Go For Broke! In Honor of Memorial Day and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

Some words about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team:

I have never been comfortable with the notion of a “good” war. I think perhaps the lone exception is World War II. A confrontation in the starkest terms between good and evil.

The 442nd was a WWII infantry unit composed of Japanese-Americans, the most highly decorated unit in American military history:  9,846 Purple Hearts, 4000 Bronze Stars, 15 Soldier’s Medals, 22 Legion of Merit medals, 560 Silver Stars, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 21 Medals of Honor.

The 442nd hike up a muddy French road in France, in late 1944.

These men were Nisei, Japanese Americans born on U.S. soil. Many of them volunteered for service out of the camps where their country had interred them. Interred is a polite word for imprisoned.

Soldiers from Hawaii called themselves Buta-heads (Buddha-heads).

In 1951, MGM filmed the story of the 442nd in Go for Broke starring Van Johnson. There’s a scene where a Catholic chaplain is speaking to a wounded Nisei soldier lying on a stretcher. Noticing the beads in the soldier’s hand, the chaplain asks why he hasn’t seen him at any of the services.  The soldier says, “Different type of rosary.  I’m Buddhist, Father.” The priest pats him on the shoulder and reassures him that he is there if the soldier needs him.

A Nisei soldier looks for German movements in a French valley 200 yards away.

During WW ll, military Chaplains were either Christian or Jewish. When Eleanor Roosevelt asked if any of the Japanese American soldiers were Buddhist, she was told no. In the absence of Buddhist chaplains, many Buddhist soldiers seeking spiritual guidance converted to Christianity. The U.S. Military would not allow a “B”, signifying Buddhist, on dog tags claiming it would confuse medics looking for a soldier’s blood type and the space was left blank.

The 442nd fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany, including the battles at Belmont, Bruyeres and Biffontaine. It was at Biffontaine where the unit fought the legendary battle to rescue the Lost Battalion. 800 Nisei soldiers died rescuing 211 members of the Texan 1st Battalion.

This is the event that stands out in my mind: when members of the 442nd were attached to the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and they participated in the liberation of a Dachau concentration camp. I wonder what it must have been like for a young Japanese-American, having left an internment camp to go fight for the country that put him there, to be witness to the horror of a Nazi death camp, sharing food with Jewish inmates who were nothing but skin and bones  . . .

When the Nisei soldiers were sent ahead, they followed the same path that the Nazi’s used to march Jewish inmates to the camp. They noticed lumps in the snow and went to investigate. One of them later said, “Most of them were skeletons or people who had been beaten to death or just died of starvation or overworked or whatever. Most of them I think died from exposure because it was cold.”*

When you meet members of the 442nd, they’re just like the other American soldiers of that generation. They don’t much care to talk about the war.

You can learn more about the 442nd by visiting the Go For Broke National Education Center and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Historical Society. In reading the history of the unit and the individual stories, one might be tempted to think some screenwriter thought it all up. Countless acts of bravery, heroism, selflessness. Living in the misery of rain, mud and snow. Death, a constant companion . . . It was real, their war was hard, and these Asian-Americans, like all the other WWII soldiers deserve our appreciation.

“All of us can’t stay in the [internment] camps until the end of the war.  Some of us have to go to the front.  Our record on the battlefield will determine when you will return and how you will be treated.  I don’t know if I’ll make it back.”
– Technical Sergeant Abraham Ohama, Company “F”, 442nd RCT, Killed in Action 10/20/1944

President Barack Obama talks with his guests before signing S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II, in the Oval Office.

*George Oiye testimonial.

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