You’ve probably heard of the legendary military units comprised entirely of ethnic minorities like the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers.
But did you know that the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in US military history was an all Asian American one?
It was the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry, and their story is truly remarkable.
In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese Imperial forces, the United States was very clear on its stance toward Japanese Americans: treat them as potential enemies, round them up, and lock them behind fences and barbed wire. But the government wasn’t quite sure what to do with the 1000+ Nisei (second generation) Japanese already serving in the US military. In 1941 the government classified all military age Japanese males as 4-C: enemy alien. But separating them from the military would have been a legal and administrative nightmare, and the US was desperate for as much manpower as possible to fill the armed forces after it joined the war. After much deliberation by top generals, in Hawaii, home to the largest population of Japanese Americans, 1,432 Japanese American Soldiers were plucked out of their National Guard units and loaded unto the USS Maui with no clue where they were going, under the dubious title of “Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion.” Many assumed that they were being shipped off to internment camps. Five days later they arrived in Oakland, California, re-designated as the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate), and loaded onto passenger trains and transported to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin to begin training for the war. The entire way there, they were shielded from the public so that nobody knew that Japanese soldiers were being transported across the country.
After more than a year of training, the 100th Battalion was ready to deploy. They had encountered skepticism because of their small stature (average height was 5’4”) and suspicion about their loyalty to the United States because of their ethnic heritage. But every step of the way, they performed superbly, from academic tests to field exercises and even a few off-duty actions like saving a local from drowning in a frozen lake in Wisconsin. Their performance in their final exercise in Louisiana impressed top generals, and officials were keenly interested in how they would serve in combat. Against the recommendation of Army officials, the received the unit motto that they requested: “Remember Pearl Harbor.”
Though many wanted to go to the Pacific theater for revenge on the Japanese for bombing Hawaii, the government was wary of sending them to fight the Japanese, fearing that the Nisei’s alliances would be challenged once they came face to face with an enemy that looked like them. They were shipped off instead to the Mediterranean theater and saw intensely heavy fighting in Italy. In the Battle of Monte Cassino, they earned the nickname of “The Purple Heart Battalion” because of the staggering amount of casualties. They landed in Italy with 1300 men, and five months later were down to 521.
They received three waves of men from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a separate, all-volunteer Nisei force, to replenish the ranks. The 442nd would arrive as a whole unit soon.
The 100th Battalion was next sent to the Anzio beachhead, 35 miles south of Rome. Successfully clearing the beachhead would enable the Allies to assault and capture the Italian capital. However, German positions were dug in firmly, and a long stalemate ensued.
One of the officers of the Battalion, Lieutenant Young Oak Kim, stepped up to help end this stalemate. Kim was a Los Angeles-born Korean American who, after graduating from Officer Candidate School, was assigned to the 100th Battalion. Noting the animosity toward the Japanese from the Korean community due to the Japanese occupation of Korea at the time, the Army offered Kim a reassignment to a different unit. Kim adamantly refused, stating,
“there [are] no Japanese or Koreans here. We’re all Americans and we’re fighting for the same cause.”
First Lieutenant Kim and Private First Class Irving Akahoshi embarked on an extremely dangerous mission and crawled behind enemy lines, snuck up, disarmed and captured two German Soldiers, all while they were within earshot of Nazi Soldiers just yards away who were unaware of what was going on, and gathered key intelligence that ultimately allowed the Allies to break through German defenses and capture the Anzio beachhead. They were personally awarded with a Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military honor, by the Fifth Army Commander General Mark Clark.
The Battalion was then asked to take over hill 435 near Lanuvio, the last of the heavy German defenses before the Allies could take Rome. It was a mission that two other units had failed, but the Purple Heart Battalion completed the task, and all that was left to do was march into the city and claim it. But seven miles away from Rome, the unit was ordered to halt its advance and was forced to stand by the side of the road and watch as trucks of white soldiers went to claim the glory of capturing Rome from the Axis powers. The Nisei were kept on the outskirts, and never saw the city.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team
The outstanding combat record of the 100th Battalion overseas and the advocacy of the Varsity Victory Volunteers—former Nisei Hawaii ROTC cadets who formed their own organization to serve the community after being discharged from the Hawaii Territorial Guard at home, led president FDR to approve the formation of a new, all-volunteer Nisei unit. The War department called for 1500 volunteers from Hawaii and received an overwhelming 10,000. They targeted 3000 from the mainland and only got 1182. The disparity was clearly a result of the fact that Japanese Hawaiians were spared from incarceration due to logistical and financial impracticality while the majority of mainland Japanese were herded into internment camps. The quota was revised and ultimately the original unit consisted of about 3000 Hawaiians and 800 mainlanders. FDR commented, in beguiling hypocrisy, “Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry,” less than one year after he signed legislation forcing 120,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps. As the war went on and casualties dwindled the numbers a draft was instated, forcing more mainland Japanese into the 442nd.
Keep in mind that most of the Nisei that volunteered to join from the mainland were already in one of the internment camps across the country. They literally signed up for the Army from the inside of a concentration camp. Think about that for a second. The government of the country where you were born and raised took you, your parents, and your siblings and put you on a train going far away from your home to the middle of nowhere and put your family behind fences and barbed wire with guards atop towers pointing machine guns at you. Yet you decide to volunteer and risk your life to serve the very government that stripped you of your property, possessions, and dignity, so that you can prove your loyalty to a country that betrayed you and so future generations can have a better life. If that isn’t heroism, I don’t know what is.
