They Went For Broke
November 2, 2011 7:36 PM   Subscribe

On Wednesday, the United States Congress awarded its highest civilian honor to a group that had waited more than 60 years to be recognized for its service.

The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Japanese-Americans who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service during World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. government rounded up Japanese-Americans in the western United States and placed them in internment camps. (previously, previously, previously) Despite the atmosphere of prejudice and suspicion that surrounded them, many young Nisei (the American-born children of Japanese immigrants) still wanted to fight for their country.

The 100th Infantry Battalion, which comprised Nisei men formerly with the Hawaiian National Guard, was activated in June 1942. Its motto was "Remember Pearl Harbor." After training in Wisconsin and Mississippi, the "One-Puka-Puka" shipped out for North Africa. They were then sent to Italy as the Allies fought their way up the peninsula. Seeing action in Monte Cassino and Anzio, the 100th suffered so many casualties that it earned the nickname "The Purple Heart Battalion."

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team came about after the War Department purged the University of Hawaii's ROTC of all Japanese-Americans. The expelled students petitioned the military governor of Hawaii to permit them to form a volunteer labor battalion. He assented, and the Varsity Victory Volunteers were born. Their hard work helped convince the War Department to allow Nisei to serve in the Army, and in 1943 President Roosevelt announced the formation of the 442nd RCT. About two-thirds of the unit's men were Hawaiians; the rest were Nisei from the mainland. Its motto was "Go For Broke."

After training, the 442nd was dispatched to Italy to meet the 100th Infantry Battalion, which was then formally attached to the 442nd. (Due its outstanding performance, however, the 100th was permitted to keep its original designation.) After seeing action in Italy, the 442nd was sent to France. In October 1944, the unit was ordered to rescue the "Lost Battalion"--elements of Texas National Guard 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment that had been surrounded by German forces in the Vosges Mountains. After a number of failed attempts, the 442nd broke the German lines and rescued about 220 men. In doing so, the 442nd suffered more than 800 casualties. Some of the 442nd's men later participated in the liberation of Dachau, and the unit was also involved in breaking the stalemate at the Gothic Line. The 442nd was deactivated after the war, but was subsequently reactivated and reorganized. Today it exists as the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry, the only infantry unit within the Army Reserve.

Although smaller and not as well known as the other two units, the Military Intelligence Service played a crucial role in the war. The MIS was partially composed of Japanese-American soldiers who were trained as linguists, translators, and interrogators. (Another branch of the MIS included German-speaking immigrants from Austria, Germany, and elsewhere.) Unlike the 442nd, which never saw action in the Pacific Theater, the MIS played a role in almost every major battle in the Pacific. It also aided in civil affairs work during the occupation and reconstruction of Japan after the war.

Since the end of the war, Japanese-American veterans have received more recognition for their service. One of the earliest depictions of their story was the 1951 film Go For Broke! (YouTube, complete movie) , starring Van Johnson. The film dramatized the story of the 442nd RCT. More recently, the character of Mr. Miyagi in the original (1984) Karate Kid was a veteran of the 442nd and a recipient of the Medal of Honor. In fact, 21 members of the 442nd received the Medal of Honor, including Sen. Daniel Inouye (D.-HI), who spoke at Wednesday's ceremony:

"This has been a long journey, but a glorious one."
posted by Rangeboy (23 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Alas that it is too late to prosecute those who decided to put these mens' families into concentration camps for their crimes.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:38 PM on November 2, 2011 [8 favorites]

This is the post I was just coming here to make, but Rangeboy's effort certainly leaves what I would have come up with in the dust. Well-done!
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 7:41 PM on November 2, 2011

very nice post, thank you... I'll be sharing this with the educators that I know... well done!
posted by HuronBob at 7:51 PM on November 2, 2011

That said, one aspect of the Nisei units' creation and training that I knew nothing about, and that was mentioned in Senator Inouye's speech tonight, was the strong animosity between the Hawaiian troops (about 2,500 of the 4,000, if I remember correctly) and the mainland troops. Inouye specifically mentioned the darker skin color of the Hawaiians as being connected to the division, which shocked me a bit as a non-Japanese, I must confess. (This division is alluded to in the "about two-thirds" link above)
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 7:52 PM on November 2, 2011

About damn time they got more recognition from Congress.

One thing one of my Hawaiian friends told me was that mainlanders in the 442nd were called "katonks" by the buddaheads (native Hawaiians). The katonks got their name because that was the sound their heads made when they hit the floor.

This page also says a bit more about some of the 442nd's impressive achievements:
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service, in the entire history of the U.S. Military. The 4,000 men 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, 21 Medals of Honor and an unprecedented eight Presidential Unit Citations.
posted by jasonhong at 7:52 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

The fifth link goes into some detail about tensions between the Katonks and the Buddhaheads.
posted by Rangeboy at 7:56 PM on November 2, 2011

Considering the relative inability of the US Congress to pass any legislation of any constructive merit lately, this comes as a welcome surprise.

Congratulations to the survivors who lived long enough to see their service and sacrifice recognized!
posted by darkstar at 8:14 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is LONG past time they were recognized for their service and sacrifices. What was done to their families and other Americans who happened to be of Japanese ancestry was one of the most vile, shameful things any country has done. While I applaud that reparations were made, I agree with 1adam12 and that people, including Franklin D. Roosevelt should have faced criminal charges for their actions.

