Storied WWII Unit Was Made Up of Nisei. Who Were They?

By Katie Lange,
Defense Media Activity

Every May, there’s a lot going on. There’s May Day, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Memorial Day, just to name a few. It also happens to be Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. While that might not be a big deal to you personally, it means a whole lot to the armed forces.

442nd Regimental Combat Team at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, June 1943. Photo courtesy of the U.S. War Department

It just so happens that one of the most decorated military units in American history – the 422nd Regimental Combat Team – was a segregated World War II unit made up entirely of Americans of Japanese ancestry.

This is a big deal for obvious reasons. But in case your brain is struggling today, here’s a bit of the history as to why.

You see, Japanese-Americans were barred from military service at the start of World War II. The Pearl Harbor attacks on Dec. 7, 1941, led to major backlash, including a change in draft status for Japanese-Americans – known as Nisei – from ”draft eligible” to “enemy alien,” meaning they couldn’t enlist in the armed forces. Hundreds of thousands of Nisei were relocated into internment camps out of fear and distrust.

Members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team play “galloping dominoes” upon the bed of a GI truck at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, June 1943. Photo courtesy of the U.S. War Department

Despite this, many Nisei still wanted to serve America, and they were eventually able to do so through the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion, the Military Intelligence Service, and the storied 442nd RCT – which became the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in U.S. military history.

The 442nd RCT was activated Feb. 1, 1943, and was composed of Nisei men who had volunteered from Hawaii and internment camps on the mainland. They trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, before deploying to Italy in June 1944, where they joined in combat with the 100th Infantry Battalion – the first Nisei Army unit to be activated in the war.

In the following two months, the 442nd RCT earned nine Distinguished Service Crosses, while the 100th earned three. By mid-August, the 100th officially became part of the 442nd RCT. “Go for broke” was their motto.

The men of the 442nd RCT fought so well that, in September 1944, they were reassigned to the invasion of southern France under the 7th Army and took part in the drive into the Vosges Mountains. During four weeks that fall, they liberated Bruyeres and Biffontaine and also rescued a battalion that had been cut off from its division.

Members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team train at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, in 1943. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Signal Corps

For several more months, the 442nd RCT guarded the French/Italian border. By March 1945, they were again reassigned, this time to the 5th Army and the Po Valley campaign, where they were attached to the 92nd Infantry Division, an all African-American unit. Together, they helped drive the Germans out of northern Italy.

In their two years of service, the 442nd RCT and the 100th IB (before it joined the 442nd) earned:

  • 7 Presidential Unit Citations
  • 2 Meritorious Service Plaques
  • 36 Army Commendation Medals
  • 87 Division Commendations

Individual soldiers were awarded 18,000 decorations, including:

The Color Guard of the 442nd RCT stands at attention while citations are read following the fierce fighting in the Vosges area of France, Nov. 12, 1944. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Signal Corps

  • 21 Medals of Honor
  • 29 Distinguished Service Crosses
  • 560 Silver Stars
  • 4,000 Bronze Stars
  • 22 Legion of Merit medals
  • 15 Soldier’s Medals
  • Nearly 9,500 Purple Hearts

The units lost 650 men, more than 3,700 were wounded in action, and 67 were declared missing in action.

Because of the 442nd RCT’s success, the draft was reinstated in the internment camps back home, and several other battalions and companies were incorporated into it.

The 442nd RCT was demobilized and inactivated about a year after World War II came to an end, but their lineage and the honors given to them remain a steadfast reminder of the Nisei courage, discipline and devotion to country during a time when their countrymen didn’t always love them back. Many of the men who served in the 442nd went on to have distinguished careers in science, higher education and government.

For their commitment and devotion to the cause, we certainly thank them for their service during this heritage month!

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