In Honor of Dr. Norman Ikari, Warrior and Scientist

The Unit Insignia of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, in which Dr. Ikari served during WWII. The 442nd is the most decorated Military Unit in all of US Military history.

Since the advent of modern science, the link between science and the military has been very strong.  Not only in terms of the technology produced, but in the number of veterans who went on to advance many different fields of science during and after their time in the military.  American Veterans have used the military training to launch careers in fields such as aeronautics, computing, chemistry, and physics.  A large number of veterans also went on to further the field of medicine.   Today we profile Dr. Norman Ikari, one of these incredible Warrior Scientists, and we thank all Veterans, whether scientist or not, for their service to our nation.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Alicia Gilbert, a member of the Airlift Control Flight coordinates and schedules military airlift operations at Bush Field, Augusta, Ga., July 19, in support of Global Medic 2010. Global Medic is a joint field training exercise for theater aeromedical evacuation system and ground medical components designed to replicate all aspects of combat medical service support.

Dr. Norman Ikari was born in Seattle to Japanese immigrant parents who came to America during the era of World War I.  Dr. Ikari assisted in the family business and enjoyed a happy American childhood. He recalled that his first brush with racial prejudice darkened his outlook; when his family moved to California, they were not allowed to move in to a house they were renting because none of the neighbors wanted Japanese people in the neighborhood.  He recalled it was the only time he ever saw his mother cry.  The Ikari family went on to be successful in their dry cleaning business, and young Norman enrolled pre-med at City College in Los Angeles.  Then came Pearl Harbor, and with it, came great fear and suspicion of Japanese people, even if they were American citizens like the Ikaris. 

Anti-Japanese sentiment, as seen in this propaganda poster, ran very high in the US at the time of WWII.

Dr. Ikari was drafted into the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor.  Because of his pre-med studies he was sent to Camp Grant, a Medical Replacement Training Center in Illinois. He had only been in training for a month when he learned that his family had been removed to a Japanese Internment Camp. He recalled a difficult trip to visit them when, even in the uniform of the US Army, he was constantly challenged and questioned on the way, and almost not allowed to enter the camp.  Nonetheless Dr. Ikari loved the USA and was proud to serve in the military.  In fact, after time spent at the Camp Grant Laboratory he decided he wanted to do something more than just “rattling test tubes.”

A rough barrack at Manzanar camp, where thousands of innocent Japanese Americans, thought to be a threat to the US, were forced to live during WWII.

When he heard the news that the Army had created the 442nd Regiment, a regiment composed entirely of Japanese American volunteers, he requested to join them immediately.  Of his decision, he said modestly: “Not that I was adventurous, but I would like to have something more going in my army life.”  He joined the regiment and was immersed in combat training, then sent to Italy in 1944.  He experienced combat in Italy until June of 1944, when a German machine gun ripped into his legs and shot straight through one of his femurs.  He was retrieved from an Italian hillside by a brave team of soldiers and subsequently spent a long period hospitalized with his wounds. 

Members of the 442nd taking cover from German Artillery during combat in Italy.

The 442nd Regiment, otherwise known as the “Go For Broke Regiment” were some of the fiercest fighters in the entire war, and became the most decorated regiment in all of US military history. Dr. Ikari received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service.  His long period of recovery marked a turning point in his life: the beginning of his path towards becoming a research Microbiologist/Immunologist.  He first studied for a degree in Bacteriology at UCLA, but upheavals in his life lead him to move to Washington, D.C. He began working at the National Institutes of Health as an infectious disease researcher.  He received his PhD in1965 from Georgetown and went on to have a long career as a researcher and administrator at the NIH.  One of his published studies, “Bactericidal Antibody to Escherichia Coli in Germ-Free Mice” (1964),  is still a benchmark in the field.  He passed away at the age of 99 in 2018, after a long, courageous, and impactful life. Thank you, Dr. Ikari!

President Barack Obama and his guests applaud after signing S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II, in the Oval Office, Oct. 5, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Sources and Further Reading:

American Veterans’ Center Tribute Video to the 442nd: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8buFZR52wY

Dr. Norman Ikari Interview:  https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.10680/

Dr. Norman Ikari Interview: https://ndajams.omeka.net/items/show/1053100

Asian American Heroism in WWII: https://www.loc.gov/item/webcast-4807

The Story of Two Japanese Americans who served in WWII, featuring Dr. Norman Ikari: https://www.historynet.com/the-story-of-two-japanese-americans-who-fought-in-world-war-ii.htm

Dr. Ikari’s Article: https://www.nature.com/articles/202879a0

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