In 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain Steve Rogers single-handedly frees captured Allied soldiers from a Nazi base. "What, are we taking everybody?" one soldier asks, referring to another soldier who appears to be Japanese. "I’m from Fresno," the soldier retorts.
The scene was a hat tip to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese-American regiment that, during World War II, became the most decorated unit in U.S. history—a distinction it still holds. Members of the 442nd earned 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, five Presidential Unit Citations in just one month, and 9486 Purple Hearts, along with thousands of other honors, during the regiment’s two active years in World War II. Yet when asked about their distinguished service, most of them said they were simply doing their duty.
ONE PUKA PUKA AND THE 442ND
In the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and Arizona were interned under Executive Order 9066; about two-thirds were U.S. citizens. Americans of Japanese ancestry were also reclassified as “enemy aliens” and were no longer allowed to join the military. Despite the fact that Japanese-Americans had served in the military for decades, many already-enlisted troops were discharged from service. The government even seized items like cameras or radios from Japanese-Americans, in case they might use them to spy.
Although some protested these measures, others sent letters and telegrams to President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry Stimson arguing that Japanese-Americans, even the second generation known as the Nisei, were not to be trusted because they were "fanatically devoted to [their] country of origin and emperor," as one California woman wrote. Several cities, 16 California counties, a variety of social clubs, and even some members of Congress registered similar concerns. Some congressmen even called to exchange Japanese-American citizens for Americans held prisoner by Japan.
The Nisei troops, as they were often known, wanted the opportunity to prove that their loyalty was to the United States—not Japan. Many of these soldiers had witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and the aftermath, and they wanted to support their country in any way they could.
Just weeks after Washington gave the military ban order, a group of ROTC students released from the Hawaiian Territorial Guard decided that even if they couldn’t serve as soldiers, they still wanted to help. They gained the approval of regional commander General Delos Emmons to form the Varsity Victory Volunteers, a labor support battalion that included more than 160 students and other individuals of Japanese descent. In early 1942, the group began building roads, fences, and military bases under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers.
“Hawaii is our home; the United States is our country,” the youths wrote in a letter to Emmons volunteering their services. “We know but one loyalty and that is to the Stars and Stripes.”
But the Varsity Victory Volunteers were just the beginning. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Hawaii National Guard also included more than 1400 Nisei members—about half its total. The Nisei troops were ordered to turn in their weapons and ammunition and segregated from their fellow soldiers. Concerned about the Nisei's potential response if Hawaii was again attacked by Japan, military leaders sent them to the mainland, and eventually to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. There they formed the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate), with the separate referring to the fact that they were initially an orphan unit without a larger regiment. They were also known as the One Puka Puka (Puka is Hawaiian for "hole," as in zero).
One Puka Puka quickly distinguished themselves during their training, and after watching the “triple-Vs” and the 100th in action, the War Department pushed President Roosevelt to change his stance on Japanese-American military service. He did so in early 1943, and the Army soon asked for 4500 Japanese-American volunteers. They got an overwhelming 10,000, mostly from Hawaii. Nearly 1200 volunteered from internment camps.
“I talked to my father, and he said, ‘Well, you’re an American citizen, so if they want you to join the Army, it’s your duty,’” veteran Stanley Matsumura said in Peter Wakamatsu’s documentary Four-Four-Two: F Company at War. He and his friends did just that.
“I was 19 and living in Yoder, Wyoming when I first heard the news of Pearl Harbor,” Hashime Saito wrote to Dear Abby in December 1980. “I canceled my plans to enter the university and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army.”
At his brother’s wedding at Poston Relocation Center, Technical Sergeant Abe Ohama told friends and family, “All of us can't stay in the camps until the end of the war. Some of us have to go to the front.”
The volunteers became the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
At first, the 442nd wasn’t particularly welcome in Europe. When Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall offered the regiment to General Dwight Eisenhower to fight in France, the latter turned him down with a polite, “No, thank you.” Instead, they found a home with General Mark Clark in the Fifth Army, fighting in Italy.
The 100th finished training and went first, initially joining the 34th Infantry Division, one of the divisions that made up the Fifth Army. They soon earned their reputation in blood. Whether out of a desire to prove their loyalty or just a gung-ho spirit, the Nisei soldiers went after military objectives with a single-minded ferocity.
