With the successful precedents of Japanese Americans working as the Varsity Victory Volunteers in Hawai'i and serving in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS)
and 100th Infantry Battalion, the U.S. government considered, especially in light of manpower shortages, the formation of another Japanese American unit. The army's chief of staff approved the plan on January 1, 1943, and four weeks later the War Department called for 1,500 volunteers from Hawai'i and 3,000 from the continent. Instead, nearly 10,000 answered the call in Hawai'i, and of that number, 2,686 men were selected. By contrast on the continent, only 1,138 qualified men volunteered from the concentration camps after about a month of recruiting. Their numbers increased in January 1944 when the government applied the draft to nisei.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was activated in February 1943. Most of its officers were white, while the foot soldiers, Japanese American. Beginning in May 1943, they trained at Fort Shelby, Mississippi, where the barracks leaked, sand and dust got into food and bedding, and the rains and mud made the roads impassable. Japanese Americans designed their regiment's patch, showing a silver arm and hand holding a torch against a field of blue. The design symbolized the freedom and liberty denied them but for which they fought. Over 18,000 Japanese American soldiers wore that patch.
In June 1943, the 100th Infantry Battalion returned to Fort Shelby after training in Louisiana. There the men of the two units met, and rivalry between them led to friction and name calling such as “buddhaheads” for Japanese Americans from Hawai'i and “kotonks” for those from the continent. Those from the continent thought those from the islands behaved very Japanese or like “buddhas,” and the latter retaliated with “kotonk” or the sound made by a tiny brain that rattled when shaken. In August, the 100th Battalion shipped out of Camp Shelby for duty overseas.
While the 100th fought bloody battles in Italy, the 442nd trained and sent over 500 replacements for the devastating losses suffered by the 100th. By March 1944, they were ready. Transport ships made the 28-day journey to Italy, arriving in May 1944, and in June the 442nd joined forces with the 100th, which, during the first few months of fighting, had suffered immense casualties. Together, the 442nd moved up the Italian peninsula engaging the enemy in town after town.
A nisei soldier described his battle strategy. “You work as a team … those guys from the islands taught me something I never saw on the Mainland … you really have a buddy system. When you get into trouble you don't leave your buddy, ever, and he won't leave you, and this is a tremendous thing. You make it or you don't make it, together.” In that way, he said, “You're never alone, and you know that. It keeps you going” (Tanaka, 62).
Perhaps the best-known action engaged by the men of the 442nd was the mission to rescue the “Lost Battalion.” Deep in the Vosge forest in France was the battered 3rd Battalion of the 141st Regiment, 36th Division. They were trapped and hemmed in by German troops in October 1944. Other units had tried to reach the 3rd Battalion but were beaten back. The assignment was given to the 442nd to reach the “Lost Battalion.” The 442nd had been through weeks of difficult fighting leading to the liberation of the town of Bruyeres. They had just two days rest when they received their orders to move into the dense forest where fighting was fierce and combat, hand-to-hand. “From the very first day until we reached them, it seemed like an eternity,” a soldier recalled. “It couldn't have been more than a week. We lost officers and men right and left every day. We lost so many men you couldn't count.” The Germans laid down a terrible artillery barrage, cutting off supplies and reinforcements. With the 100th guarding a flank, the 442nd advanced. “There was no thought of turning back,” a soldier recalled. “Never. We didn't think about turning back. No one even mentioned it. We just kept plowing forward to reach the ‘Lost Battalion,' period” (Tanaka, 92–93). Finally, they reached the “Lost Battalion,” having suffered over 800 casualties in less than a week to rescue 211 men.
A Japanese American Army chaplain described an incident exemplary of the war's brutality and humanity. The brother of a dead soldier asked him to assist in the burial of his brother who had been killed that day. There were thousands of bodies, the chaplain remembered, and after a search they found the nisei soldier's body. There were German prisoners of war (POWs) standing nearby, and several asked if the men needed a hand carrying the body of the fallen Japanese American. They refused because “well, I'm ashamed to say it,” admitted the chaplain,
“we hated the Germans so much—to think that a German who had killed this boy … was going to touch his body again.” At graveside, the chaplain said The Lord's Prayer, and the Germans knelt and recited it in German. After the service was over, the chaplain asked a sergeant what he thought about the Germans reciting The Lord's Prayer. “He said, ‘You know, Chaplain, I was going to stand up, go over and push his face in … to think that he would say a prayer over the body of one he might have helped to kill.'” But then he realized that there was no Japanese father in the prayer's “our father,” no American father, no German father. “Our father,” the nisei soldier realized, meant “‘the Germans were our brothers and we were fighting each other and killing each other. You know, Chaplain, for a minute there, I was ashamed that we, as brothers, were killing each other'” (Tanaka, 103).
A group from the 442nd was among the first Allied troops to release prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. Ichiro Imamura described how a scout shot off the chain to the camp, and upon entering they realized the bodies sprawled on the snow-covered ground were alive because they were moving slowly. “Many of them were Jews,” Imamura wrote in his diary. “They were wearing black and white striped prison suits and round caps. A few had shredded blanket rags draped over their shoulders…. The prisoners shuffled to their feet after the gates were opened. They shuffled weakly out of the compound. They were like skeletons—all skin and bones…. They were starving” (Tanaka, 117). The men moved on after several days near Dachau.
The men of the 442nd were among the most decorated and decimated of the war. Mary Matsuda, the sister of slain Sergeant Kazuo Matsuda, reminded her listeners of the debt they owed to those who had made the supreme sacrifice. “We have won the war against fascism abroad,” she said, “but that is not our whole duty. We must sacrifice selfishness for the larger interest of society and courageously live the principles of tolerance and fair play in our daily lives in contact with our neighbors” (Tanaka, 168). Democracy demanded adherence to those ideals.
Tanaka, Chester. Go For Broke: A Pictorial History of the Japanese American 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Richmond, CA: Go For Broke, 1982.