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Home : News
NEWS | May 22, 2017

Asian-Pacific Heritage: Japanese-American WWII unit stands among Army’s most decorated

By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. — In 1940, Mitsuo "Ted" Hamasu was working in the sugar cane fields of Hawaii as well as a second job as a carpenter's assistant for his uncle. Within a year those jobs would be a distant memory and Hamasu would be a part of one of the most decorated units of World War II – the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Made up almost entirely of Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans, the unit's origins began with the Hawaii Army National Guard. So too did Hamasu's service when he enlisted in the Hawaii Army Guard's 299th Infantry Regiment after receiving a draft notice.

Enlisting got him out of the cane fields, which he was glad to leave behind, said Hamasu.

"I was happy to get out of the country," he said in a 2011 interview, referring to his rural home on Hawaii's largest island. "That's a country place. It's sugarcane. We were working for a plantation, a sugar plantation, cane farming."

In August 1940 the 299th Infantry Regiment, as well as the entire National Guard, was mobilized in anticipation of American entry into World War II. The unit provided security at a number of locations in Hawaii, including the Hilo airport, which is where Hamasu was when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941.

"We received a phone call saying that Pearl Harbor was attacked, bombed by Japanese planes," he said. "At first, I did not believe it. Another phone call confirmed the fact."

In the aftermath, Hamasu and the Soldiers in his unit built up defenses around Hilo in case of another attack, but other changes were soon to come. In April 1942 all Soldiers of Japanese ancestry in the 299th Infantry Regiment were ordered to turn in their weapons and ammunition.

"That's when they segregated us," said Hamasu. A few weeks later he and the other Japanese-American Soldiers were on the move.

"Quietly, about a month later, our segregated group of Nisei Soldiers embarked on a ship from Hilo to Honolulu and Schofield Barracks, then again in June from Honolulu to Oakland," said Hamasu. "We did not know it at the time, but we were headed to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin."

The group was organized as the Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion, with many of the Soldiers coming from the Hawaii Army Guard's 298th and 299th Infantry Regiments. That designation would change before they got to Wisconsin.

"They named our outfit the 100th Infantry Battalion, or One Puka Puka in Hawaiian," Hamasu said.

The unit trained in Wisconsin and then at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Many unit members said they felt animosity and distrust from other Soldiers during the training.

"United States leaders remained suspicious and skeptical of the Nisei Soldiers' loyalty," said Army Col. Hiraoki Morita in a 1992 essay on the 100th Infantry Battalion, written while he attended the Army War College.

For the Nisei Soldiers, that often translated to working and training harder in order to prove themselves.

"They didn't say you [had] to, but it happened that way," said Hamasu. "You [had] to — you know, you [had] to do more than your share to be accepted by the other Soldiers."

In September 1943, the unit sailed for North Africa where it fell under the Minnesota Army National Guard's 34th Infantry Division. Also assigned to the division was another largely Nisei unit – the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

By the end of the month the division and its subordinate units were in Salerno, Italy. They fought for nine months from Salerno to Rome and took part in operations at Anzio as part of the Italian campaign. Some of the heaviest fighting came in late January 1944 at Monte Cassino.

"It was a terrible thing, as far as the war is concerned," said Hamasu, reflecting on his combat experiences.

The 100th Infantry Battalion earned the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions in Italy, as well as the nickname the "Purple Heart Battalion," a reflection of the number of wounded or killed in the fierce fighting.

During the campaign the unit's Soldiers "boldly [faced] murderous fire from all types of weapons and tanks and at times [fought] without artillery support," according to the orders announcing the unit citation.

The Soldiers continued to push on.

"Doggedly the members of the 100th Infantry Battalion fought their way into strongly defended positions," the orders continue. "The stubborn desire of the men to close with a numerically superior enemy and the rapidity with which they fought enabled the 100th Infantry Battalion to destroy completely the right flank positions of a German army."

