THE EXPLOSIVE ISSUES of race and the morality of the Vietnam War were central to the debates of the Sixties and early Seventies. In Toshio Whelchel's From Pearl Harbor to Saigon, these two ideas intertwine as Japanese-American Vietnam veterans question their place in the brutal Asian war and in the American society that fought it. Army medic Vincent Kimura offers a succinct distillation of the dilemma presented by Whelchel as he reflects on his decision to serve his tour as an unarmed conscientious objector: "[B]eing an Asian American I could easily be mistaken for the so-called enemy. Where does that put me? It was a unique situation for the Japanese Americans who served in the Vietnam War."
Whelchel, a Japanese American and ex-Marine, interviewed 59 Asian-American Vietnam vets in his efforts to comprehend their confusing role in the conflict. In the book, Whelchel narrows his focus to Japanese Americans--a group who had experienced the overt racism of internment camps a generation earlier--with a series of 11 first-person accounts of the Vietnam era. Through spare and compelling narratives and Whelchel's brief analysis of them, the reader encounters several common experiences: the silence of the veterans' parents about the World War II internment and the resulting economic hardship; the fraternal interaction between Japanese-American soldiers and youth of other races, and the jarring confusion of racial segregation during basic training in the South; a growing identification with the Vietnamese population; and alienation and participation in the antiwar movement. Ultimately, through the veterans' words, this book offers a unique and vivid account of the collision between America's multiethnic ideal, and the realpolitik of the war.