JAPANESE AMERICAN 442nd RCT AT THRESHOLD OF FAME

Marseille, France September 29, 1944

On this date in September 1944 three U.S. Liberty cargo ships arrived off the port of Mar­seille, France carrying the 442nd Regi­mental Com­bat Team (RCT), their weapons, and vehicles. The 442nd con­sisted of Nisei (second-gen­er­a­tion Japa­nese Amer­i­can) volun­teers from the U.S. West Coast and Hawaii who had been recruited, in the case of main­land Nisei, in U.S. con­cen­tra­tion camps (euphe­mis­tically called “relo­ca­tion camps”) where they, their siblings, and their Issei (first-genera­tion Japa­nese) parents had been force­fully incar­ce­rated in the months following the out­break of war with Japan.

The 442nd was organized on March 23, 1943, in response to the U.S. War Depart­ment’s call for volun­teers to form a segre­gated Japa­nese Amer­i­can army com­bat unit. The unit grew to its fighting com­ple­ment of 4,000 men by the end of that month. The 442nd would eventually include its “big brother,” the 100th Infan­try Bat­tal­ion, whose service­members had enlisted in the U.S. Army in Hawaii before the war, the 522nd Field Artil­lery Bat­tal­ion, along with several smaller compa­nies such as anti­tank and combat engi­neer com­panies. In time the 442nd, whose motto was “Go for Broke,” would number 18,000 Nisei service­men and become the most deco­rated unit for its size in U.S. military history (see photo essay).

The 100th Infantry Battalion first saw combat in Italy in Septem­ber 1943 and the 442nd RCT and com­po­nent units in June the next year, also in Italy. The June-amal­ga­mated 100th/­442nd was attached to Gen. Mark Clark’s Fifth Army and saw fierce fighting in Tuscany that summer as German and Ital­ian fascist forces were relent­lessly pushed up the Ital­ian penin­sula. The 442nd’s out­standing com­bat repu­ta­tion reached the ears of the Supreme Allied Com­man­der in Europe. Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower separated the Nisei war­riors from the Fifth Army and attached them to the Seventh Army for Gen. Alex­ander Patch’s drive north up France’s Rhône Valley toward the dark, piney, low-mountain range of the Vosges opposite the German border.

After trekking and hitching rides in box­cars for 400 miles, the 442nd reached the Vosges Moun­tains, now shrouded in Octo­ber’s brooding cloud cover and cold, drizzling, often unre­mit­ting rain. On Octo­ber 14 the Vosges cam­paign began. Seared into U.S. Army and Japa­nese Amer­i­can his­tory is the 442nd’s storied rescue of the “Lost Bat­tal­ion,” mostly Texas National Guards­men of the U.S. 141st Infan­try Regi­ment who 10 days later ended up trapped a mile or so behind German lines south of St‑Die. Spurning warnings of heavy enemy concen­tra­tions in unrecon­noitered ter­rain ahead, Maj. Gen. John Dahl­quist, 36th Infan­try Divi­sion com­man­der, ordered the new­comers to engage the foe shortly after the Texans’ arrival as the 442nd’s relief force. The Germans for their part sprung a trap to catch the unwit­ting newbies. Air­dropped sup­plies of food, water, medi­cine, and wea­pons to the 275 ensnared GIs mostly wound up in enemy hands. Seve­ral attempts by other ele­ments of the 141st to extri­cate their com­pa­triots failed, after which a des­per­ate Dahl­quist recalled the 442nd, weary and battle-scared, not 2 days off-line, to relieve their relievers.

