BY DUANE ALLEN VACHON, PH.D. The 442nd Regiment received more than 18,000 awards, including 9,500 Purple Hearts, 5,200 Bronze Star Medals, 588 Silver Stars, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 7 Distinguished Unit Citations, and twenty-one Congressional Medal of Honors. The 442nd Regiment was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare. The 4,000 men who initially made up the unit in April 1943 had to be replaced nearly 2.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served. The unit was awarded eight Presidential Unit Citations (5 earned in one month). Twenty-one of its members were awarded Medals of Honor. Its motto was “Go for Broke”.
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, which drove America into World War II, Japanese Americans were classified as “Enemy Aliens” and were not allowed to enlist in the military. In addition, the American government forced Japanese Americans, including many who were American citizens, to relocate to internment camps in the western wasteland areas of the country.
But in 1943, the government, headed by President Roosevelt, decided to allow Japanese Americans to serve in an entirely Japanese-American battalion, the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team. Though they were treated with suspicion by many Americans, several young Japanese American men of the Nisei generation still volunteered to join the group of approximately 4,500 troops. Many of these volunteers chose to fight in the war because they wanted to better the future of the Japanese in America by showing their dedication and loyalty to the country through this endeavor.
No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship, regardless of his ancestry. The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry
President Truman said to the soldiers, in his speech to the 442nd battalion, “You fought not only the enemy, you fought prejudice – and you won.” I agree that like the 54th regiment of the Civil War, in which Black Americans fought for a country that had formerly enslaved them, the men of the 442nd battalion showed so much courage in fighting adversity and decades of discrimination with hope and determination to carry out an important duty for America. These Japanese Americans emerged from the shadows of the internment camps and the sufferings of their parents to uphold the honor of their culture and people. In fighting for a country that had thwarted their efforts to thrive in so many ways, their pride and valor reflected the spirit of their families who immigrated to America and strove to survive despite the hardest conditions. These soldiers paved the way for great change in the perception and status of Japanese Americans, as well as all Asian Americans, in the country that we are now proud to call home.
The troops in the 442nd Regiment trained in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and were then sent overseas to Europe for combat. With their battle cry, “Go for Broke!” they fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France, and Germany, but accomplished their greatest victory in their rescue of the “Lost Battalion” in Southern France. The regiment lost more than 800 troops as they liberated 211 men of the Texan Lost Battalion.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was actually composed of two distinct units: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion. These two units were formed independently at different times and do not share a common lineage. The 100th Battalion would eventually become the 442nd’s 1st battalion in June 1944.
The 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) was the first U.S. Army unit of Japanese Americans activated in World War II. The 100th Battalion began its existence as the Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion that was activated on June 5, 1942 in Hawaii. The soldiers of the Hawaiian Provisional Battalion came from various units of the Hawaiian National Guard. The Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion was transferred to the mainland and arrived in San Francisco on June 12, 1942. The unit was then designated the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate). The 100th Battalion trained at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, and then at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The 100th Battalion left Camp Shelby on August 11, 1943 bound for Oran, North Africa. On September 22, 1943 the 100th Battalion landed at Salerno, Italy while attached to the 133rd Infantry Regiment, 34th Division.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was activated on February 1, 1943 at Camp Shelby Mississippi. The 442nd was comprised of the 442nd Infantry Regiment; the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion; the 232nd Combat Engineer Company. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was composed of Japanese American volunteers from the internment camps, Hawaii, states outside of the west coast exclusion zone, and Japanese American soldiers who were already serving in the U.S. Army when the war broke out. These Japanese American soldiers already in the Army would become the cadre for the new 442nd RCT.
The 442nd RCT trained at Camp Shelby and left on April 22, 1944 bound for Italy. During its training at Camp Shelby the 442nd supplied the 100th Battalion with replacement personnel which depleted the ranks of the regiment. When the 442nd left Camp Shelby for Italy it was comprised of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions as it left the reduced staffed 1st Battalion at Camp Shelby to train replacements for the regiment.
The 442nd also accomplished a feat unique in the annals of the U.S. Army. On March 23, 1945, they captured a German submarine and presented it as a gift to the Navy.
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. The official casualty rate, combining KIA (killed) with MIA (missing) and WIA (wounded and removed from action) totals, as a fraction of all who served, is 93%, still uncommonly high Many Purple Hearts were awarded during the Vosges Mountains campaign and some of the wounded were victims of trench foot. But many trench foot victims were forced—or willingly chose—to return to their unit even while classified as “wounded in action”. Wounded soldiers often escaped from hospitals to return to the fight.
These Japanese Americans emerged from the shadows of the internment camps and the sufferings of their parents to uphold the honor of their culture and people. In fighting for a country that had thwarted their efforts to thrive in so many ways, their pride and valor reflected the spirit of their families who immigrated to America and strove to survive despite the hardest conditions. These soldiers paved the way for great change in the perception and status of Japanese Americans, as well as all Asian Americans, in the country that we are now proud to call home.