In 1944, the most decorated unit in US military history was fighting fiercely on the European front in WW2. You’d be surprised to find out that their families back in the states were in an internment camp of all places. This is because the US’s most decorated military unit was .. Japanese.
100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry
The 442nd Regiment was composed of Japanese-American enlisted men with mostly Caucasian officers. They were a self-sufficient force, and fought in Italy, southern France, and Germany.
The Japanese–Americans who fought in the 442nd were ‘Nisei‘, or second generation citizens, born in the U.S. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, they were initially categorized as enemy aliens. This meant they were not subject to the draft. This also lead to the internment of Japanese citizens while the war raged on. But what to do about the Japanese-American citizens who were already enlisted?
The young “Nisei” Japanese men were eager to fight against the Axis Powers. Eventually, units consisting of only Japanese-Americans were created in the Army. Because of the confusion that would likely arise in the Pacific theater, the Nisei units were to be employed only in the Mediterranean and Europe.
The 442nd Infantry Regiment was the largest Nisei unit. Fighting in Italy and southern France, the unit was known for its bravery and determination, as reflected by the unit motto, “Go for broke!”
The first all Japanese-American military unit was the 100th Battalion, and it was formed from the Japanese-Americans which were part of the Hawaiian National Guard. These Nisei were sent to Camp McCoy for combat training and later were moved to Camp Shelby for additional training. Eventually adopting the phrase “Remember Pearl Harbor” as their motto.
The War Department, in need of manpower, changed its mind about keeping them out of combat and sent recruiters to the internment camps, seeking volunteers to form a new Japanese-American combat unit, the 442nd Regiment, in 1943. Volunteers were also accepted from Hawaii where 12,500 men had signed up. The Nisei volunteers were added to the Japanese-Americans still in the military and were also sent to Camp Shelby for combat training.
These Japanese-Americans formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment. The regiment consisted of three battalions, support companies, the 232nd Combat Engineers, the 522nd Artillery Battalion, and Caucasian officers. The 442nd chose “Go For Broke” as it was a Hawaiian slang term from the gambling game ‘craps’. “Go For Broke” means to risk everything, give everything you have, or “all or nothing”.
The 442nd landed at Naples on June 2, 1944, and pushed to the Anzio beaches. 2 weeks later, the 100th Battalion and the 442nd were merged into a single unit. The 100th battalion became the first battalion of the 442nd because the original battalion of the 442nd had been used for replacements for the 100th. They were attached to the 133rd Regiment in the 34th Division.
Decorations – The “Purple Heart Battalion
The 442nd became known as “the Purple Heart battalion” because of the casualties it suffered. The original 4,000 Nisei who initially came in April 1943 had to be replaced nearly 3.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served, ultimately earning 9,486 Purple Hearts (many earning double and triples), 4,000 Bronze Stars. 1,200 Oak Leaf Clusters added to the Bronze Star, 560 Silver Stars, 28 Oak Leaf Clusters to the Silver Star, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 15 battlefield commissions and 23 of America’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor.
After the post-war occupation duty in Italy, the soldiers of the 442nd – who had once been suspected of disloyalty because of their ancestry – came home as heroes in July of 1946. President Truman, in a ceremony on the Ellipse, personally pinned the 442nd’s seventh Presidential Unit Citation on the unit’s colors.
The 442nd Regiment was deactivated in Honolulu in 1946, but reactivated in 1947 in the U.S. Army Reserve. In 1968, they were sent to refill the Strategic Reserve during the Vietnam War, which carried on the honors and traditions of the unit.
Today, the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry, is the only infantry unit of the Army Reserve. The battalion headquarters is at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, with sub-units based in American Samoa, Hilo, Saipan, and Guam.
Steffen, Jordan (October 6, 2010), “White House honors Japanese American WWII veterans“, The Los Angeles Times
Williams, Rudi (19 May 2000). “Asian American World War II Vets to Get Medal of Honor“. United States Department of Defense.
Asahina, Robert. (2007). Just Americans: The Story of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II. ISBN 978-1-59240-300-4