The U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, World War II

The most decorated unit in the U.S. Army in WW II.

The 442nd Infantry, formerly the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the United States Army, was an Asian-American unit composed of mostly Japanese Americans who fought in Europe during World War II. The families of many of its soldiers were subject to internment. The 442nd was a self-sufficient fighting force, and fought with uncommon distinction in Italy, southern France, and Germany. The unit became the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the United States Armed Forces, including 21 Medal of Honor recipients.

Most Japanese Americans who fought in WWII were Nisei, Japanese-Americans born in the U.S. Nevertheless, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Japanese American men were categorized as 4C (enemy alien) and therefore non-draftable. On 19 February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing military authorities “to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” Although the order did not refer specifically to people of Japanese ancestry, it set the stage for the internment of people of Japanese descent. In March 1942, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, issued the first of 108 military proclamations that resulted in the forced removal of more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast from their homes and placed in guarded concentration camps behind barbed wire, or (as the government euphemistically referred to them) relocation camps.

In Hawai’i, martial law, complete with curfews and blackouts, was imposed. A large portion of the population was of Japanese descent (150,000 out of 400,000 people in 1937) and internment was deemed not practicable, mostly for economic reasons. When the War Department called for the removal of all soldiers of Japanese ancestry from active service in early 1942, General Delos C. Emmons, commander of the U.S. Army in Hawai’i, decided to discharge those in the Hawaii Territorial Guard, which was composed mainly of ROTC students from the University of Hawaii. However, he kept the more than 1,300 Japanese American soldiers of the 298th and 299th Infantry regiments of the Hawaii National Guard. The discharged members of the Hawaii Territorial Guard petitioned General Emmons to allow them to assist in the war effort. The petition was granted and they formed a group called the Varsity Victory Volunteers, which performed various construction jobs for the military. General Emmons, worried about the loyalty of Japanese American soldiers in the event of a Japanese invasion, recommended to the War Department that those in the 298th and 299th regiments be organized into a “Hawaiian Provisional Battalion” and sent to the mainland. The move was authorized, and on 5 June 1942, the Hawaiian Provisional Battalion set sail for training. They landed at Oakland, California on 10 June 1942 and two days later were sent to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. On 15 June 1942, the battalion was designated the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate)—the “One Puka Puka”.

The 100th performed so well in training that, on 1 February 1943, the U.S. government reversed its decision on Japanese Americans serving in the armed forces, and approved the formation of a Japanese American combat unit. A few days later, the government required that all internees answer a loyalty questionnaire, which was used to register the Nisei for the draft. Question 27 of the questionnaire asked males eligible to register for the draft, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?” while question 28 asked all internees, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power or organization?

Nearly a quarter of the Nisei males answered with a no or a qualified answer to both questions; some e

ven left them blank.  However, more than 75% indicated that they were willing to enlist in the U.S. armed forces and swear allegiance to the U.S. The U.S. Army called for 1,500 volunteers from Hawaii and 3,000 from the mainland. An overwhelming 10,000 men from Hawaii came forth. However the announcement was met with less enthusiasm on the mainland, where the vast majority of draft age men of Japanese ancestry and their families were held in internment camps. The Army revised the quota, calling for 2,900 men from Hawaii, and 1,500 from the mainland. Only 1,256 volunteered from the mainland. In the end, around 3,000 men from Hawaii and 800 men from the mainland were inducted. President Roosevelt announced the formation of the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team (the Go For Broke regiment), famously saying, “Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.”

The 100th Infantry Battalion relocated to Camp Shelby in Mississippi. Eventually, the 100th was joined by 3,000 volunteers from Hawaii and 800 from the mainland camps. As a regimental combat team, the 442nd RCT was a self-sufficient fighting formation of three infantry battalions (originally 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions, 442nd Infantry, and later the 100th Infantry Battalion in place of the 1st), the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, the 232nd Engineer Company, an anti-tank company, cannon company, service company, medical detachment, headquarters companies, and the 206th Army Band.

Initially, there was tension between volunteers from the islands (known as “buddhaheads”, from the Japanese/English term buta-head, meaning “pig-headed”) and those from the mainland (“kotonks” or “katonks”, alleged to be the sound of a coconut hitting an empty head). The rivalry dissipated after visits were organized to the internment camps where the mainlanders’ families were being held.

Although they were permitted to volunteer to fight, Americans of Japanese ancestry were generally forbidden to fight in combat in the Pacific Theater. No such limitations were placed on Americans of German or Italian ancestry who fought against the Axis Powers in the European Theater, mostly due to practicality, as there were many more German and Italian Americans compared to Japanese Americans. However, many men deemed proficient enough in the Japanese language were approached, or sometimes ordered, to join the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) to serve as translators/interpreters and spies in the Pacific, as well as in the China Burma India Theater. These men were sent to the MIS Language School at Camp Savage, Minnesota to improve their language skills and receive training in military intelligence. While the 442nd trained in Mississippi, the 100th departed for Oran in North Africa to join the forces destined to invade Italy.

The 100th landed at Oran, Algeria on 2 September 1943, and was originally scheduled to guard supply trains in North Africa. However, the battalion C.O., Colonel Farrant L. Turner insisted that the 100th be given a combat assignment. The battalion was subsequently attached to the U.S. 34th Infantry Division on 8 September 1943 in order to replace the 2nd Battalion of the 133rd Infantry Regiment which had been assigned the task of guarding Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers.

