KOKOMO, Ind. — Laura Brown did not spend her seven days in Hawaii surfing, sunbathing on the beach, or eating delicacies at a luau.
Instead, Brown, and two of her Indiana University Kokomo classmates, worked on a documentary, interviewing Japanese American veterans of the 100th Battalion, about their U.S. military service during World War II — when Japan was the enemy.
This is critical work, as most of the veterans are in their late 80s and early 90s, and time is running out for them to tell their stories.
"We lose so many World War II veterans every day," Brown said. "These men gave us a whole different perspective on the war, one that won't be available much longer. They are full of history and information, but they are losing their ability to communicate effectively as they age. You could feel there was a sense of urgency to have their experiences documented, so they are not lost when they pass."
The trip was part of a summer class, "Asian American Literature: A World at War," focusing on the experiences of Japanese Americans during the war.
Brown was most impressed by the veterans' patriotism, despite the discrimination they faced.
"They fought for the U.S willingly, even though they were not treated the same as the other soldiers," she said. "They were bullied and mistreated because of their heritage. You have to think how hard it would be to leave behind their lives, and not be accepted among their Army peers. I was blown away by their love of their country."
Karla Stouse, lecturer in English, led the trip. She learned about the all-Japanese American 100th battalion while doing research about the internment camps the U.S. government sent many to during the war, fearing they would aid the Japanese military.
"I despise injustice, and this is a topic still relevant to us today," she said. "We researched the era, examining government propaganda about the relocation camps, and about the fear that permeated society after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We also drew parallels to the atmosphere post 9/11, and the current situation at Guantanamo Bay."
Stouse said some of her students were shocked they didn't know about this aspect of American history, and noted they were the ones who drew the parallels to the detainment center.
Holly Manns, 22, an elementary education major from Macy, was among those who learned that lesson.
"I don't know why it took me going to Hawaii to figure it out," she said. "We really need to hear these stories. It was humbling to realize we might be among the last to interview them. Most of them are 90 and older, and a lot of them are fading."
As a future teacher, she personally feels a sense of responsibility to share those stories.
"I like history, but I never really appreciated it until this trip," she said.
After reading and studying, three of the students met and interviewed surviving members of the 100th Battalion in Hawaii, and were special guests at their 71st anniversary banquet. They also talked to people at the Japanese Cultural Center about internment.
"We are examining cultural attitudes and discrimination. We want to make people aware of how fear can turn to hate, which can then lead to the kinds of injustices experienced by innocent American citizens," Stouse said. "Also, they have interviewed veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, in addition to speaking with internment victims and others with knowledge of the topic."
They also learned that individuals can make a difference, and were amazed by the Japanese American soldiers' patriotism.
"They met genuine American heroes," Stouse said. "These are men who carry no bitterness about having to fight for the right to fight in World War II because of their ancestry, men who have led lives of distinction, and were instrumental in bringing Hawaii to statehood. Being able to talk with those men and with their children about what their experiences signify will stay with these students forever."
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.