The following is an article written by Burt Masao Takeuchi (see credit below) in which he interviewed members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and those they rescued as they were sent into an incredibly intense and dangerous mission to rescue another U.S. Army regiment that was trapped by the Germans during World War II. The 442nd was composed entirely of Japanese Americans and despite the fact that their families, relatives, and friends were wrongfully imprisoned back in the U.S. just because they were of Japanese ancestry, the 442nd became the most decorated combat unit of its size in the entire U.S. military during World War II.
Bravery Comes in Many Colors
In late October 1944, a battalion (141st Infantry Regiment) from the 36th Texas Division was surrounded by the German army. Battles were fought in the densely wooded Vosges mountains located in Northern France near the German border. The Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team (about 3,000 men) was ordered to rescue the Lost Battalion by General Clayton Dahlquist (commander of the 36th Division). The German army had orders from Adolf Hitler to defend the Vosges at all costs. The rescue mission would be one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the US Army.
1st Lt. Robert Foote led an infantry platoon in K Company 442nd. Generally all officers attached to the 442nd were White but the NCO's were all Nisei's (second generation Japanese American). "I always felt safe as long as I had one live Nisei soldier left in my company. They would take care of me" said Foote. He "was taken out of action early" in the battle when his platoon attempted to race across some railroad tracks outside the town of Bruyeres. Foote was "blown into the air by a German mortar shell" that literally "landed in his hip pocket." Foote was severely wounded and had to be evacuated to a hospital. "Into the valley of death....." commented Foote.
Lt. Marty Higgins, a former "horse soldier" (cavalry), was in command of the Lost Battalion. Higgins formed a strong defensive position on a hill and dug in. Some 50 volunteers attempted to fight their way back to the American lines. They were ambushed and only 5 men returned. Higgins initially wanted to fight his way out of the trap but ruled against it because they didn't want to leave their wounded behind. Although surrounded, morale was high. Meanwhile food, medicine, ammunition and time was running out.
Lt. Susumu Ito was a forward observer with the 442nd's field artillery battalion (522nd FAB). Ito's duties were to direct artillery fire from the batteries of 105 mm howitzers to support the 442nd infantry assaults up the rolling hills. Prior to the battle, Ito received a battlefield commission to Lieutenant. It was rare for Nisei to be promoted to officer status during WW2 for his role in the Italian Campaign.
Sgt. Wally Nunotani had volunteered for the 442nd from Hawaii. Sgt. Nunotani was a section chief in the Cannon Company. The small company was very close to the fighting. Sometimes"we didn't want to shoot. We could hit our own guys." Nunotani saw an Me109 German fighter plane "hedge hopping over the lines". During the cold rainy nights, the Nisei soldiers slept in foxholes. It was "cold especially for Nisei who came from warm places." "Water would accumulate in foxholes" so "guys would make roofs [over them]." The roofs would also protect the soldiers from "tree bursts" where artillery shells would hit the trees showering the ground with thousands of splinters and shrapnel. These roofs would "protect us from this type of attack."
Shig Doi from I Company was heavily involved in the fighting to rescue the Lost Battalion. The Germans had machine gun nests in camouflaged positions so "they had to be pinpointed first. You had to work yourself forward [toward them] then use a hand grenade [to knock them out]. If you fired your weapon, "you can expose yourself" to enemy fire. If you fired too soon, "it's like saying 'Here I am."' When fighting in a dense forest, "everybody looks for [spare or extra] Tommy Guns" (Thompson sub machine gun). A "handy, close fighting weapon" with "lots of knockout power" from its heavy 45 caliber slugs.
The fighting was from tree to tree and ridge to ridge. The 442nd fought for yards at a time through dense woods shrouded with fog and rain. On October 30th, 1944 the 442nd broke through the German lines rescuing the Lost Battalion after storming up Banzai Hill. "We took a lot of losses" said Doi. A German sniper shot a Nisei soldier right in front of him. His friend moving near him was struck in the head and seriously wounded. The sniper "could have picked me off at the same place." Sometimes he wonders "How come I survived," commented Doi.
The Meaning of 'Courage Under Fire'
After the attack, Companies K, L, and I were down to less than 20 men standing each, out of 200 at full strength. Only a handful of Nisei's that were still able to walk made contact with the Lost Battalion. "I did not witness the first contact that was made by our riflemen but I did see several of the 36th Division fellows crawling out of their deep foxholes and with their bearded, bewildered look greet us with delight and relief," noted Ito. "Saying we were thrilled is an understatement," commented Higgins.
At the end of the battle, General Dahlquist asked the 442nd to pass in review. He asked where are all the men? "Sorry sir... this is all we have left" replied a teary-eyed officer. After days of near constant fighting the 442nd had suffered roughly 1,000 casualties. 200 soldiers were killed in action (or missing) with over 800 seriously wounded. Nunotani was not clear on why the 442nd was sent in to rescue the Lost Battalion. "There were other regiments that could have been used." Sometimes war is "like being on a football team. You go with the best and hope for the best," stated Nunotani. For its heroic action in the Vosges, the 442nd received five Presidential Unit Citations.
When asked about the possibility of a US invasion of Iraq, some of the vets commented that they were against such an invasion since they are unclear about the Bush administration's objectives. This is a "very foolhardy action" commented Nunotani. He continued that if the Bush administration "goes in to get Hussein they will have to fight the whole country. Sometimes the U.S. is like a bully in the world [trying to] impose its own way of life onto other cultures." Doi added, "I went through it (war) being bombed and shelled. These politicians glorify war but they are not the ones [that are] going. War should be a last resort." Doi also feared that "lots of civilians, innocent people" would be killed in Iraq.
World War II veterans are passing on at an alarming rate. Many are in their early 80's. Pretty soon there will be very few Nisei vets to tell the story of their heroic days fighting in the hills of Italy and France. As the 442nd passes into legend their story of courage will always be remembered despite the fact their own country had discriminated against them.
Editor's Note: Burt Takeuchi has completed work on a documentary on the 442nd RCT entitled Valor With Honor (see link for more details). Below is a copy of the film poster and the film's trailer.
Copyright © Copyright © 2002 by Burt Masao Takeuchi. All rights reserved.
Suggested reference: Takeuchi, Burt Masao. 2002. "442nd: Rescue of the Lost Battalion" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/442.shtml> ().
Burt Masao Takeuchi is a historical writer with interests in Asian American history. He is a member of the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee of San Jose, CA, a non-profit organization serving the Asian American community. Burt's interests are in history, sports, and independent film projects.
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