One line from the well-known Farewell to Manzanar that stuck with me for nearly 40 years is when an interrogator was asking a Japanese-American who he wanted to win the war. His reply is still vivid in my memory:

"When your mother and your father are having a fight, do you want them to kill each other? Or do you just want them to stop fighting?"
posted by 2manyusernames at 8:24 PM on November 2, 2011 [7 favorites]

It's probably worth mentioning here that Sen. Daniel Inouye's war record gives Chuck Norris a bit of a run for his money.
posted by schmod at 9:40 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thank you for putting together this post. Lots to learn, lots to pass on.
posted by dogrose at 9:50 PM on November 2, 2011

My grandfather was a member of the MIS, and I'm so very glad this happened during his lifetime. He is old now, and his hearing isn't so good, but even when he could still speak without shouting, he never talked about the war and only rarely spoke of his time in the service. In his habits and mannerisms, he's always been military to the core, so this probably speaks volumes about his experiences, but I've never been able to ask him about it outright. To be Japanese-American and fighting in the Pacific is almost beyond my imagining. There is a family story floating around that he ended up being called upon to translate for a Japanese POW who turned out to be his cousin, but I can't really speak to its accuracy. Even so, I can't even imagine how much courage and strength of character it must have taken for him to volunteer to serve a country that didn't seem to want him.

I have always been a little sorry that my grandfather and I are not closer; he's always been something of a difficult man to know, but since I was a little girl, he's always been an example for me, and I have always deeply respected his military service. The same is true for all the Japanese-American WWII vets I've had the great privilege of knowing. Family ties aside, their actions just struck me as so exceptionally courageous. In the camps, the heart-breaking motto was "Shikata ga nai" or "It cannot be helped", but these brave men of the 442nd, the 100th, and the MIS did help. They stood up and did something in the face of terrible, terrible injustice, and I will always be grateful to them.
posted by Diagonalize at 10:00 PM on November 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

On a more personal note, if not for the efforts of the MIS during the occupation and reconstruction of Japan after the war, I probably wouldn't exist.

My grandfather was born and raised in Hawaii, and during the war, I think he was mostly working as a translator in the Philippines. After the war, he spent some time in Japan, and eventually, he settled down back in the U.S. with his family. Many years after my grandfather had left the service, my dad discovered a mysterious Army footlocker completely full of old records. My grandfather never talked about it, and it wasn't until one of grandpa's old army buddies told the story that my dad learned where it came from. After the war, when grandpa was stationed in Tokyo, he spied a pretty Japanese girl working in a record store. I don't know if it was love at first sight, but from that point on, I am told he went in to buy a record every chance he could get. Dozens of records, several international moves, three children, and roughly half a century later, they are still married. As far as I know, he's saved every record.
posted by Diagonalize at 10:33 PM on November 2, 2011 [9 favorites]

It goes without saying that this is way overdue. Even the youngest WWII vets are in the mid-80s and there are fewer left every day. Having to wait almost 70 years for the recognition of such sacrifices in face of discrimination is a national disgrace.
posted by tommasz at 5:31 AM on November 3, 2011

This is the kind of post I come here for. Thank you.

Just to be clear, it was the character of Mr. Miyagi who served in the 442nd and earned the Medal of Honor. The actor who played him, Pat Morita, spent WWII in an internment camp.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 5:32 AM on November 3, 2011

It's probably worth mentioning here that Sen. Daniel Inouye's war record gives Chuck Norris a bit of a run for his money.
posted by schmod at 12:40 AM on November 3

I am reading this now and am blown away. What a badass.
posted by amazingstill at 6:24 AM on November 3, 2011

Sometimes you have to wait for the perpetrators of a crime to die before their victims can be compensated.
posted by Renoroc at 7:02 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

A bit of a tangent, however, The Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II in Washington, DC names the internment camps. That's it's a "Memorial to Patriotism" strikes me as ironic (is that the right word?) every time I pass it. ...and I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

This posting brings tears to my eyes and a greater respect than ever before for the Japanese-American troops that went to serve during World War II.

posted by Man with Lantern at 8:55 AM on November 3, 2011

My grandpa, from Minnesota, was a radio intelligence evaluation officer in WWII in the Philippines. Radio operators listened to encoded Japanese Morse code and copied them out. They were decrypted (yay, ULTRA!), translated, and the officers like grandpa decided how important they were. Many men were trained in this at Fort Snelling, where the MIS soldiers went to language school during the war.

He could never talk aboit what he did during the war, and most of it only came to light when I started digging into it a few years ago at my aunt' request. Even even now it's nearly impossible to find out about the Mobile Radio Squadrons (J) and (G) since several were reassigned to the Air Force when it broke off from the Army in 1947.

Brave men to "betray" their heritage in order to serve their new country. This recognition is a long time overdue.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:19 AM on November 3, 2011

Considering the relative inability of the US Congress to pass any legislation of any constructive merit lately, this comes as a welcome surprise.

Look, good on these guys, and of course better late than never and all that, but let's not mistake this for anything other than bullshit posturing on something pretty meaningless while the whole place is burning down around us.

Next up: congress takes a brave pro-Bambi stand!
posted by Meatbomb at 10:09 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes you have to wait for the perpetrators of a crime to die before their victims can be compensated.


How bittersweet for the survivors and their families.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:10 AM on November 3, 2011

Maybe to some politicians it is, as you call it, "bullshit posturing," but I strongly disagree that it's meaningless.
posted by CancerMan at 10:46 AM on November 3, 2011

Thanks, Rangeboy, this is a fantastic post. I knew there was a relatively wide range of countries/ethnicities fighting at Monte Cassino but I'd never heard about Nisei troops.

I'm going to be reading these links all week. Great stuff!
posted by Foaf at 2:09 PM on November 3, 2011

Just wanted to say thanks for this post, it's quite a rich post on something interesting I had little knowledge of.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 2:13 PM on November 3, 2011

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