The 100th sailed from North Africa with 1,300 men on 19 September 1943 and landed on the beachhead at Salerno on 22 September 1943. On 29 September, Sergeant Shigeo Takata of B Company became the first member of the unit to be killed in action. Later that day, Private Keichi Tanaka, also of B Company, was killed in a separate action, making him the unit’s second KIA.

After obtaining its initial objective of Monte Milleto, the 100th joined the assault on Monte Cassino. The 100th fought valiantly, suffering many casualties; by February 1944, it could muster only 521 men. The depleted battalion joined the defense of the beachhead at Anzio until May 1944, and then added momentum to the push for Rome, but was halted only ten miles from the city. Some believe that the 100th was deliberately halted to allow non-Nisei soldiers to liberate Rome.

The 442nd Combat Team, less its 1st Battalion, which had remained in the U.S. to train Nisei replacements after many of its members were levied as replacements for the 100th, sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 1 May 1944, and landed 28 May at Anzio and joined the 100th Battalion in Civitavecchia north of Rome on 10 June 1944, attached to the 34th Infantry Division. On 10 August 1944, the 100th Battalion was officially assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team as its 1st battalion, but was allowed to keep its unit designation in recognition of its distinguished fighting record. The 1st Battalion 442nd Infantry at Camp Shelby was then redesignated the 171st Infantry Battalion (Separate) on 5 September 1944.

The combined unit continued in the push up Italy, now attached to the 88th Infantry Division, before joining the invasion of southern France, where the 442nd participated in the fight to liberate Bruyères, and was next attached to the 36th Infantry Division, originally a Texas National Guard outfit. The 442nd famously rescued the “Lost Battalion” at Biffontaine. Pursuant to army tradition of never leaving soldiers behind, over a five-day period, from 26 October to 30 October 1944, the 442nd suffered the loss of nearly half of its roster—over 800 casualties, including 121 dead—while rescuing 211 members of the 36th Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, which had been surrounded by German forces in the Vosges mountains since 24 October.

Following the Vosges, the 442nd was sent to the Franco-Italian border on 28 November to relieve the soon-to-be-disbanded 1st Special Service Force. The 442nd remained there, refitting and training, until 25 March 1945, when it returned to the Fifth Army in Italy and was attached to the U.S. 92nd Infantry Division.

On the Italian front, the 442nd had contact with another segregated American unit, the 92nd Infantry Division, as well as troops of the British and French colonial empires (West and East Africans, Moroccans, Algerians, Indians, Gurkhas, Jews from the Palestine mandated territory) and the non-segregated Brazilian Expeditionary Force which had in its ranks ethnic Japanese.

The 442nd returned to heavy combat, seizing Monte Belvedere on 7 April and Carrara on 10 April. The 522nd Field Artillery Battalion remained in northern France and joined the push into Germany in 1945. Scouts from the 522nd were among the first Allied troops to release prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp – or, more specifically, from one of its 169 sub-camps, where more than 3000 prisoners were held.

The 442nd is commonly reported to have suffered a casualty rate of “314 percent,” informally derived from 9,486 Purple Hearts divided by some 3,000 original in-theater personnel. U.S. Army battle reports show the official casualty rate, combining KIA (killed) with MIA (missing) and WIA (wounded and removed from action) totals, is 93%, still uncommonly high. Many of the Purple Hearts were awarded during the campaign in the Vosges Mountains and some of the wounded were soldiers who were victims of trenchfoot. But many victims of trenchfoot were forced by superiors—or willingly chose—to return to the front even though they were classified as “wounded in action”. Wounded soldiers would often escape from hospitals to return to the front line battles.

Decorations

The 442nd RCT became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service, with its component 100th Infantry Battalion earning the nickname “The Purple Heart Battalion”.The 442nd RCT received 7 Presidential Unit Citations (5 earned in one month), and its members received 18,143 awards, including:

  • 21 Medals of Honor
  • 52 Distinguished Service Crosses (including 19 Distinguished Service Crosses which were upgraded to Medals of Honor in June 2000)
  • 1 Distinguished Service Medal
  • 560 Silver Stars (plus 28 Oak Leaf Clusters for a second award)
  • 22 Legion of Merit Medals
  • 15 Soldier’s Medals
  • 4,000 Bronze Stars (plus 1,200 Oak Leaf Clusters for a second award; one Bronze Star was upgraded to a Medal of Honor in June 2000. One Bronze Star was upgraded to a Silver Star in September 2009.)
  • 9,486 Purple Hearts

Regimental “fight song.”

Four-Forty-Second Infantry— We’re the boys of Hawai’i nei— We’ll fight for you And the Red, White and Blue, And go to the front… And back to Honolulu-lulu. Fighting for dear old Uncle Sam Go for broke! HOOH! We don’t give a damn! We’ll round up the Huns At the point of our guns, And vict’ry will be ours! GO FOR BROKE! FOUR-FOUR-TWO! GO FOR BROKE! FOUR-FOUR-TWO! And vict’ry will be ours!

The song may have originally been written for the 100th Battalion and would have originally had One-Puka-Puka in place of Four-Forty-Second, thus explaining the reference to Hawaii nei (Beautiful Hawaii) and the vow to go back to Honolulu.

Equally endearing was one of the regiment’s sayings, mentioned elsewhere on this site.  It was simply “Don’t bring disgrace to the family.  Mo’ bettah to come home in a coffin.” A finer group of young soldiers and Americans never heeded Uncle Sam’s call to serve.  This was as tough, as spirited and as fiercesome a unit as ever took up arms in the name of freedom and justice.  And all this adoration is from a career naval officer!

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