GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In front of a few dozen people, Jennifer Tompkins spoke from the heart Tuesday night at the Grand Rapids Public Library, about the Japanese American heroes of World War II known as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. For Tompkins, keeping their story alive means "everything."
The Nisei soldiers of the 442nd fought proudly for the United States despite the rampant racism against Japanese Americans that was taking place back home after the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor.
"They knew that they were Americans. They were proud of being American. But they're also proud of their Japanese roots," said Tompkins, who serves as the director of community history and education at the Grand Rapids Asian-Pacific Foundation.
"They proved their Americanism in the most Japanese possible way, and they made it better for all Asian Americans, Japanese or not, that came after that."
The 442nd is recognized as the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history. The unit earned more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 560 Silver Star Medals, 21 Medals of Honor and seven Presidential Unit Citations.
"They were the only unit to not have a single soldier go AWOL (Absent Without Leave). They had many soldiers that did reverse AWOL — they were told to stay in the hospital or to rest, and they left so that they could go back and fight. That's what sets these men apart," Tompkins said.
Amongst the members of the 442nd was Sgt. (T) Virgil W. Westdale, who was raised on a farm in White Pigeon, Michigan. He was a pilot and an instructor in Grand Rapids. He passed away at the age of 104 in February 2022.
Tompkins says since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Asian Americans have been the targets of an increased amount of racism. That's why she says sharing stories like these is more important now than ever.
"We need to instill pride in people who are feeling scared, and we need to show the world that we are not forever foreigners, especially not in this country," she said.
If you missed Tuesday night's event, the Grand Rapid Public Library is working on a virtual version of the presentation, which will be uploaded to their YouTube channel in the coming weeks.
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