Last week, on November 2nd, a special group of World War II veterans gathered at the United States Capitol to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor the legislative body can bestow. The men and women of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service, were honored in gratitude for their extraordinary bravery and service to their country in its hour of need. While the 442nd RCT (to which the 100th Infantry was attached) has the distinction of being the most decorated unit in the Army’s history, it is remembered for being mostly comprised of Japanese-Americans at a time when the war with Japan caused the government to label nikkeijin[i]such as themselves as “enemy aliens.”
Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1942, American citizens of Japanese descent were viewed with fear and distrust due to their shared ancestry with an enemy nation. Among other actions of prejudice for the sake of national security, nikkeijin were discharged from military and barred from the draft. Despite this, there were a number of Japanese Americans with a desire to serve.
Some felt they had something to prove, others felt the same patriotism that drove a generation of young Americans to the recruitment centers. As 442nd Veteran Hiroshi Kaku told the Associated Press, “We wanted to show American citizens that we loved our country. We were born and raised here.” While early requests by members of the majority nisei Hawaii National Guard to fight in Europe or Africa were initially declined, it was the hard work and dedication of the young discharged Japanese-American ROTC members at University of Hawaii who asked to serve as civilian volunteers that changed the officials' minds.
In 1942, the 298th and 299th Hawaii National Guard were reformed as the 100th Infantry Battalion and after proving themselves in training on the mainland, the next year joined recruits from the mainland (many volunteering while in internment camps) to form the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the army’s all Japanese American combat unit (the US military still segregated units by race during WWII). “We didn’t sit by and do nothing about it” said Senate Pro Tempore and veteran of the 442nd, Daniel Inouye, in his remarks at the ceremony. “We petitioned the government for the opportunity to demonstrate our love for this country and our patriotism, which you granted to us.”
The 442nd and 100th were deployed to Europe and North Africa where they fought in the most dangerous, risky missions. The opening remarks of Adam Schiff, California Representative and original co-sponsor of the legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Nikkei units, put the gravity of their sacrifice into perspective: “These remarkable men left a segregated nation to fight and defend America with no guarantee that their own freedom would be defended in return.” They became known as the “Go for Broke” regiments after their unit motto, which was derived from a gambling term to lay everything on the line for one big win. Texas Representative Ralph Hall, who also served in the war, said it “defined the way these men and women approached every battle.”
The record of the 442nd supports its reputation. Over the course of the war it sustained a staggeringly unparalleled 314% casualty rate; the original force of 4,000 recruited had to be replaced 3.5 times. Together the members of the 442nd have earned over 18,000 individual decorations, including nearly 9,500 Purple Hearts and 21 Medals of Honor (the nation’s highest military award), though many of these medals for bravery and heroism were awarded posthumously.
At the same time, the Japanese American Military Intelligence Service (MLS) meanwhile was comprised of nisei who were proficient enough in their ancestral language to serve during the war in an intelligence capacity. In June 1941, increasing aggression between the US and Japan in the Pacific prompted the US military to establish a secret school to recruit and train Japanese-Americans as battlefield linguists. Deployed in the Pacific theater, the Nikkei MIS translated intercepted enemy communications, interrogated prisoners, and sometimes performed undercover missions. Unlike their compatriots in the 422nd in Europe, the MIS faced the danger of “friendly fire” if mistaken for the enemy by fellow American soldiers. Nevertheless, their services proved to be invaluable to the war effort. General Douglas MacArthur once said of the unit, “Never in military history did an army know so much about the enemy prior to actual engagement.” Many of the same men and women went on to serve in the post-war occupation of Japan, and were credited by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on last week with laying the groundwork for the closer relations between the two countries.
The members of the “Go for Broke” regiments accounted for a little over half of the estimated 33,000 Japanese-Americans who served in WWII. The surviving members of the units who arrived in Washington DC last week to receive their long overdue honor came from across the nation, from Chicago to California, Texas to Colorado. First names like “Roy” and “Frank” mark them as typical American “good-old boys,” while surnames of “Takahara” and “Okabayashi” allude to the additional burdens these heroes had to overcome during the war. As then-President Harry Truman said to the Nikkei veterans after their return home: “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice – and you won.”
[i] Nikkeijin (日系人) is the term used for non-Japanese people of Japanese ancestry; therefore all Japanese-Americans are nikkeijin. Nisei (二世) refers to the second generation of nikkei, or the children of the original immigrants from Japan. Most of the Japanese-Americans who served in WWII were of the nisei generation, which is why it is commonly used to describe them.