They entered combat in Italy on September 29, 1943, and soon saw fighting in the southern part of the country. The battalion fought in Salerno and the Volturno river, where the soldiers surprised their fellow American troops with their first banzai charge. (In Japanese tradition, a banzai charge is a last-ditch, often suicidal attack, and the exclamation is a traditional battle cry.) According to the Go For Broke National Education Center, named for the regiment's motto, the banzai charge occurred after a sergeant heard that one of the most respected officers in the battalion had been either wounded or captured: "Many of the soldiers of the 100th had known each other since they were children. Their dedication to one another was such that they never left a man behind, even in death." The sergeant turned out to have heard mistakenly, but the impression of dedication on their fellow soldiers remained.
Yet the 100th truly earned their reputations at the Battle of Monte Cassino. General Clark called the battle “the most grueling, the most harrowing, and in one aspect perhaps the most tragic, of any phase of the war in Italy.” Fighting began in blizzard conditions in the middle of January 1944, and the goal was to take the Gustav Line, a defensive line the Axis forces had created along the natural mountainous landscape of the area that blocked the Allies from Rome.
The battle to take the high ground was long and bloody for everyone involved, and the 100th was no exception. In fact, it was at Monte Cassino that they gained the nickname “The Purple Heart Battalion.” The Monte Cassino Abbey, atop one of the mountains, overlooked an open field with little cover for troops and provided Nazi soldiers and artillery a place to entrench themselves. From behind walls, they fired at any Allied troops who dared to rush the mountain.
On the night of January 24, the 100th’s A and C Companies crossed the dangerous field, checking for tripwires and maneuvering over freezing, flooded irrigation ditches before finding cover behind a wall. When B Company moved to join them after sunrise, only 14 of the 187 men made it to the wall, according to the Go For Broke center.
The company was ordered into reserve—kept away from the action and allowed to rest—but joined the fighting again on February 8. They made good progress and held a key hill for four days but retreated again when the 34th Division was unable to keep up with their pace. Finally, after Allied air reinforcements bombed the ancient abbey into ruin on February 15, the 100th sent wave after wave up the mountain, losing 200 more men before they were relieved.
Their commander, Major Casper Clough Jr., told a correspondent with The New York Times that they were the best soldiers he’d ever seen. “They are showing the rest of the people they are just as good citizens as the next John Doughboy,” he said.
Because of the battalion’s heavy casualties—the 100th had lost about 800 of its 1300 soldiers since arriving in Europe, more than 200 over just four days at Monte Cassino—other Allied forces took over at Monte Cassino. The 100th regrouped to receive reinforcements, then fought their way over 40 miles from Anzio, Italy, north to Rome, where they were soon joined by the rest of the 442nd and officially attached to the regiment.
By May 1944, when the 442nd’s Second and Third Battalions sailed for Europe, the 100th had racked up a stunning three Distinguished Service Crosses, 21 Bronze Stars, 36 Silver Stars, and 900 Purple Hearts. The Second and Third Battalions quickly showed they were determined to not only uphold the reputation of Nisei soldiers in Europe, but to add to it.
COMBINING THEIR EFFORTS
When the three battalions met outside of Rome to capture the small town of Belvedere, the Second and Third Battalions volunteered to lead the fighting, allowing the 100th to stay in reserve—but One Puka Puka wouldn't be held back. The 442nd destroyed the German troops, took the town, and captured a huge number of enemy weapons. They even decimated an entire SS battalion alone, losing only four of their own men.
By then, French commanders were asking the regiment to join the fighting in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France, near the border with Germany. The 442nd fought in Bruyeres and Belmont, but perhaps their most famous campaign was the rescue of the 141st Infantry Regiment’s First Battalion—known as the Lost Battalion.
During fighting in the Vosges Mountains, the 141st’s First Battalion had been cut off from the rest of the Allied Forces and nearly 300 men from Texas were trapped by 6000 German troops.
On little rest and with a shortage of men, the 442nd answered the call to rescue their Texan brothers. The mountainous terrain was made more difficult by the icy weather of October 1944, and the 442nd had to travel on soggy dirt trails and fight through German roadblocks to reach the trapped men.
The 442nd’s Second Battalion won a hill from the Germans and took prisoners, but while it helped break the German line, it wasn’t enough to free the trapped men. The Lost Battalion—which had gone without food for several days—beat off five waves of German attackers. The Third Battalion tried to fight from the outside, but got no closer to reaching the Texan troops.
