Ralph T. Yempuku
Office of Strategic Services
May 23, 1914 – July 9, 2002
Ralph Yempuku witnessed the Japanese surprise attack of December 7, 1941, on Pearl Harbor firsthand. This experience motivated him to fight for the United States. Due to his Japanese ancestry, he was not initially allowed to serve in the U.S. Army. Yempuku and 170 Japanese Americans created the Varsity Victory Volunteers to prove their patriotism to the United States. Finally, he was accepted into the Army and joined other Japanese Americans in the 442d Regimental Combat Team.
Born in 1914, Ralph Tsuneto Yempuku grew up in Hawaii as a second-generation Japanese American, or Nisei. Yempuku graduated from the University of Hawaii in Oahu in 1936. While attending university, he participated in the Army’s Reserve Officers Training Corps, where he completed two years of basic training and two years of advanced training. However, he never finished the program due to a knee injury. After graduation, he continued working at the university as an assistant instructor of physical education.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Yempuku was giving an island tour to visiting football teams when they saw signs of the attack. Everyone believed that it was a drill but, as the bombing continued, they realized the attack was real. The following day, Yempuku joined the Hawaii Territorial Guard. The Guard was organized to protect public utilities in the event of another attack. As a member of the Guard, he was responsible for 30 to 40 men. A month after the attack, the Hawaiian government disbanded the Guard to then reform it the next day without any Japanese Americans.
After passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, Asian Americans regularly endured residential segregation, educational restrictions, and limited job opportunities. Japanese Americans living in Hawaii faced similar discrimination. After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which removed persons of Japanese descent living on the west coast, including American citizens, from their homes and placed them into internment camps. In Hawaii, the 160,000 residents of Japanese ancestry who were not removed from their homes had severe restrictions.
The removal of the Japanese Americans from the Hawaii Territorial Guard resulted from prejudice against people of Japanese ancestry in the military, even though most Japanese Americans were loyal to America. Following the disbandment, Yempuku joined the Corps of Engineers Auxiliary, more commonly known as the Varsity Victory Volunteers (VVV). The VVV was a battalion of 170 Nisei men who worked on infrastructure or heavy labor around Hawaii. In 1943, the U.S. Army began to allow Japanese Americans to enter the Army, leading to the creation of the 442d Regimental Combat Team. Yempuku joined the 442d in 1944.
After Yempuku completed basic training, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), recruited Japanese Americans to participate in a mission in the Pacific Theater. Yempuku and 20 other men fluent in Japanese volunteered to join the OSS to infiltrate Japanese lines. He and the other volunteers trained at Catalina Island off the coast of California before joining different detachments in the China-Burma-India Theater. Yempuku was a member of the OSS Detachment 101. Since his training included parachute jumping, Yempuku was part of a small group to drop behind enemy lines in Burma, where he worked with guerrilla fighters to harass the Japanese. Before the jump, he believed that there was “no way could it succeed.” In fact, their efforts were so successful the Japanese offered a $20,000 bounty on him.
After the war, Yempuku decided to reconnect with his family in Japan. His father and four brothers had already left Hawaii and returned to Hiroshima, Japan, in 1932. At the time, Yempuku wanted to finish his education, so he stayed in Hawaii. While on a layover in Hong Kong, he ended up running into his brother, who was serving as a translator in the British Army. He had not heard from or seen his brother since he returned to Japan. He went to Hiroshima to find his family, and fortunately, they were all alive and healthy. He spent a year in Japan with them before returning to Hawaii, where he lived out the rest of his life working as a boxer and event promoter. In 1997, Yempuku received a Legion of Merit citation for his efforts during World War II. Yempuku died in 2002. In his obituary, Ted Tsukiyama, who served with Yempuku, remembered him by saying, “You got to be brave to be willing to operate behind the Japanese lines. If you got caught, you would have been tortured and even executed. That was a high risk. You can’t get any braver than that.”
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Yempuku, Ralph. National Park Service. By Unknown. Accessed July 2, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/perl/learn/historyculture/upload/RalphYampuku.pdf.
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