When Japan launched its devastating attack on Pearl Harbour, the United States – and indeed the world – entered a state of shock.
America was on its knees, shaken and disturbed by such a callous act of violence. When the dust began to settle and America geared up for war, however, attention turned toward the thousands of Japanese Americans who called the United States home; two-thirds of whom were born in the United States.
The west coast of the United States, in particular, was home to 100,000+ Japanese Americans; every day working stiffs, families and law-abiding Americans came under intense scrutiny and at times, violent attacks.
The United States’ solution to all of this was to create a number of internment camps to house America’s large Japanese population. Keeping them interned and away from society allowed the government to monitor them and calm fears of espionage or even potential revolt.
While the world was engulfed in a catastrophic conflict, many Japanese Americans spent their time within the confines of these camps – but not all of them.
Go For Broke
Thousands of Japanese Americans volunteered for military service in the wake of Pearl Harbour. They were, after all, Americans, and for many their ancestry mattered not in light of the peril that the US faced.
Allow me to introduce the 442nd Infantry Regiment; an iconic symbol of America’s fight during the Second World War who’s motto was ‘Go for Broke’.
The 442nd was formed in Hawaii in 1944 and was comprised entirely of 4,000 ‘Nisei‘ Japanese Americans – ‘Nisei‘ is a Japanese word for ‘second generation‘. Essentially meaning the children of Japanese immigrants born in a new land.
Two-thirds of the regiment was made up of Japanese American recruits from Hawaii, with the remain third likely being from west coast states and further afield. Hawaii had a significant Japanese immigrant population at the time of the Pearl Harbour attacks – around 25% of the population – and as such, this made internment simply impractical.
Instead, those who enlisted were spared a stay in internment camps, and eager to prove their loyalty and worth to the United States they became a legendary fighting force.
The 442nd was deployed from Hawaii straight into the European theatre, where they would engage the might of the Nazi war machine in Northern Italy. Intense fighting was taking place in an effort to push into southern France and, ultimately, Germany.
The fighting that the 442nd saw was horrific, and the casualties were heavy. It is their bravery that earned them the title of the most heavily decorated unit in the war, however.
During their time in the European theatre, the men of the 442nd earned over 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 members were awarded the Medal of Honour and the regiment was awarded eight Presidential Citations – with five of those being earned in the space of a month.
More than 2,000 men were killed in action during a gruelling two-week period of intense combat in France and, when the regiment fought in the Vosges Mountains, another 2,000 were wounded and over 160 killed.
The Nisei soldiers were often relentless in their attempts to take enemy positions and their courage in battle cannot be understated – they truly were a magnificent fighting unit.
Their rescue of the famed ‘Lost Battalion’ earned them further recognition as ferocious fighters. While under intense artillery and machine-gun fire, men of the 442nd are famed to have charged their German counterparts in a frenzied affair that routed the enemy.
Discovering the Horror of Nazism
In a heartbreaking and bizarre event later in the war, the 442nd was among the first units to discover the Dachau concentration camp. In a famous interview after the war, a survivor of the camps recalls encountering the Nisei.
16-year old Janina Cywinska was left for dead when camp guards abandoned their stations in April, 1945. When rescue arrived, it seems she did not realise that they were in fact American soldiers, instead mistaking them for Imperial Japanese soldiers, who she assumed had now won the war.
“When I looked at him, he was a little Japanese man.
“I said, ‘Oh, no, now you guys won and now you are going to shoot us. Why don’t you just shoot us and get it over with?’ He went down on his knees . . . looked up in my face and said, ‘We are liberators. We are American soldiers. We are American Japanese.”
This relatively unknown episode in the dying days of the war puts into perspective the efforts of Japanese American troops. Their cultural background meant nothing when their country needed them.
Happy, able and willing to fight for the United States in its darkest hours, the men of the 442nd Infantry Regiment overcame great obstacles and the shackles of a military that – at the time – widely discriminated against people of colour.
Many may have felt they had something to prove to the people of America, and the world, and their courage throughout the fighting in Europe proved their worth and solidified their place in the annals of US military history.