Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: Honoring Japanese-Americans from the 442nd

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II, and sent waves of anti-Japanese sentiment rippling through the country. Many Americans doubted the loyalty of Japanese immigrants. By the spring and early summer of 1942, the War Department began to force Japanese living in the continental United States into internment camps, where they would be held for most of the war.  In Hawaii internment camps were seen as impractical, as almost one-third of the population was of Japanese descent. 

Despite this atmosphere of fear and mistrust, many Japanese-Americans served in the American armed forces. In Hawaii, the 100th Infantry Battalion was formed from the Hawaii National Guard, the first all Japanese-American combat unit in U.S. Army history. It entered combat in September 1943, in Salerno, Italy.  Through difficult fighting at Monte Casino and Anzio, the 100th earned the moniker “Purple Heart Battalion.”

As the 100th was preparing for Italy, the War Department was facing a manpower shortage. In search of volunteers for a new combat unit, recruiters were dispatched to internment camps. Volunteers from the camps–almost all Nisei, the term used to specify the children born to Japanese immigrants– joined volunteers from Hawaii to constitute a new unit: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In 1944, the 442nd moved to Italy and absorbed the 100th, which became the regiment's first battalion while still retaining its unit designation.

In August 1944, the 442nd helped liberate southern France as part of Operation Dragoon. As the Americans advanced north, the regiment served with distinction in the Vosges mountains. In late October, an American battalion was cut off and surrounded by German forces. Rescue efforts by other combat units proved unsuccessful and casualties began to mount. Against stiff enemy resistance and geographic obstacles, the 442nd was dispatched to save this battalion, breaking through on October 30 and rescuing the trapped soldiers. 

Throughout World War II, the 100th and 442nd fought with courage, neatly encapsulated in the unit motto––“Go for broke.” By the end of the war, the unit had received more than 18,000 individual decorations, including one Medal of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Stars and 9,486 Purple Hearts. 

More than 55 years later, 21 Asian-American veterans of the conflict, including 19 who served in the 100th and the 442nd, had their Distinguished Service Crosses upgraded to Medals of Honor. This belated action aimed to remedy prejudice that existed at the time. 

In the foothills of the Vosges, thirteen members of the 442nd are buried and memorialized at Epinal American Cemetery:

  • Capt. Joseph Byrne
  • Pfc. Teruo Fujioka
  • SSgt. Tomosu Hirahara
  • Pfc. Bob T. Kameoka
  • TSgt. Mitsuru E. Miyoko
  • Pfc. Hachiro Mukai
  • Pfc. Edward Ogawa
  • 1st Lt. Ben W. Rogers, Jr
  • TSgt. Uetaro Sanmonji
  • Sgt. George W. Suyama
  • Pfc. Yoshio Tengan
  • Pvt. Hideo Yasui
  • Pfc. Minoru M. Yoshida