A Brief History
On May 2, 1945, an American Artillery Battalion intercepted a death march of concentration camp inmates being taken from the Dachau concentration camp to the Austrian border, in turn saving the lives of hundreds of the starving inmates. The rescuers must have seemed like angels sent directly from heaven to the doomed inmates, and even more surprising to those lucky survivors, the Americans that saved them were all of Japanese ancestry, part of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, a subunit of the 442nd Infantry Regiment that was composed of Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans.
While much has been made the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the fact is that many Japanese Americans were fiercely loyal to the United States and thousands wanted to serve in the military to prove their loyalty, despite the shoddy treatment of so many of their relatives. One of the truly shameful chapters in American History was the internment of those Japanese American citizens, some of whom were actually American veterans of World War I! (See our article, “Forced Internment of Japanese During World War II” for more information.)
Formed in February of 1943, the 442nd Infantry Regiment, known originally as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, is the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. Is this because the Nisei soldiers had something to prove? Is it because Japanese Americans are somehow inherently courageous and valiant soldiers? Or was it just happenstance that so many brave men served together? We suspect a little of all of these factors played a part in the distinguished record of this racially segregated fighting team, possibly with a component of social unity based on the common ethnic background. Either way, the 442nd fought in Italy and Europe with intensity and valor unequaled among US Army units. With its motto, “Go for Broke,” the Regiment lives on past its segregated Nisei past as an element of the US Army Reserve (100th Infantry Battalion), in fact the only Infantry unit in the Reserve.
In the 2 years of fighting in World War II, the Nisei soldiers earned an incredible record of over 18,000 medals and awards, including 9486 Purple Heart medals for those soldiers wounded or killed in action. For perspective, only a total of 14,000 men served in the Regiment during World War II! The highest military medal in the American military, The Medal of Honor, was awarded to 21 members of the 442nd Regiment, along with a Congressional Gold Medal for the unit. The unit also received a total of 8 Presidential Unit Citations. Not forgotten even long after World War II, France bestowed the Legion of Honor (Légion d’Honneur) on all surviving members of the Regiment that had served in France during World War II. One action in particular stands out in military history, that of the rescue of the so called “Lost Battalion” in the Vosges Mountains area of France in 1944. (The 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, known as “The Texas Battalion” due to its roots in the Texas National Guard, got itself cut off and surrounded by Germans and were in a dire position until rescued by the 442nd Regiment that was recalled early from a rest period after engaging in heavy fighting earlier.) In 1962, the Governor of Texas made those veterans of the 442nd that had rescued the “Lost Battalion” Honorary Texans, one more honor on their long list of honors.
The United States military was a racially segregated organization during World War II, with African American soldiers seen unfit for almost all combat related duties, relegating most Black soldiers to duties in the areas of cooking/serving, motor transport, supply and tending barrage balloons. The US Navy used African Americans only as cooks, stewards, and some supply assignments. Some notable exceptions, such as the famed Tuskegee Airmen, proved the idea of African Americans as unsuitable for combat as ridiculous. Japanese Americans were kept from serving in the Pacific Theater where it was feared their ethnic loyalties would be tested by fighting against fellow ethnic Japanese. Thus, the Nisei were lumped together in a racially segregated unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (later the 442nd Regiment) and fought in Europe against the Germans, where there would be no question of the identity and loyalties of the soldiers in combat.
After the US military was desegregated (or racially integrated) in 1948, after World War II, the 100th Infantry Battalion of the 442nd Regiment has gone on to fight again in Vietnam and in Iraq as members of the US Army Reserve activated for combat. During World War II the 442nd was a subunit of the 92nd Infantry Division and the 100th Battalion of the 442nd is now a Reserve component of the 25th Infantry Division
One negative part of the history of the 442nd came not as a part of their own conduct, but as the leadership provided by General John E. Dahlquist, the Division Commander of the 92nd Infantry Division during World War II. Dahlquist has been accused by some of his subordinates of being rather carefree with the lives of his men, notably the 442nd, whom he allegedly treated as “cannon fodder.” In a notable incident reflective of the lack of insight on the part of General Dahlquist, the General had ordered the 442nd to stand in formation in November of 1944 for an awards assembly. When a pathetically small number of soldiers of the 442nd turned out for the awards ceremony, Dahlquist became quite angry and demanded that the rest of the unit be summoned for the ceremony. The General was curtly advised that the rest of the men were killed or wounded.
Of course, the incident in which members of the 522nd Artillery saved the inmates from Dachau from certain death as they were being marched out of Germany was seared into the minds of those soldiers involved in the rescue of the inmates. The soldiers eagerly tried to give their rations to the starving inmates but were cautioned that giving too much food to the starving people might kill them instead, and moderation was demanded to avoid further tragedy. The unit was also involved in the liberation of Dachau itself, exposing the soldiers to a specific sort of horror of World War II, shocking the battle hardened men to their cores.
The United States Army has a long history of success and many acts of individual and unit courage along the way. Among the pantheon of heroes of the US Army, the Japanese Americans that served with the 442nd Regiment during World War II rank at the top.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were you aware of the segregated nature of the 442nd Regiment? What other racially segregated American military units are you aware of? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Hughes, Dean. Four-Four-Two. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016.
Sterner, C. Go For Broke: The Nisei Warriors of World War II Who Conquered Germany, Japan, and American Bigotry. American Legacy Historical Press, 2015.
White, JJ. Nisei. Black Opal Books, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of a team of Japanese-American G.I.s from the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion throw 105mm shells at Germans in support of an infantry attack in Bruyères, France, is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.