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The Unparalleled Courage of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team

This combined unit is the most decorated for its size in U.S. military history.

442nd/100th infantry
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  • 100th Infantry soldiers receive grenade training, 1943.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“Go for broke.” The motto of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team perfectly encompassed the heart and spirit of its men. It meant risking everything in one great effort to win big. It was perfect for the “Nisei”—a Japanese word for the American-born children of Japanese immigrants—of the unit. After all, they were fighting two wars: one against the Axis powers abroad and one against racial prejudice on their home turf in the United States.

Some confusion rightfully exists about the name of the 100th/442nd Nisei military service during World War II. The 100th Infantry Battalion originally stood alone. As the 100th was largely composed of former members of the Hawaii Army National Guard, their motto was “Remember Pearl Harbor” and was originally founded under the title “Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion.” This battalion of Hawaiians lost numerous troops during the Italian campaigns of 1943-44, earning them the nickname "the Purple Heart Battalion."

The 100th was made up almost entirely of Japanese Americans, serving under predominantly white officers. Even the men of the 100th had a nickname of their own for the outfit. They called it “One-Puka-Puka.” The word “puka” is a Hawaiian word, a double entendre for both “zero” and “hole.”

Originally refused by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 100th was rejected from combat until they were finally accepted by Lieutenant General Mark Wayne Clark, Commander of the United States Fifth Army. In August 1943, the 100th Infantry Battalion was deployed to the Mediterranean. The soldiers of the 100th bravely fought through Italian battlefields in the European Theater, and were credited with participating in the campaigns of Naples-Foggia, Anzio, Rome-Arno, North Apennines, Rhineland, and the Po Valley. 

It wasn’t until the summer of 1944 that the 100th was absorbed into the newly-arrived 442nd Regimental Combat Unit. However, because of their outstanding war efforts, the men of the 100th were allowed to keep their original designation for their newly formed all-Nisei fighting unit of the 100th/442nd under the 34th Infantry Division.

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The 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) was organized in March of 1943, answering the War Department's call for volunteers to form a segregated Japanese American unit. The government's interest in creating such a unit was partially due to the success of the 100th and the fierce loyalty they demonstrated. The 442nd included multiple units, including the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, 232nd Combat Engineer Company, 206th Army Ground Forces Band, a medical detachment, and three infantry battalions.

Hawaii-born Nisei, also known as “Buddhaheads,” made up about two-thirds of the 442nd, while the remaining third were Nisei from the mainland, who were also known as “Kotonks.” The term “Buddhahead” originated as a general term for a person of Japanese descent, but soon came to be associated with Japanese Americans from Hawaii during World War II. Meanwhile, the Japanese Americans from Hawaii derided the Japanese American mainlanders by referring to them as “Kotonks,” meaning that they were empty-headed. “Kotonk” was said to be the sound that an empty coconut makes when it hits the ground. The word is still used occasionally in Hawaii today.

442nd/100th infantry
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  • 442nd recruits building and crossing a pontoon bridge as part of their training at Camp Shelby, 1943.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In April 1943, when the islanders and mainlanders arrived for training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, they immediately began to fight with each other because of their different perspectives and backgrounds. The “Buddhaheads” represented a large ethnic group in a small island community, and generally weren't treated with suspicion and disdain there.

When the men from Hawaii went out around Camp Shelby to the nearby Southern cities, they would return with complaints about the prejudiced treatment they received from the locals. They were seen as Japanese, not American. They were not accustomed to the prejudice and discrimination that was typical of the mainland. But the “Kotonks” were, as they had experienced severe discrimination on the mainland, especially when their families were locked up in incarceration camps. In fact, many of the mainland Japanese Americans serving in the unit had been in the camps themselves. 

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The army grouped both the Hawaiians and mainlanders together as Japanese Americans without realizing the major differences that existed among the two groups, and failing to foresee the conflicts that would arise. Most of the animosity between the Hawaiians and the mainlanders was a result of miscommunication, stereotyping, and differences in culture, if not ethnicity. 

The friction between the two groups was causing low morale. If they couldn't even cooperate during training, the military high command questioned whether the men would ever be able to fight together as a group once they had landed in Europe, with its higher stakes and far deadlier conditions.

