442nd Regimental Combat Team
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) was organized on March 23, 1943, after more than a year during which Americans of Japanese descent were declared enemy aliens, 4-C, by the U.S. War Department. It had taken all that time plus several key events to convince the Roosevelt Administration that these men should be allowed to enter combat for their country. Eventually, the 442nd, bolstered by the combat-hardened 100th Infantry Battalion , comprised of Japanese American draftees from Hawai'i, became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service.
Immediately after Japan's attacks on Pearl Harbor and other American bases, the United States entered the war against Japan, Germany, and Italy. The war heightened American prejudice against German Americans and Italian Americans but the racism directed against Japanese Americans was particularly vicious. The calculated response culminated in the forced removal and unconstitutional incarceration of 120,000 residents of Japanese ancestry, including the complete elimination of communities and individuals from the entire West Coast of the United States. This racism was precipitated by the attack on Pearl Harbor but it had deep antecedents in the nearly half-century of legal, social, and economic policies directed against Asians in general within the United States. Indeed, by the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–05, won by Japan, the U.S. had designated the latter "Orange" for war games in the Pacific, anticipating actual confrontation in 1941 by over three decades.
The events which eventually convinced the War Department and President Franklin Roosevelt to create the segregated 442nd RCT included lobbying from significant supporters of the Japanese American community, the sterling training record of the 100th as well as the well-publicized efforts of the Varsity Victory Volunteers in Hawai'i for their year of service as volunteer labor for the U.S. Army. The need for more troops as the wars across the Atlantic and the Pacific ground on became another factor. The 100th had included about 1,400 Japanese American draftees, all from Hawai'i, as well as haole (white) officers. In early 1943, the War Department issued a call for volunteers for a segregated unit, anticipating approximately equal numbers from Hawai'i and the mainland. In fact, the there were about 1,500 from the mainland—most from behind barbed wire in American concentration camps—while an equal number of eligible young men of draft age yielded nearly 10,000 volunteers in Hawai'i, where most of the Japanese American population remained subject to prejudice and discrimination but free from mass incarceration.
Organization and Basic Training
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was organized on March 23, 1943. Within a month, 2,686 volunteers from Hawai'i and 1,500 from the U.S. mainland were in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, for basic training. The 442nd included three infantry battalions, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion , the 232nd Combat Engineers Company, an Anti Tank Company, a Cannon Company, Medical Detachment, and the 206th Army Ground Forces Band.
Conditions for morale-building in the new regiment were difficult from the beginning. All the commissioned officers were white and all non-commissioned officers had already been selected from the ranks of mainland troops. The Nisei from Hawai'i felt disrespected and were resentful. This potential conflict resulted in physical confrontations between " Buddhaheads " from Hawai'i and the " kotonks " from the mainland. The Hawai'i boys invented the terms, reflecting their own major religious affiliation and their claim that "kotonk" was the sound of the mainland boys' hollow heads hitting the ground after their many fights. It mattered that Buddhaheads outnumbered kotonks two-to-one and sometimes fought in gangs. Indeed, morale was enough of an issue that high level consideration was even given to dismantling the group. It is now received gospel that visits to the incarcerated Japanese Americans in camps like Rohwer in Arkansas from the Buddhahead troops convinced them that these were men to be respected for their willingness to fight in spite of the trampling of their rights and the unconstitutional incarceration of their families. But it may also be possible that some of the fights were not so one-sided and that kotonks earned some grudging respect as a result.
One of their common struggles was confrontation with segregation and anti-black racism in the Deep South. Themselves victims of prejudice and discrimination at home, the Japanese Americans nonetheless were horrified by the deep patterns of racism evident in public accommodations such as buses and movie theaters. Their outbursts and occasional interventions on behalf of African Americans soon forced 442nd officers to reprimand the troops and remind them that they could not end Jim Crow on their own.
On May 1, 1944, the RCT, minus the 1st Battalion, left for Italy where it joined the 100th Infantry Battalion just north of Rome. The 1st Battalion had been sending troops to replace the killed and wounded in the 100th and its ranks were substantially depleted; the men still in the battalion were reserved in place as training officers for the next group of volunteers at Shelby. The 442nd entered combat north of Rome in June 1944 when it incorporated the 100th Battalion which, because of its outstanding combat record, was allowed to keep its designation. Thus, the infantry units in the RCT were the 100th, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions.
The 442nd was attached to the 5th Army under the command of General Mark Clark . The RCT drove German forces north in the heavily defended mountainous terrain of northern Italy. The younger, untested troops of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were occasionally bailed out of dicey situations by the more combat-hardened veterans of the 100th but soon enough more than earned their stripes. In August 1944 the Anti-Tank Company was separated and sent to France in a glider landing to support the Allied invasion of the Continent. In winter 1944, the 442nd fought German troops in France adjacent to the border with Germany; Hitler had ordered his troops to defend the area at all cost. The Vosges Mountains were thickly forested and bitter cold, with freezing rain and snow showers.
