|WASHINGTON, May 25, 2000 – They were cold, wet, weary and battle-scarred. Yet that didn’t stop the men with names like Hayashi, Inouye, Kobashigawa, Okutsu, Sakato and Kuwayama from answering the call Oct. 27, 1944, to rescue a battalion surrounded by German forces.For the next three days, their unit, the all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, would fight in dense woods, heavy fog and freezing temperatures near Bruyeres, France, and prove their motto “Go for Broke!” wasn’t mere words. “Go for Broke” is Hawaiian slang for “shoot the works.”
The Germans cut off the Texas National Guard 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment in the Vosges Mountains on Oct. 24. The 442nd was ordered in after the enemy had repelled repeated rescue tries by the 141st’s other two battalions.
Nearly half the men in the Japanese American unit would be dead or wounded three days later with the “Lost Battalion” still isolated.
“Then, something happened in the 442nd,” according to historians at the Army Center for Military History in Washington. “By ones and twos, almost spontaneously and without orders, the men got to their feet and, with a kind of universal anger, moved toward the enemy position. Bitter hand-to-hand combat ensued as the Americans fought from one fortified position to the next. Finally, the enemy broke in disorder.”
“The Lost Battalion” rescue is recorded in U.S. military annals as one of the great ground battles of World War II. The regiment relieved the 211 besieged Texans on Oct. 30, and had gone for broke to do it: It suffered more than 800 combat casualties.
Thankful members of the 141st gave their rescuers a plaque that read, “With deep sincerity and utmost appreciation for the gallant fight to effect our rescue after we’d been isolated for seven days.”
The “Lost Battalion” is just one entry — a defining one, to be sure, but only one — in the regiment’s catalog of valor during World War II. For its size and time in combat, less than two years, the 442nd is the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.
Soldiers of the 442nd fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany, including the battles at Monte Cassino, Anzio and Biffontaine. They earned more than 18,000 individual decorations, including one Medal of Honor, 53 Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 awards of the Silver Star, 5,200 awards of the Bronze Star Medal and 9,486 Purple Hearts, and seven Presidential Unit Citations, the nation’s top award for combat units. President Clinton approved the upgrade of 19 DSCs to the Medal of Honor on May 12.
All the while the men fought, many of their parents and relatives were being held behind barbed wire in isolated detention camps in the United States.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were uprooted from their homes on the West Coast and incarcerated in “relocation centers.” Accounts of the rampant racism that fueled the “evacuation” have come to light since the war; “wartime emergency” was the official justification at the time. Ironically, nothing that Draconian occurred in Hawaii, where the Japanese American community was among the largest segments of the population and the Pacific War was thousands of miles closer.
In response to the Pearl Harbor bombing, Japanese Americans in the University of Hawaii ROTC detachment and Hawaii National Guard reported for duty to guard strategic sites around the islands and to prepare for another attack. When high-ranking mainland officials discovered this, the Japanese Americans were immediately sent home.
On Feb. 25, 1942, about the same time the roundup of mainland Japanese began, the military governor of Hawaii authorized the formation of the Varsity Victory Volunteers, a group of 169 former University of Hawaii ROTC students who wanted to show their loyalty and patriotism to America. The men dug ditches, built roads and fences, strung barbed wire and maintained military buildings.
Their efforts paid off. The students and the National Guardsmen were reinstated and hundreds of others enthusiastically volunteered to form the 100th Infantry Battalion, the first all- Japanese American combat unit in U.S. history.
West Coast Japanese Americans didn’t fare as well. They weren’t allowed to serve in the armed forces even if they had been serving when the war started or they were honorably discharged veterans. A manpower shortage in 1943 changed that. The War Department reversed itself and sent recruiters to internment camps seeking volunteers for a new unit — the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Even if understandably less enthusiastic than their Hawaiian brethren, thousands of young incarcerated Japanese American men stepped forward dutifully. Japanese Americans in Hawaii again volunteered in droves. Shortly, the Army would start drafting internees as well.
While the 442nd Regimental Combat Team trained at Camp Shelby, Miss., the 100th Infantry Battalion was establishing a reputation as a tough combat outfit in Italy. It entered combat in September 1943 and, by the time the 442nd landed at Naples in May 1944, the 100th had earned the nickname “Purple Heart Battalion” because of the heavy number of casualties it had suffered at Monte Cassino and Anzio.
The Army merged the 100th Battalion with the 442nd in June 1944 and allowed it to keep its unit designation because of its outstanding combat record. Other 442nd components included two infantry battalions, the 552nd Field Artillery Battalion and the 232nd Combat Engineer Company.
The unit’s only wartime Medal of Honor recipient was Pfc. Sadao S. Munemori of the 100th Battalion’s Company A. He received the decoration posthumously for valor near Seravezza, Italy, on April 5, 1945.
Munemori, a Los Angeles native, “fought with gallantry and intrepidity when his unit was pinned down by grazing fire from the enemy’s strong mountain defense and command of the squad devolved on him with the wounding of its regular leader,” his citation states.
He knocked out two machine guns by dodging direct fire in a one- man frontal grenade attack. Then, “withdrawing under murderous fire and showers of grenades from other enemy emplacements, he had nearly reached a shell crater occupied by two of his men when an unexploded grenade bounced on his helmet and rolled toward his helpless comrades. He arose into the withering fire, dived for the missile and smothered its blast with his body,” the citation said.
The 442nd and 100th were inactivated in Honolulu in 1946 and reactivated in 1947 in the Army Reserve. In 1968, the 442nd was one of the Army Reserve units mobilized to refill the Strategic Reserve during the Vietnam War.
With headquarters at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, the 442nd and 100th are the only remaining infantry units in the Army Reserve force structure. Elements of the outfit are also stationed in American Samoa, Guam and Saipan. Under the command of the 9th Regional Support Command, the unit’s wartime mission is to be one of the maneuver battalions of the 29th Separate Infantry Brigade, Hawaii Army National Guard.
The 442nd and the 100th integrated long ago. Today, their racial and ethnic make-up reflects the many cultures of Hawaii and Asia Pacific region.