To rectify the situation, the Army sent some of the Hawaii recruits to visit two Japanese American incarceration camps in Arkansas. The men previously thought that the “relocation centers” were small towns with Japanese families, but when they saw what the incarceration camps really entailed, the Hawaiians suddenly understood where the mainlanders were coming from—especially why they were distrustful, more emotionally reserved, and reluctant to spend money (they were sending it to help their families).

Word of the camps spread, and the Hawaiians soon gained a new respect for the mainlanders. As a result, the men in the 442nd saw past their differences. The situation in Camp Shelby had completely changed, and nearly overnight. The regiment had finally come together in solidarity as brothers-in-arms.  

From May 1943 through February 1944, the men of the 442nd trained together for combat. They excelled at maneuvers and learned to operate as a fully functional lethal team. They were inspected in March and packed up in April. On May 1st, 1944, the men boarded ships destined for Europe. By June, the 100th Battalion had been transferred to the 442nd Regiment, and they began working together as a cohesive unit.

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Perhaps the most legendary episode in the history of the 100th Infantry/442nd Regimental Combat Team was its rescue of the “Lost Battalion” at the end of October 1944. As soldiers of the 36th Infantry Division, including both the 100th/442nd RCT and the 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry (the soon-to-be “Lost Battalion”, made up of men from Texas), pushed toward Germany in late 1944, they faced some of their heaviest resistance and harshest terrain yet in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France. 

442nd/100th infantry
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  • The 442nd hikes along a muddy road in France, 1944.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On the front lines of the Allied assault, Major General John E. Dahlquist pushed the 141st Regiment forward to liberate more French territory. The Texans moved quickly through the trees and, in their haste to recapture more territory, became separated from their fellow soldiers. The 1st Battalion lost contact with headquarters and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions made little headway in their failed attempts to reach their comrades. 

275 Texans were trapped on a steep ridge in the forest east of Biffontaine, cut off from the rest of their regiment and surrounded by Germans. The Allies attempted to airdrop food and supplies to the men, but as temperatures fell, rations decreased, and the conditions of the wounded deteriorated, the situation grew desperate.

Dahlquist ordered the 442nd to enter the Vosges Mountains to attempt a rescue, after two previous attempts by other units had already failed. Despite their best efforts and teamwork, the fighting was difficult, and the Nisei were forced to fight tenaciously for every yard of ground gained. They had to crawl from position to position, moving very slowly, as the Germans had well-established positions. It was extremely rough fighting.

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By October 29th, they had fought for five long days, but had not made much progress against the deeply entrenched Germans. At some points during the battle the Nisei found themselves outnumbered by as many as four to one and, due to their high casualty rate, resorted to final attacks of desperation. 

Finally, on October 30th, after six days of violent and frenzied combat, the 442nd broke through to the Lost Battalion. The Nisei rescued the 211 Texans who remained of the initial 275 men. Most of the deceased had succumbed to mines, sniper fire, heavy artillery, and spraying shrapnel, and many survivors were wounded. The 36th Infantry Division had suffered staggering casualty rates in the rescue process, and those companies who participated in the final push averaged less than half their normal full strength after the battle.

442nd/100th infantry
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  • Barack Obama signs S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team for their WWII service, in 2010.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

During the six days the 442nd fought to rescue the Lost Battalion, hundreds of men were killed and many, many more were wounded and sent to hospitals. But to the U.S. Army, the heroic rescue of the Lost Battalion is regarded as one of the top 10 ground battles in its history.

The 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team broke new ground as the most decorated unit in military history for its size and length of service, a distinction it still carries today. About 18,000 men had served, ultimately earning over 4,000 Purple Hearts, eight Presidential Unit Citations, and 21 Medals of Honor. In 2010, they were granted the Congressional Gold Medal, and in 2012 the remaining survivors of the 442nd RCT were made chevaliers (knights) of the Légion d’Honneur in France for their actions contributing to the Liberation of France and their rescue of the Lost Battalion. And in June 2021, the U.S Postal Service unveiled a new commemorative stamp featuring a soldier from the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team and their unforgettable motto, “go for broke.”