Deep in the forest, the 1st Battalion, 141st Regiment of the 36th "Texas" Division was surrounded by German troops and running out of food and ammunition. Major General John Dahlquist was the much reviled commander of the Division. Over 200 men of this " Lost Battalion " had been sent ahead of logistical support and were surrounded by German troops dug in and fortified. Dahlquist ordered the 442nd to enter the Vosges Mountains to attempt a rescue, after two attempts by other units had failed. After five days of horrific combat, the Texans were rescued by the Japanese Americans. The 442nd suffered casualties several times the number of men they had rescued. In the process, the men liberated the towns of Bruyeres, Belmont, and Biffontaine, whose inhabitants continue to honor the 442nd with monuments , museums, and streets named in their honor.
In April 1945, General Mark Clark of the 5th Army specifically asked for the 442nd to lead the way to break the Gothic Line, the last hardened obstacle which had turned back Allied efforts for nearly one-half year of combat in northern Italy. In a dramatic nighttime march up the steep slopes of Mt. Folgorito, the 442nd broke through the German defenses allowing the Allies to chase the German army for another several weeks when it finally surrendered on May 2, 1945. In the meantime, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion was detached and sent to support the invasion of Germany by the 7th Army. In the process, the men discovered and liberated Jews from various sub-units of the notorious Dachau extermination camp.
Aftermath and Legacy
In just nineteen months of combat, the 100th Battalion and 442nd RCT, compiled an astonishing combat record. But this segregated unit, almost entirely comprised of Japanese Americans, suffered an equally remarkable number, about 800, killed or missing in action. They won seven Distinguished Unit Citations, including one awarded personally by President Harry Truman who said, on July 15, 1946, "You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home and you won." In addition, after an exhaustive survey of individual awards from WWII, twenty more Medals of Honor were awarded, bringing the total to twenty one. Over 4,000 Purple Hearts, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 Silver Stars, and more than 4,000 Bronze Stars were awarded to the men of the 100th Battalion/442nd RCT for action during WWII.
The heroism and combat record of the 100th/442nd were quickly acknowledged by the general population of the Territory of Hawaii. On the mainland, however, the veterans found an uneven reception—perhaps because they returned in relatively small numbers to widely separated locations, notably on the West Coast but also to campuses and cities spread across the nation. In Hawai'i, the veterans, older, tougher, and more worldly-wise, took full advantage of the GI Bill , graduating from the University of Hawaii as well as some of the most prestigious colleges and professional schools in the nation, earning degrees in law, medicine, business, engineering, humanities and natural sciences. This was truly an explosive confluence of talent, determination, and opportunity. For Hawai'i, at least, the larger political, economic, and social impact was transformative; by 1954, the Democratic Party, led by the former GIs, was assuming control of Territorial politics. When Statehood was finally achieved in 1959, in spite of considerable opposition in Congress, some of the credit went to the Texas Congressional Delegation including Jim Wright and Sam Rayburn in the House and Lyndon Johnson in the Senate; all acknowledged the 442nd rescue of the Texas "Lost Battalion" in France during WWII as having influenced their decision.
For More Information
Asahina, Robert. Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad . New York: Gotham, 2006.
Chang, Thelma. I Can Never Forget: Men of the 100th /442nd . Honolulu: Sigi Productions, Inc., 1992.
Duus, Masayo. Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and the 442nd . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.
Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board. Japanese Eyes . . . American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii's World War II Nisei Soldiers . Honolulu: Tendai Educational Foundation, 1998.
Masuda, Minoru. Letters from the 442nd: The World War II Correspondence of a Japanese American Medic . Edited by Hana Masuda and Dianne Bridgman. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008.
Matsuo, Dorothy. Boyhood to War: History and Anecdotes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team . Honolulu: Mutual Pub., 1992.
McCaffrey, James M. Going for Broke: Japanese American Soldiers in the War against Nazi Germany . Volume 36 in the Campaigns and Commanders Series. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.
Shirey, Orville C. Americans: The Story of the 442nd Combat Team . Washington, DC: Infantry Journal Press, 1946.
Tamura, Linda. Nisei Soldiers Break Their Silence: Coming Home to Hood River . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.
Tanaka, Chester. Go for Broke: A Pictorial History of the Japanese American 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team . Richmond, CA: Go for Broke, Inc., 1981. Novato, CA : Presidio Press, 1997.
Tsukano, John. Bridge of Love . Honolulu: Hawaii Hosts, Inc., 1985.
Yenne, Bill. Rising Sons: The Japanese American GIs Who Fought for the United States in World War II . New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007.
442: Live With Honor, Die With Dignity . UTB Pictures and Film Voice Production. Produced by Shigeto Tarasaka. Written and directed by Junichi Suzuki. 2010. 97 minutes.
Go for Broke! Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Produced by Dore Schary. Written and directed by Robert Pirosh. 1951. 92 minutes.
Last updated Nov. 29, 2023, 8:09 p.m..