The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, hiking up a muddy French road in the Chambois Sector, France, in late 1944.
Recently NPR aired a segment regarding the huge influx of Asian Americans joining the ranks of the armed services. However I was very angry at the comment she made that more Asian Americans are joining because of prominent soldiers who “look like them.”
Thus by huge almost cosmic coincidence I was reminded by my late night Wikipedia searches and James G about the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team. This was an entirely Asian American fighting unit that served with distinction throughout World War 2.
21 members of the unit were recipients of the Medal of Honor. With a total of 9,486 purple hearts, one of its components the 100th infantry battalion was aptly dubbed the Purple Heart brigade.
Composed entirely of Nisei Japanese these second generation Japanese American citizens saw their families interned in relocation camps following the xenophobia as Japanese Americans were seen as interlopers.
Even in the face of such discrimination when the army asked for 1500 volunteers from Hawaii and 3000 from the mainland, nearly 10000 from Hawaii alone stepped forward to answer the call to arms.
The 442nd in training, building then attacking across a pontoon bridge at Camp Shelby
The 442nd began life when the two Hawaiian provisional battalions were formed to become the 100th infantry battalion the “one puka puka.” Created in fear that an all Japanese battalion would be untrustworthy if Hawaii were ever invaded the unit was shipped to the mainland for training.
At Camp McCoy the 100th infantry battalion would perform so well in training that the US Army on February 1, 1943 reversed its decision barring Japanese Americans from serving in the armed forces. Nearly 4000 men would be inducted to serve within the ranks of the newly formed 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team.
President Roosevelt when announcing the formation of the “Go for broke regiment” famously said “Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.”
The 442nds 100th Infantry battalion component would see its first taste of combat as it hit the beaches at Salerno in September 22, 1943, and would participate in the assault on Monte Cassino.
The 100th fought valiantly and by February 1944 could only muster 521 men. The decimated battalion would still join the defense of Anzio and participate in the final push for Rome. The road to Rome would be filled with feats of heroism as the men of the Purple Heart battalion proved their mettle at places such as Highway 7.
And by June 5th the Task Force was only 7 miles outside the capitol; with victory in sight the men of the 100th battalion saw their long awaited victory in front of them. In the end their advance was not halted by the German Wermacht but by George Harmon of the First Armored Division. These tired men had to face such an indignity as they watched their fellow soldiers bask in the glory of the liberated citizens of Rome.
A 442nd RCT squad leader checks for German units in France in November 1944.
The 442nd would then participate in the push through Italy and join the invasion of southern France. The 442nd would join the fight to liberate Bruyeres and was attached to the 36th infantry Division. The 1st infantry battalion of the 36th would become known as the lost battalion.
Against the advice of his commanding officers Maj General John E Dahlquist committed the men to the engagement. Lieutenant Blonder of the 1st would only know just how surrounded he and his men were when an advance force of 36 men sent out to scout the line only returned with 5. On the hillside the Germans were reinforcing with tanks and artillery as they cornered their prey. For General Dahlquist and the Germans the unit wasn’t truly lost. However knowing where they were and effecting a rescuing were two entirely different matters.
After two failed attempts to break through the thick German lines General Dahlquist would send in the 442nd whose men were already pushed to the breaking point after days of fighting in the Vosges. However these were the men of the “go for broke regiment” and these men would put everything they had on the line to accomplish their mission.
The fighting was fierce as the crack German troops left no piece of land without making the 442nd pay for it in blood. After 5 days of fighting the 442nd broke through to rescue 230 men of the 1st of the 36th.
The 442nd would suffer nearly 800 casualties when they finally broke enemy lines. I Company went in with 185 men; eight walked out unhurt. K Company began with 186 men; 17 walked out.
Private First Class Matt Sakumoto was the point man, the first friendly face the 230 survivors of the surrounded battalion had seen in a week. He stared out at the Texan who’s eyes were filling up with tears.
It was an emotion charged moment of silence...what can one says at a time like that. Turning to the mud blacked face, tears streaming down the cheeks from sunken eyes, Pfc Sakumoto could only say, "Want a smoke?"
The 442nd would go down in history as the most decorated American fighting unit for its size and time of service. The 442nd is commonly reported to have suffered a casualty rate of 314 percent, informally derived from 9,486 Purple Hearts divided by some 3,000 original in-theater personnel.
Also it was one of the few units that had zero battlefield desertions. The spirit of these men lives on in the modern ethos of today’s fighting men. There fuck it drive on attitude and never leave a man behind showed an America reeling in paranoia against the Japanese that an American is an American no matter what his background.
The 442nd Go For Broke Monument in Los Angeles, California
- 21 Medals of Honor (the first awarded posthumously to Private First Class Sadao Munemori, Company A, 100th Battalion, for action near Seravezza, Italy, on April 5, 1945; the others upgraded from other awards in June 2000).
- 52 Distinguished Service Crosses (including 19 Distinguished Service Crosses which were upgraded to Medals of Honor in June 2000)
- 1 Distinguished Service Medal
- 560 Silver Stars (plus 28 Oak Leaf Clusters for a second award)
- 22 Legion of Merit Medals
- 15 Soldier’s Medals
- 4,000 Bronze Stars (plus 1,200 Oak Leaf Clusters for a second award; one Bronze Star was upgraded to a Medal of Honor in June 2000. One Bronze Star was upgraded to a Silver Star in September 2009.)
- 9,486 Purple Hearts
~Dave W. Associate Editor
Dave W. was a race car driver who decided that he didn't want to waste the college fund on gas and tyres. He can be found listening to Arcade Fire while blasting away at the range. He is DVMs resident Liberal and Grammar Monkey.