura, Linda. Nisei Soldiers Break Their Silence: Coming Home to Hood River. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2012.

"Fighting for Democracy." PBS. September 2007. Accessed November 18, 2016. https://www.pbs.org/thewar/at_war_democracy_japanese_american.htm.

"Italy." Italy. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://www.worldwar2history.info/Italy/.


Going for Broke: The Life and Death of Tom Haji