The indignation of those 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent who found themselves imprisoned behind barbed wire in 1942 was only heightened by the knowledge that their patriotism was so arbitrarily dismissed simply because of their ancestry; especially when a much larger group of people who were of German and Italian ancestry were treated differently. This frustration is captured by a verse written by an anonymous internee at the Poston camp near Yuma City, Arizona:
We all love life/and our country best/Our misfortune to be here in the West/To keep us penned behind that damned fence/Is someone’s notion of National defense!
Well, National defense did come into play when Congressional leaders began to wonder if young Nisei shouldn’t be allowed to serve in the military. It began with 1,000 volunteers from Hawaii and grew quickly with volunteers from the Mainland camps, most of whom would eventually be organized into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army Reserve. Although a few would serve in the Pacific as language and intelligence people, the bulk of the 442nd and 100th, along with several associated artillery and support units would end up in Europe fighting Germans and Italians for obvious reasons.
They would distinguish themselves in every campaign in which they took part receiving eight Presidential Unit Citations and sustaining some of the highest casualty rates of any infantry unit in WWII. In fact the original compliment of 4000 would have to be augmented two-and-one-half times in replacements, with a total of 14,000 men serving before it was all over. Commanded by white officers for the most part, those who led them would soon learn that the fighting Nisei – with their war cry GO FOR BROKE - possessed an unusual unit cohesiveness and absolutely refused to leave any individual behind, no matter the cost, and that the best way to handle them was to explain the mission but then stand back and allow the NCOs and their troops to work out their own tactical details.
In late October, 1944, the 141st Infantry Regiment of the 36th Texas Division became encircled and trapped by German troops in the densely wooded Vosges mountains near the German border in Northern France. General John Dahlquist commanding the 36th Division, selected the 442nd RCT to go to the rescue of what came to be known as The Lost Battalion in what everyone realized was a “suicide mission” behind enemy lines; an operation which came to be one of the most costly but celebrated of WWII. On October 29th and 30th fighting became virtually hand-to-hand, or as one survivor wrote afterward, “tree-to-tree and yard-by-yard”. Incredibly, they finally broke through to the dwindling survivors of the Lost Battalion and led them back through German lines and “home” again.
In that one contest, the 442nd suffered more than 1,000 casualties including three companies which started out with a total of 200 and came back with only 20 still standing.
By wars’ end, these American warriors of Japanese descent became the most decorated infantry unit in U.S. Army history for their size and length of service with 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 560 Silver Stars (with 28 Oak Leaves), 22Legion of Merit Medals, 15 Soldier’s Medals, and 4,000 Bronze Stars (with 1200 Oak Leaves); and as a testament to the cost involved, 9,486 Purple Hearts; in all, 18,143 decorations including in 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal.
I wish I could say that these brave and courageous soldiers came home to a grateful and welcoming nation, but that wouldn’t be true. It would be years before the old prejudices would mellow enough to blur the color line with those who had suffered the ignominy of imprisonment and separation. Despite all that had been taken from them, the alumni of those internment camps produced more U.S. Congress members, mayors, poets, composers, playwrights, talented actors and actresses, college presidents and leaders of industry than perhaps any so-called “minority group” in American history. And high on that list of honored citizens-in-uniform who have marched off to all our wars, I hold my hand in proud salute to those whose story I can only briefly acknowledge in these two columns.
Soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team receive citations from a U.S. Lieutenant General in Europe.
U.S. Army Photo