Soon after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, effectively placing over 100,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent, the majority of them American citizens, into incarceration camps. Racism against Japanese Americans was rampant as much of the country grew more fearful and suspicious of collaboration with the Japanese government. But Japanese Americans were equally outraged at the attack on their country. Despite the growing racism against them, many Japanese Americans answered the call to war.
President Roosevelt activated the 442nd Regimental Combat Team on February 1, 1943, nearly one year after the signing of EO9066. Hawaiian-born Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) made up roughly two-thirds of the regiment, with the remaining third composed of Nisei from the mainland United States. The motto of the unit was “Go For Broke,” a phrase that meant putting everything on the line in an effort to win big. Just as other minority groups, Japanese Americans faced two wars during World War II—war against the Axis powers and war against racism back home—making “Go For Broke” an appropriate motto.
The 442nd RCT consisted of multiple units, including the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, 232nd Combat Engineer Company, 206th Army Ground Forces Band, an Antitank Company, Cannon Company, Service Company, a medical detachment, and three infantry battalions. From May 1943 to April 1944, the men of the 442nd trained for combat, where they learned to fight as a team and excelled in practice maneuvers. Over the course of training, many men would be sent to Europe as replacements for the 100th Infantry Battalion, another Japanese American unit already fighting overseas and creating its own impressive track record.
Training for the 442nd was completed in April, and on April 22, 1944, the unit left Camp Shelby in Mississippi on their journey to Europe for their first overseas assignment. They arrived in Italy in June 1944, where they began to fight alongside the 100th against Germans encamped across the country. By August, the 100th was absorbed into the 442nd, with all units serving under the motto “Go For Broke.” In September 1944, the 442nd participated in the invasion of Southern France, successfully liberating French cities from Nazi occupation. The unit went on to fight with the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated African American unit, in driving German forces out of northern Italy.
Today, the 442nd is remembered as the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the US military. The unit, totaling about 18,000 men, over 4,000 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 560 Silver Star Medals, 21 Medals of Honor, and seven Presidential Unit Citations. Additionally, the 100th garnished their own impressive record prior to their absorption into the 442nd. In 2010, various groups and advocates, including the National Veterans Network, were successful in obtaining congressional passage of the bill S. 1055, awarding all members of the 100th and 442nd, along with the Military Intelligence Service, the Congressional Gold Medal for their heroic service in World War II.
Against the odds, the men of the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team did “go for broke.” Despite the years of suspicion and racism that prevailed at home, these Nisei men fought for their country and their ideals of freedom and democracy. They fought heroically, leaving behind a record that is still untouched today.