On the night of October 26/27, 1944, 442nd infan­try began ascending the moun­tain to rescue the cut-off men. A short while later Dahl­quist threw the rest of the RCT at the enemy: field artil­lery­men, anti­tank per­son­nel, and combat engi­neers. Rain­fall, snow, cold, mud, trench foot, bullets, and lethal shards of hot steel and exploding pine trees from tank-fired 88mm shells bedeviled the Nisei rescuers. For 5 days their ascent was tor­tur­ous. Fed up with the relent­less crawling and crouching through dense stands of pine, leading 3rd Bat­tal­ion Com­pa­nies K and I rose up, ran full tilt toward the enemy, yelling, and shooting blind. Though they tried, the Germans failed to stop the fanatic assault. Enemy ranks broke, Germans every­where high­tailing it behind a white smoke­screen. On the after­noon of Octo­ber 30 the 442nd rescued 211 sur­vi­vors of the “Lost Battalion” at a cost of 800 of their own.

Author of the 2013 triumphal saga of the University of Washington boat-rowing crew during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown brings his prodigious story-telling talents to another group of young men in his 2021 best-selling Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II. Brown’s richly detailed chronicle of the lives and times of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team recounts second-generation Japanese Americans (Nisei) who selflessly offered up their best selves by volunteering for military service during which they displayed uncommon heroism and grit serving their country abroad. In 1946 President Harry S. Tru­man reviewed the ranks of 442nd lined row upon row in a park south of the White House. “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice—and you’ve won,” he told the men. Too early to declare victory over race prejudice, but certainly the estimated 33,000 Japanese Americans who served in uniform between 1941 and 1945 tipped America toward a better place than ever before.—Norm Haskett


442nd Regimental Combat Team Aids Allies in Expelling Enemy from France

442nd rescues 141st Infantry Regiment "Lost Battalion"

Above: “Go for Broke!,” a painting in the collec­tion of the Army Center of Mili­tary History, Fort McNair, Washingt­on, D.C., depicts the 442nd Regi­men­tal Com­bat Team assaulting German siege forces in their rescue of the so-called “Lost Bat­tal­ion,” soon to be called the Alamo Regi­ment. On the night of Octo­ber 26/27, 1944, the 442nd RCT, a second-gen­era­tion Japa­nese Amer­i­can (Nisei) unit drawn from Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast and assigned to the 36th Infan­try Division in Gen. Alexan­der Patch’s U.S. Seventh Army, was called on to rescue a sur­rounded U.S. bat­tal­ion, mostly Texas National Guards­men of the 141st Infantry Regiment who were trapped in the Vosges Moun­tains of Eastern France. The Texans had attacked the heavily forti­fied defenses of a supe­rior German force com­prising two grena­dier regi­ments and a moun­tain bat­tal­ion. Fighting was des­per­ate, often hand-to-hand. Nearly half the Texans became casual­ties. Then on the fifth day into the rescue attempt came a dis­believing moment. By ones and twos and then en masse the men of the 442nd struggled to their feet on steep muddy moun­tain slopes and charged the enemy’s posi­tions, yelling “Make! Make! Make!”—“death” in Hawaiian. Bitter hand-to-hand com­bat ensued as the Nisei war­riors swept from one for­ti­fied enemy posi­tion to the next. The Germans broke in dis­order, returning and failing a final time to eradi­cate the Texans. On Octo­ber 30, 1944, they aban­doned the battlefield.

442nd Regimental Combat Team in France, late 1944442nd’s 522nd Field Artillery Battalion fire 105mm shells

Left: Riflemen of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team slog their way along a muddy French logging road in the Cham­bois sector of the Vosges Moun­tains in Octo­ber 1944. Five months earlier, on May 1, 1944, the newly formed Nisei 442nd RCT left the States, landing at Anzio on the west coast of Italy 28 days later. In August the unit took part in Oper­a­tion Dra­goon, the Anglo-American and French inva­sion of South­ern France, and then traveled up the Rhône Valley from Mar­seille by walking and by rail until Octo­ber 13, when it reached the edges of Vosges Moun­tains. On Octo­ber 23 the unit, whose motto was “Go for Broke” (craps game lingo for “shoot the works”), was ordered to rescue the so-called “lost bat­talion” of 141st Infan­try Regi­ment (Alamo Regi­ment) of the 36th Infan­try Divi­sion. It cost the 442nd 800 casual­ties to rescue 230 men.