Seeing no other choice, the 442nd decided to “go for broke” straight up the middle in another banzai charge. One of the leaders of the charge, Private Barney Hajiro, single-handedly took down two German machine gun nests. After six days of fighting, the Nisei managed to break through to the lost Texans.
Whether they were still trying to prove themselves or not, the 442nd did just that in the rescue. The Milwaukee Journal summed up the shifting opinion about “Our Heroic Nisei” on November 8, 1944, just days after the campaign:
“At the last minute, relief troops got through. Who were they? Japanese Americans of the famous 442nd regiment—the outfit that had already blazed its way to glory in the toughest spots in Italy. What the relieved Yank soldiers think of their Nisei buddies is best expressed by one grateful private who said: ‘Boy, they are real Americans!’”
For their valor, Governor John Connally made all the surviving members of the 442nd “honorary Texans” in 1963.
The 442nd continued to fight in major battles in France and Italy through the end of the war, often on the front lines. They guarded 12 miles of the French border in what became known as the Champagne campaign, and joined other American forces in liberating the Dachau concentration camps in April 1945.
Thousands of the regiment’s men were killed or wounded in the war, including future Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, who was nearly killed in two separate incidents—once, when a bullet to his chest was stopped only by two silver dollars, and again when he nearly bled out in battle refusing to leave his men behind.
CAPTURING HEARTS AND MINDS
Back on the home front, the 442nd’s reputation helped to build bridges between Americans of Japanese ancestry and their fellow citizens. Army officials authorized more widespread publicity for the 442nd—provided it wouldn’t give away key military intelligence. By then, war correspondents on the front were already eager to share stories about the Nisei troops.
Lieutenant Edward Chasse relayed the bewilderment of German troops captured by the 100th to the Associated Press. In a story published by the Oakland Tribune on February 17, 1944, Chasse said, “We got some prisoners and they didn’t know what was happening. They wondered if the Axis had turned against them.”
Writing for The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, C.L. Sulzberger described an interaction between a captured German officer and an American interpreter after the prisoner saw members of the Nisei regiment. “Said the German to an interpreter, ‘But they look Japanese; it can’t be.’ Said the interpreter, ‘Sure, didn’t you know they were on our side? Or do you believe this stuff Goebbels puts out?’”
Members of the 442nd who sacrificed their lives on the front became some of the human faces of the war—such as Pfc. Sadao Munemori, who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Glendale, California, native was killed on April 5, 1945 when he and his fellow soldiers were pinned down by enemy fire. He attacked enemy gun nests alone so his comrades could escape; he nearly made it out himself, but threw himself onto a grenade just feet from safety to save his fellow soldiers.
But while the Nisei soldiers of the 442nd came home to praise and gratitude from some Americans, others were unwilling to look beyond their heritage.
As interned Japanese-Americans and Nisei veterans were returning to their West Coast homes in the spring of 1945, the War Department began receiving reports of what it deemed terrorist attacks against them.
“In the most recent instances reported to Washington, cars have driven by Nisei homes at a high rate of speed and the occupants have fired into the house,” one newspaper reported. “In one case, the homeowner was a returned veteran. With him was a Nisei friend in uniform on furlough.” Fortunately, they were not injured.
Some attacks were more subtle. A Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Spokane, Washington, drew attention after it denied membership to Private Richard Naito. His former commanding officer, Virgil Miller, sent an angry complaint to the post, arguing that "When supposedly reputable organizations such as yours violate the principles and ideals for which we fight, these young Japanese Americans are not the only ones to wonder about our war aims." Corporal George Gelberg, representing a group of veterans stationed at nearby Geiger Field, wrote a letter to the editor of the Spokesman-Review, saying, “The men wished it to be understood that an attack on any minority group in our country strengthens the hands of the Fascist enemies who have been beaten on the military field.” Other Nisei veterans organized a campaign to apply to the post, and when news of the rejection reached the national VFW organization, they issued an apology and stated that Japanese-American veterans were welcome to join.
In 2011, nearly 70 years after Japanese-American citizens were interned and briefly banned from military service, the 442nd was honored for its members’ sacrifices. Congress awarded the veterans of the 442nd, the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the Military Intelligence Service, which performed intelligence work against the Japanese military, with Congressional Gold Medals—the highest civilian award Congress can bestow.
During the ceremony when the awards were delivered, Representative Adam Schiff of California, who co-sponsored the bill honoring the veterans, said: "These American heroes did defend our freedoms and our ideals ... even when these ideals were denied them at home."