From the moment the Hawaiians and mainlanders met, there was trouble. Hawaiians spoke pidgin, and mainlanders spoke proper English. Hawaiians liked to drink, gamble, and have a good time; the mainlanders seemed serious and stiff in comparison. Hawaiians liked to go out on the town and party, and thought the mainlanders were stingy and boring for never wanting to spend money. Fistfights between the groups broke out often, and the Army seriously considered disbanding the unit. Legend has it that the recruits finally came together after officers in charge of training the unit took the Hawaiian Soldiers to witness one of the Japanese internment camps in Arkansas, when they finally understood why the mainlanders were the way they were—bitter and resentful at the government, determined to stay out of trouble, and prone to saving their money to help their families who had lost everything. After that the unit was like a “tightly clenched fist.”
The 442nd left for Italy, where they met the already battle-hardened 100th Battalion. They were formally joined, and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team now consisted of the 100th, 2nd and 3rd Battalions; the original 1st had sent most of its men to replenish the 100th, and instead of reflagging to become the new 1st BN, the 100th was allowed to keep its designation due to its notable combat record.
The new 100th/442nd Infantry helped drive the Germans north out of Italy saw nonstop combat. They were then redirected to Marseille and took part in an assault pushing North from the South of France while Allied troops who landed in Normandy pushed from the West. The 442nd liberated several towns in France, which in their gratitude dedicated monuments and named streets after the men.
Directly following, in perhaps their most famous battle, Major General Dalquist, the Division commander, ordered the 442nd to rescue 200 stranded men of the 1st Battalion, 141st Regiment of the 36th “Texas” Division, who were surrounded by German troops deep in the forest and were running out of food and ammunition. The Texans were put in the situation in the first place by General Dalquist—a man with a reputation for ignoring his advisors, making brash decisions and carelessly putting his men at risk unnecessarily. Just like in Monte Cassino, the Nisei succeeded in a mission that two other Battalions had failed. After five days of perhaps some of the most intense fighting they saw in the war, they rescued 211 Soldiers of the “Lost Battalion,” at a cost of 800 casualties to their own. But instead of being relieved, like the 211 men of the 141st, the Nisei were ordered to continue pushing north for another nine days.
Shortly after the heroic event, General Dalquist ordered the men of the 442nd to stand in a formation so they could be recognized for their efforts.
When only a small number of men showed up, he barked angrily at the commander, saying “You disobeyed my orders. I told you to have the whole regiment.” The colonel looked him in the eye and reportedly said, “General, this is the regiment. The rest are either dead or in the hospital.”
By the end of the war, the original unit had to be replaced 2.5 times. In total, around 14,000 men had served, and 9,486 had received a Purple Heart—almost 70%.
The war was over. The Nisei had defeated the Nazis in Europe, but they would return home to fight the most important battle of their lives: the fight for civil rights and equal treatment. Many of the Soldiers’ families were still in concentration camps when they returned. Signs saying “No Japs allowed” were common, and employers frequently barred Japanese applicants from being hired. Instead of being seen as war heroes, they were still associated with the enemy.
Harry S Truman, president of the United States by the end of the war, was appalled when Eleanor Roosevelt alerted him of the acts of white terrorists and vigilantes who harassed and abused the Japanese returning from the war.
“These disgraceful actions almost make you believe that a lot of our Americans have a streak of Nazi in them…it certainly makes me ashamed,”
he remarked. Truman, a military veteran himself, had immense respect and appreciation for members of the 100th/442nd, and received the unit in a ceremony at the White House. He remarked of them, “Their service is a credit not only to their race and to America, but to the finest qualities in human nature.” In a speech told the veterans, “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice—and you have won.” Moved by their service, Truman personally fought to ensure the Japanese were treated fairly, and did what he could despite a House and Senate that was still heavily anti-Japanese. Among other actions, he pushed for the end of segregated military units and for Hawaii’s petition for statehood.
Many Medal of Honor nominations were submitted for members of the 100th/442nd, but only 1 was awarded by the end of the war. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed an order upgrading 20 Soldiers’ Distinguished Service Crosses to Medals of Honor. During their presentation he said,
“Rarely has a nation been so well served by a people it has so ill-treated. … They risked their lives, above and beyond the call of duty. And in so doing, they did more than defend America; in the face of painful prejudice, they helped to define America at its best.”
During my senior year of college, I had the honor of meeting one of these veterans during an AAPI Heritage Month event. I stood in line to meet him and when I shook his hand, I couldn’t let go, and kept on saying over and over, “thank you, thank you…” Words were not enough to express my gratitude for what this man went through to serve our country and to represent Asian Americans during some of the toughest times in US history.
It’s a story I wish more Americans knew about, and one that at the very least, every Asian American should know. There was a movie in 1951 about the 100th/442nd called Go For Broke! (the 442nd’s motto), and there were talks in recent years of a major motion picture about the story, but it doesn’t seem like any are going to materialize. I don’t know if America is ready yet, but with the presence of Asian actors in Hollywood steadily growing, maybe it could become a reality soon. Perhaps a one series TV show on HBO would be the best fit…imagine an Asian American Band of Brothers. God that would be awesome.
Remember Pearl Harbor! Go For Broke!
Note: There were also an estimated 20,000 Chinese Americans who volunteered to fight during the war, a not insignificant amount. However they were allowed to serve integrated with normal units since China was an ally of the US at the time and Chinese Americans were not seen as a threat.