Right: The 522nd Field Artillery Battalion fires 105mm shells in support of an infan­try attack by the 442nd Regi­men­tal Com­bat Team in the Vosges Moun­tains of North­eastern France near the village of Bruyères, a trans­por­ta­tion and com­muni­ca­tions hub. The 442nd was the most deco­rated unit for its size and length of ser­vice in the his­tory of Amer­i­can war­fare. Almost as self-suffi­cient as a divi­sion, the men of the 442nd RTC included the 522nd Field Artil­lery Bat­tal­ion, the 100th Infan­try Bat­tal­ion, combat-engineer, anti­tank, cannon, and service com­panies. They accounted for just over 40 per­cent of the Japa­nese Amer­i­cans who served in the U.S. mili­tary in World War II. In less than 2 years its mem­bers—in total, about 18,000 men who ulti­mately served in the 442nd—earned 29 Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, 28 Silver Stars with oak leaf clus­ters (in place of a second Silver Star), 22 Legion of Merit Medals, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 1,200 Bronze Stars with oak leaf clus­ters, 36 Army Com­men­da­tion Medals, 87 Divi­sion Com­men­da­tions, 21 Con­gres­sional Medals of Honor (including one awarded to future U.S. sena­tor Daniel Inouye [1924–2012] of Hawaii), and more than 4,000 Purple Hearts (the 442nd is also known as the Purple Heart Bat­tal­ion). The unit was awarded an unpre­ce­dented 8 Presi­den­tial Unit Cita­tions. In 1968 Gov. John Con­nally made the entire 442nd RCT honorary Texans. In 2012 France made all sur­viving mem­bers of the 442nd che­va­liers (knights) of the French Légion d’Hon­neur, the highest French order of merit for mili­tary and civil dis­tinc­tion, for their actions con­trib­u­ting to the lib­er­a­tion of France and their heroic rescue of the Lost Battalion.

1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, October 31, 1944, following rescue442 RCT awards ceremony, Bruyères, France, November 12, 1944

Left: Members of 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, 36th Infantry Division warm them­selves around a fire after their rescue while waiting for trans­por­ta­tion to the rear, Octo­ber 31, 1944. Before they became known as the Lost Bat­tal­ion, the 1st Bat­tal­ion was a part of the 36th Infan­try Divi­sion fighting in Europe during World War II. After a bungled stra­te­gic deci­sion sent them deep into German ter­ri­tory in North­eastern France, the bat­tal­ion was sur­rounded. For 6 days, the 275 soldiers remained trapped with dwin­dling air­dropped sup­plies as the Germans threatened to wipe them out and repelled repeated rescue attempts on the ground. Adolf Hitler is said to have taken a per­sonal inte­rest in seeing the Amer­i­can bat­tal­ion com­pletely destroyed. In a last-ditch effort, the 442nd Regi­mental Com­bat Team was sent in to break through the staunch German defenses. They paid a steep price to come out the other side.

Right: Color guard of the Japanese Amer­i­can 442nd Regi­men­tal Com­bat Team stand at atten­tion in a snowy grass field under a leaden sky near Bruyères, France, Novem­ber 12, 1944, while team cita­tions for bravery were read aloud. “Go for Broke” was more than a motto for the Nisei service­men. At the Novem­ber 12 cere­mony, the utterly clue­less 36th Infan­try Divi­sion com­man­der Maj. Gen. John Dahl­quist, scowled at the pal­try num­ber of men standing in heavy, oversized winter coats in ranks before him. He turned to the offi­cer next to him, hissing loudly why the whole regi­ment was not pre­sent for his review. Stunned, Lt. Col. Virgil Miller, who had recently assumed com­mand of the 442nd and had been with its “big brother,” the 100th Infan­try Bat­tal­ion, since its begin­nings in 1941, responded in a wavering voice after a long, awk­ward silence, “General, this is the regiment. This is all I have left.”

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Rescue of “The Lost Battalion”