The 100th Infantry Battalion was a segregated U.S. Army unit of mainly Japanese American men who served during World War II. Hawai'i's Territorial National Guard eagerly recruited all men except Japanese Americans who nonetheless volunteered and formed Company D of the Guard's 1st Regiment during World War I. Those men failed to see combat duty, and again during the interwar period the Guard preferred not enlisting Japanese Americans. Still, about 40 Japanese Americans were in the National Guard in October 1940 when it was federalized and divided into two regiments, the 298th and 299th Infantry. Their numbers increased with the draft, and by December 1941, there were 1,500 nisei recruits serving in integrated units of the 298th and 299th.
On the day of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, a nisei soldier recalled, the men of the 298th and 299th lined up for roll call and were issued rifles, ammunition, and bayonets. They dug trenches and served on guard details against the possibility of an enemy landing and attack. But three days later, on December 10, 1941,
Japanese American soldiers had their firearms taken away, and they were ordered to remain inside their barracks. Military guards armed with machine guns ringed their quarters for two days and, then, without explanation their firearms were returned and they resumed their duties. Apparently someone distrusted the Japanese American soldiers.
Over the next six months, the men of the 298th strung barbed wire, patrolled beaches, and manned machine gun emplacements as the military decided the fate of the nisei soldier. Doubts about Japanese American loyalty prompted the army to expel the 317 nisei volunteers serving in the Territorial Guard in January 1942, leading some nisei to organize the Varsity Victory Volunteers, a labor battalion. Even the Japanese Americans in the 298th and 299th were under suspicion, and on February 1, 1942, the War Department proposed to discharge or transfer all of them. The army, however, faced a manpower shortage in the islands so it kept the men despite fearing an armed uprising. In mid-May, the army's commander in Hawai'i suggested creating a segregated unit of Japanese Americans from the 298th and 299th and have them removed from the islands. The army's chief of staff in Washington, D.C. approved the plan, and on May 28, 1942, authorized the formation of the proposed battalion.
Without notice or fanfare, nisei soldiers from the 298th and 299th were ordered to report of Schofield Barracks on the island of O'ahu where they were housed in tents some distance from the other troops. Their rifles were taken away, and their camp was surrounded by barbed wire. On June 5, they were designated the Hawaiian Provisional Battalion, and were taken to Honolulu's Pier 31. In the early afternoon, they were placed in the hold of the Maui, and that evening set sail with 1,432 men on board. “Before we had any chance to bid goodbye to our loved ones,” one of the men, Spark Matsunaga, recalled, “we found ourselves on board a troopship sailing for God-knew-where. Speculation was rife that we were headed for a concentration camp” (Okihiro, 251).
On their arrival in Oakland, California, the Hawaiian Provisional Battalion became the 100th Infantry Battalion. The men emerged from the Maui's hold in the dark of night, and were loaded onto trains that took them to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, where they trained to fight for democracy while in another part of Camp McCoy, Japanese American leaders were confined behind barbed wire. In fact, the men suspected they were headed for a concentration camp because their train had window blinds to prevent them from knowing their destination, and when the train finally stopped, some of the men peered out and saw the barbed wire and guard towers of a concentration camp. That was where the leaders were being confined.
In the hold of the Maui and during the five-day train ride, the nisei soldiers gambled in card and dice games. Thousands of dollars switched hands. Their attitude was, given their uncertain fate, they were living on borrowed time and had nothing to lose. The expression in Hawaiian pidgin, spoken by the men, was go for broke or go for it all. That phrase, “Go For Broke,” became the motto of the 100th Infantry Battalion, arising from the men's predicament as soldiers in the U.S. Army, having little choice and even less to lose.
Spark Matsunaga described the men's attitude during their seven months at Camp McCoy, “We pictured ourselves as a battalion of forced laborers.” Japanese Americans marched with wooden guns because they were not trusted, and they played the part of the enemy when they faced white troops in mock combat. In October 1942, 26 men were assigned to a secret project on Cat Island, Mississippi, where they wore heavy padding and face guards and hid in the bushes. Trainers sent their dogs to find those nisei because the army believed Japanese emitted a distinctive odor. The idea was to use trained dogs in the Pacific theater to locate Japanese snipers hiding in the tropical vegetation. Of course, the soldiers reported, even the dogs knew they were Americans, making no distinction between their trainers and their prey.
The men of the 100th Infantry Battalion served with great distinction in North Africa and Italy where they earned the name “the Purple Heart Battalion” at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Early 1944. Monte Cassino was a mountain fortress, as its name suggests, which the Germans had secured with some of their best troops. Hitler was determined to halt the Allied advance up the Italian peninsula. So the fighting there was desperate. Over 40 days and against great odds, the men of the 100th struggled to climb the hill and in the process suffered immense casualties. Company A began the battle with more than 170 men, and when it ended, only 23 remained. After five months of fighting in Italy, the 100th was reduced from about 1,300 men to 521, the rest were killed, wounded, missing, or held as prisoners.
In June 1944, the 100th Infantry Battalion became the first battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team comprised of Japanese Americans from Hawai'i and the continent.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.