President Obama today signed legislation at a White House ceremony to collectively award the soldiers of the 100th battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team the Congressional Gold Medal. Individual members had been awarded Medals of Honor but as a group, this is the first time the bravery of the mostly Japanese American troops of the 100th/442nd has been acknowledged with such an honor.
Outside of Japanese American and Asian American circles, and probably military history buffs, I bet not many people know of these soldiers. The 100th/442nd, nicknamed the “Go for Broke” regiment, is the most highly decorated military unit for its size and length of service in the history of the United States.
After the Japanese navy bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. declared war on Japan, anyone of Japanese ancestry who was in the U.S. military was classified as “enemy aliens,” and therefore booted out of the service.
As the war raged in the Pacific and in Europe, the U.S. began to incorporate Japanese Americans — Nisei, or second-generation U.S.-born citizens — back into military service. The 100th Battalion was the all-Nisei group of Hawaii national guardsmen who were activated to serve in Europe. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was added, with men recruited from the Japanese American internment camps on the mainland. These soldiers chose to fight for the United States even though the country had imprisoned their families out of racial fear.
In one famous battle, the 100th/442nd rescued a group of trapped American GIs from Texas that had been called “The Lost Battalion” in the forests of France, and suffered over 800 casualties to save 230 Texans. Those Texas veterans to this day celebrate their rescue with remaining Japanese American veterans. No wonder why the JAs were called the “Go for Broke” battalion. Sadly, they were also called the “Purple Heart Battalion.”
Their exploits and heroism have been captured in a few movies and documentaries, most notably the 1951 film “Go for Broke!” that tells the story from the perspective of a fictional white lieutenant leading the Japanese American troops (the real leader was Korean American), starring Van Johnson as the lieutenant, and “Only the Brave” from 2004, which tells the story from a moving, JA perspective (full disclosure: Erin and I volunteered to help during the shotting of Lane Nishikawa’s film, and think it’s pretty terrific).
I never get tired of hearing about the heroism of the greatest JA generation… and wish that the other side of the JA story, about the translators and soldiers who served in the Pacific fighting the Japanese, could also be memorialized both in popular culture and with national recognition.
But for today, congratulations to all the living members of the fabulous 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team!