Wednesday, June 1, 2011

France: Following in the Footsteps of the 442nd "Go for Broke" Regiment

While we were in France last year with H's brother touring the wine country of Alsace and the battlefields of Verdun and the Meuse-Argonne, we also took the time to visit the site of a famous episode in US Army World War Two history and an important event to Americans of Japanese descent, the rescue of the "Lost Battalion" by the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT).  Our time was limited and none of us were experts on the fighting in the area, but it was a meaningful and moving day following the tracks of those young men who, as H puts it, carry all Japanese Americans who come after them on their shoulders by the acts of courage and sacrifice they endured.

First, a little background on the 442nd to give you a greater understanding on why its members and this particular battle are so honored.  The 442nd rose from the ashes of a shameful episode of racism and paranoia in our history following Imperial Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.  Under the authority of Executive Order 9066, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans on the US mainland were forcefully interned in concentration camps scattered about the western US.  More than 1,000 were also interred in Hawaii and more probably would have been put in camps if some of the authorities had had their way.  Marshal law was declared in Hawaii to clamp down on the threat of espionage or sabotage from the territory's majority population of residents with Japanese ancestry and an atmosphere of fear, hatred, and suspicion prevailed.  Japanese-Americans of the Hawaiian National Guard units at one point had their weapons taken from them and were nearly discharged because of their heritage.

Eventually, Japanese-Americans born in the US (Nisei) would be allowed to serve in the US Army and from their ranks would come two units that served with great distinction during the war even though many of them had suffered humiliation, accusations of disloyalty, and had families living in internment camps.  Both would be shipped off to fight in Europe rather than the Pacific campaign.  The first, created in mid-1942 from the Hawaiian National Guard, would become the 100th Infantry Battalion and enter combat in Italy in late September of 1943.  It would take heavy casualties and earn the nickname the "Purple Heart Battalion."  The second unit, comprised of Nisei from both Hawaii and the mainland US, was formed in February of 1943 and would become the 442nd RCT, nicknamed "Go For Broke."  Before entering combat in Italy in May of 1944, it would absorb the 100th Battalion.  By the end of the war, the 442nd would become the most highly decorated US Army unit for its size and length of service on record, earning seven Presidential Unit Citations, the highest award a unit can receive.  Individuals in the unit would earn 21 Medals of Honor, 33 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 588 Silver Stars, the three highest individual Army awards, as well as a host of lesser honors, including 5,200 Bronze Stars and almost 9,500 Purple Hearts (for wounds in combat).

The 442nd spent most of its combat tour in Italy, but would also fight in southern France from October of 1944 to March of 1945.  In October, the 442nd found itself in the Vosges Mountains and attached to the  36th "Texas" Division, so-named because it was originally comprised of National Guardsmen from Texas.  In nine days of heavy fighting, the 442nd and elements of the 36th Division took two French towns, Bruyeres and Biffontaine.  After seizing Biffontaine, the 442nd was moved into reserve for a rest, but almost immediately was ordered out on another mission, the rescue of the "Lost Battalion."  On 26 October, some 275 men of the 36th Division's 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment (1st/141st) were cut off and surrounded on a ridge approximately two kilometers behind German lines, not far from the recently captured town of Biffontaine.    For the next five days, the 442nd would attack through the German defenses in a desperate attempt to relieve the trapped battalion.  It was a slug fest.  The terrain was rugged and hilly, the weather cold and wet, and German resistance fanatical.  The 442nd's progress was slow until the third day of the attack when elements of its 3rd and 100th battalions spontaneously launched a "banzai" charge up a steep slope about 800 meters from the trapped battalion.  Two members of the 442nd would earn the Medal of Honor that day, and the hill would afterwards be known as "Banzai Hill."  The attack itself broke the back of the German defenses, and although the 442nd would continue to meet resistance, it would make contact with the surviving 211 members of the "Lost Battalion" the next day.  After five days of relentless attacks to relieve the men of the 141st, and some 800 casualties, the 442nd was exhausted, but it was not done and would remain in action another 18 days before being pulled off the front lines for a well-deserved rest.  In three weeks of combat, the approximately 3,000-strong unit had suffered over 1,400 casualties, plus several hundred more hospitalized largely for frostbite and exhaustion.


Simple map from the Texas Military Museum site showing the 36th Division's attacks on Bruyeres and the hills surrounding the town.  The 442nd, 141, 142, and 143 boxes represent the regiments of the division.  "36RCN" is the reconnaissance unit (troop) of the 36th Division.