motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was “go for
broke.” It’s a gambling term that means risking everything
on one great effort to win big. The soldiers of the 442nd needed
to win big. They were Nisei - American-born sons of Japanese
immigrants. They fought two wars: the Germans in Europe and the
prejudice in America.
motto was invented by the high-rolling Nisei soldiers who came
from the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaii-born Nisei, also known as
“Buddhaheads,” made up about two-thirds of the regiment. The
remaining third were Nisei from the mainland. In April 1943, the
islanders and mainlanders arrived for training at Camp Shelby,
Mississippi. Immediately, they fought with each other because of
different perspectives based on where they grew up.
Buddhaheads represented the largest ethnic group in a small
island community. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Nisei,
like everyone else on the island, responded to the emergency. No
one rejected them as they pitched in to aid the wounded, give
blood and bury the dead. On the day of the bombing and for six
weeks after, the Nisei cadets in the University of Hawaii’s
ROTC guarded vulnerable areas against enemy attacks.
on January 19, 1942, the Army discharged all the Japanese
Americans in the ROTC - and changed their draft status to 4C -
“enemy alien.” The Nisei cadets felt such despair that the
very bottom of their existence fell out. But community leaders
convinced the demoralized students to turn the other cheek. One
hundred and seventy students petitioned the military governor:
“Hawaii is our home; the United States our country. We know
but one loyalty and that is to the Stars and Stripes. We wish to
do our part as loyal Americans in every way possible, and we
hereby offer ourselves for whatever service you may see fit to
students gave up their books, and their chance for the education
that would lift them up from their menial plantation jobs.
Instead, the “Varsity Victory Volunteers” picked up shovels
and hammers. From January to December 1942, they built barracks,
dug ditches, quarried rock and surfaced roads. When Assistant
Secretary of War John McCloy visited the islands, military and
community leaders made sure he saw the VVV hard at work breaking
that made an impression. The Varsity Victory Volunteers finally
got their chance to fight. On January 28, 1943 the War
Department announced that it was forming an all-Nisei combat
team and called for 1,500 volunteers from Hawaii. Ten thousand
men volunteered, including men from the Varsity Victory
on the mainland, the War Department tried to recruit 3,000
soldiers. But only 1,182 enlisted. Given how America had treated
the Nisei, it was very admirable that this many men volunteered.
More than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry (including 60
percent who were American citizens) were forcibly
“relocated” from their homes, businesses and farms in the
western states. They were incarcerated in crowded, tarpaper
barracks, in the desolate wind-swept desert. Even behind the
barbed wire of the U.S. concentration camps (President
Truman’s term), even though their country had failed to
protect their rights, these American-born Japanese men wanted to
give up their lives to fight for their homeland, America.
in Hawaii, the entire Japanese community was not interned (with
the exception of about 1,000 suspects that the FBI arrested and
incarcerated). So the Buddhaheads couldn’t understand the
“whipped-dog” complex that the mainlanders had in relation
Buddhaheads thought the mainlanders were sullen and snobby, and
not confident and friendly. Soon misunderstandings, fueled by
alcohol, turned into fistfights. In fact, that was how
mainlanders got the name “Katonk.” It was the sound their
heads made when they hit the floor. The Katonks were fairer
skinned, and spoke perfect English. The Buddhaheads were darker
skinned and spoke Pidgin - a strange mixture of Hawaiian,
Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese and broken English.
was another big divider between the groups. The Buddhaheads
gambled heavily and spent freely using the cash sent by their
generous parents who still worked in Hawaii. They thought the
Katonks were cheap. They didn’t realize that the Katonks sent
most of their meager Army pay to their families imprisoned in
the camps. The Katonks didn’t talk about their painful
friction between the two groups was so bad that the military
high command considered disbanding the 442nd. They thought the
men could never fight overseas as a unit.
Army decided to send a group of Buddhaheads to visit the camps
in Arkansas. The men thought Camp Jerome and Camp Rowher were
little towns with Japanese families. But when the trucks rolled
past the barbed wire fence, past the guard towers armed with
machine guns pointed at the camp residents, past the rough
barracks where whole families crowded in small compartments with
no privacy - suddenly the Buddhaheads understood. Word of the
camps spread quickly, and the Buddhaheads gained a whole new
respect for the Katonks. Immediately the men in the 442nd became
united - like a clenched fist.
May 1943 through February 1944 the men trained for combat. The
men excelled at maneuvers and learned to operate as a team. In
March, Chief of Staff General George Marshall inspected the
regiment. In April the regiment packed up, and on May 1, 1944
the men boarded ships destined for Europe.
442nd Regimental Combat Team included the 522nd Field Artillery
Battalion, 232nd Combat Engineer Company, 206th Army Ground
Force Band, Antitank Company, Cannon Company, Service Company,
medical detachment, headquarters companies, and two infantry
battalions. The 1st Infantry Battalion remained in the States to
train new recruits. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions would join the
legendary 100th Battalion, which was already fighting in Italy.
442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated unit for its
size and length of service, in the entire history of the U.S.
Military. The 4,000 men who initially came in April 1943 had to
be replaced nearly 3.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served,
ultimately earning 9,486 Purple Hearts , 21 Medals of Honor and
an unprecedented eight Presidential Unit Citations.