It was also during this timeframe that the 100th Infantry Battalion, which had operated as a separate battalion unconnected to a parent regiment, was redesignated the 100th Battalion and made a part of the 442nd RCT.

The combined unit next took part in the invasion of southern France, entering the town of Le Muy in August. From there the unit pushed through Marsielle and on to the Vosges Mountains, where it engaged in fighting around Biffontaine, France, earning a second Presidential Unit Citation.

To capture Biffontaine – and the nearby town of Bruyeres — the unit's Soldiers fought an almost continuous four-day firefight through thick forests and freezing, rainy weather, according to the unit citation. It also required crossing heavily defended areas where they were met with substantial German machine gun and tank fire.

"Shouting defiance in the face of demands for surrender, the men of the 100th Battalion fired their rifles and threw captured hand grenades at the enemy tanks," the award citation reads. "Bitter fighting at close range resulted in the capture of [Biffontaine]."

The Soldiers of the unit were lauded for their skillful approach.

"So skillfully coordinated was the attack [to capture Biffontaine] that the strongly fortified hostile positions were completely overrun, numerous casualties were inflicted on the enemy and the capture of the town was assured," according to the citation.

With only a few day's rest after capturing Biffontaine, the unit was tasked with rescuing Soldiers from the Texas Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, who had been cut off two miles behind German lines.

Rescuing the "lost battalion" meant four days of fighting against "a fanatical enemy that was determined to keep the [battalion] isolated and force its surrender," according to the citation.

The fighting was fierce.

"Fighting yard-by-yard through a minefield the [100th Infantry Battalion] was stopped by an enemy strong point on the high ground which [the German commander] had made the key to his defense," the award citation reads. "As the terrain precluded a flanking movement, the battalion was forced to the only alternative of a frontal attack against a strongly entrenched enemy."

By attacking in wave after wave, within a few hours the enemy's defense lines were reduced.

"Although exhausted and reduced through casualties to about half its normal strength, the battalion fought doggedly forward against strong enemy small-arms and mortar fire until it contacted the isolated unit," reads the citation.

The unit fought in other areas of France before being sent back to Italy in March 1945 where it was instrumental in breaking through the "Gothic Line," the last line of German defenses in Italy. Days after the "Gothic Line" fell, the war in Europe was over.

Soldiers of the 442nd RCT earned numerous individual awards for combat actions and acts of valor including 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Star Medals and close to 9,500 Purple Hearts. Many have said the unit stands as the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in Army history.

While proving themselves in combat, many Soldiers cited discrimination on the battlefield.

"Several veterans have stated that they [felt] that the senior military leadership outside of their unit viewed them as expendable or cannon fodder," said Morita in his essay. "Nonetheless, every one of the Nisei Soldiers took up the challenge, despite their awareness of being used."

The Soldiers fought hard for a variety of reasons.

"There were many reasons this unit fought as hard and as well as it did," said Morita. "The reasons lie in their culture, common backgrounds, values and collective training. They also lie in the clarity of purpose and a shared goal for all members of the unit."

For many Soldiers that purpose was to show their loyalty to the country, especially after thousands of Japanese-Americans had been forcibly sent to internment camps, primarily in the western U.S.

"They had a mission," said Morita. "To win freedom for their families in internment camps and to prove their loyalty by distinguishing themselves in combat."

That legacy can be seen today.

"[Today] you would find [Japanese-Americans, and others of Asian and Pacific ancestry] in every branch of service, in the most sensitive war-planning positions, in the cockpits of fighters and bombers as pilots and navigators," said Terry Shima, who served in the 442nd RCT in World War II.

Further changes have been seen on the civilian side.

"On the civilian side, there would be equally impressive reforms," Shima said. "One was repeal of discriminatory laws, especially along the West Coast states. And in 1952 alien Japanese could apply for U.S. citizenship … a great accomplishment."

For Shima, the story and legacy of those who served with the 100th Bn., 442nd RCT is simply part of the national tapestry.

"This is an American story," he said. "And it speaks to the greatness of this nation."