"Go For Broke": The Story Behind the Most Decorated Military Unit in U.S. History

US Army Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
US Army Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain Steve Rogers single-handedly frees captured Allied soldiers from a Nazi base. "What, are we taking everybody?" one soldier asks, referring to another soldier who appears to be Japanese. "I’m from Fresno," the soldier retorts.

The scene was a hat tip to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese-American regiment that, during World War II, became the most decorated unit in U.S. history—a distinction it still holds. Members of the 442nd earned 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, five Presidential Unit Citations in just one month, and 9486 Purple Hearts, along with thousands of other honors, during the regiment’s two active years in World War II. Yet when asked about their distinguished service, most of them said they were simply doing their duty.

ONE PUKA PUKA AND THE 442ND

In the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and Arizona were interned under Executive Order 9066; about two-thirds were U.S. citizens. Americans of Japanese ancestry were also reclassified as “enemy aliens” and were no longer allowed to join the military. Despite the fact that Japanese-Americans had served in the military for decades, many already-enlisted troops were discharged from service. The government even seized items like cameras or radios from Japanese-Americans, in case they might use them to spy.

Although some protested these measures, others sent letters and telegrams to President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry Stimson arguing that Japanese-Americans, even the second generation known as the Nisei, were not to be trusted because they were "fanatically devoted to [their] country of origin and emperor," as one California woman wrote. Several cities, 16 California counties, a variety of social clubs, and even some members of Congress registered similar concerns. Some congressmen even called to exchange Japanese-American citizens for Americans held prisoner by Japan.

The Nisei troops, as they were often known, wanted the opportunity to prove that their loyalty was to the United States—not Japan. Many of these soldiers had witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and the aftermath, and they wanted to support their country in any way they could.

Just weeks after Washington gave the military ban order, a group of ROTC students released from the Hawaiian Territorial Guard decided that even if they couldn’t serve as soldiers, they still wanted to help. They gained the approval of regional commander General Delos Emmons to form the Varsity Victory Volunteers, a labor support battalion that included more than 160 students and other individuals of Japanese descent. In early 1942, the group began building roads, fences, and military bases under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Hawaii is our home; the United States is our country,” the youths wrote in a letter to Emmons volunteering their services. “We know but one loyalty and that is to the Stars and Stripes.”

But the Varsity Victory Volunteers were just the beginning. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Hawaii National Guard also included more than 1400 Nisei members—about half its total. The Nisei troops were ordered to turn in their weapons and ammunition and segregated from their fellow soldiers. Concerned about the Nisei's potential response if Hawaii was again attacked by Japan, military leaders sent them to the mainland, and eventually to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. There they formed the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate), with the separate referring to the fact that they were initially an orphan unit without a larger regiment. They were also known as the One Puka Puka (Puka is Hawaiian for "hole," as in zero).

The 100th Infantry Battalion receiving grenade training
The 100th Infantry Battalion receiving grenade training.
U.S. Army Photo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One Puka Puka quickly distinguished themselves during their training, and after watching the “triple-Vs” and the 100th in action, the War Department pushed President Roosevelt to change his stance on Japanese-American military service. He did so in early 1943, and the Army soon asked for 4500 Japanese-American volunteers. They got an overwhelming 10,000, mostly from Hawaii. Nearly 1200 volunteered from internment camps.

“I talked to my father, and he said, ‘Well, you’re an American citizen, so if they want you to join the Army, it’s your duty,’” veteran Stanley Matsumura said in Peter Wakamatsu’s documentary Four-Four-Two: F Company at War. He and his friends did just that.

“I was 19 and living in Yoder, Wyoming when I first heard the news of Pearl Harbor,” Hashime Saito wrote to Dear Abby in December 1980. “I canceled my plans to enter the university and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army.”

At his brother’s wedding at Poston Relocation Center, Technical Sergeant Abe Ohama told friends and family, “All of us can't stay in the camps until the end of the war. Some of us have to go to the front.”

The volunteers became the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

BANZAI!

At first, the 442nd wasn’t particularly welcome in Europe. When Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall offered the regiment to General Dwight Eisenhower to fight in France, the latter turned him down with a polite, “No, thank you.” Instead, they found a home with General Mark Clark in the Fifth Army, fighting in Italy.

The 100th finished training and went first, initially joining the 34th Infantry Division, one of the divisions that made up the Fifth Army. They soon earned their reputation in blood. Whether out of a desire to prove their loyalty or just a gung-ho spirit, the Nisei soldiers went after military objectives with a single-minded ferocity.

They entered combat in Italy on September 29, 1943, and soon saw fighting in the southern part of the country. The battalion fought in Salerno and the Volturno river, where the soldiers surprised their fellow American troops with their first banzai charge. (In Japanese tradition, a banzai charge is a last-ditch, often suicidal attack, and the exclamation is a traditional battle cry.) According to the Go For Broke National Education Center, named for the regiment's motto, the banzai charge occurred after a sergeant heard that one of the most respected officers in the battalion had been either wounded or captured: "Many of the soldiers of the 100th had known each other since they were children. Their dedication to one another was such that they never left a man behind, even in death." The sergeant turned out to have heard mistakenly, but the impression of dedication on their fellow soldiers remained.

Yet the 100th truly earned their reputations at the Battle of Monte Cassino. General Clark called the battle “the most grueling, the most harrowing, and in one aspect perhaps the most tragic, of any phase of the war in Italy.” Fighting began in blizzard conditions in the middle of January 1944, and the goal was to take the Gustav Line, a defensive line the Axis forces had created along the natural mountainous landscape of the area that blocked the Allies from Rome.

The battle to take the high ground was long and bloody for everyone involved, and the 100th was no exception. In fact, it was at Monte Cassino that they gained the nickname “The Purple Heart Battalion.” The Monte Cassino Abbey, atop one of the mountains, overlooked an open field with little cover for troops and provided Nazi soldiers and artillery a place to entrench themselves. From behind walls, they fired at any Allied troops who dared to rush the mountain.

On the night of January 24, the 100th’s A and C Companies crossed the dangerous field, checking for tripwires and maneuvering over freezing, flooded irrigation ditches before finding cover behind a wall. When B Company moved to join them after sunrise, only 14 of the 187 men made it to the wall, according to the Go For Broke center.

The company was ordered into reserve—kept away from the action and allowed to rest—but joined the fighting again on February 8. They made good progress and held a key hill for four days but retreated again when the 34th Division was unable to keep up with their pace. Finally, after Allied air reinforcements bombed the ancient abbey into ruin on February 15, the 100th sent wave after wave up the mountain, losing 200 more men before they were relieved.

Their commander, Major Casper Clough Jr., told a correspondent with The New York Times that they were the best soldiers he’d ever seen. “They are showing the rest of the people they are just as good citizens as the next John Doughboy,” he said.

General Mark Clark fastens citation streamers on 100th battalion flags for outstanding performance of duties in the Mediterranean theater
General Mark Clark fastens citation streamers on 100th battalion flags for outstanding performance of duties in the Mediterranean theater.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Because of the battalion’s heavy casualties—the 100th had lost about 800 of its 1300 soldiers since arriving in Europe, more than 200 over just four days at Monte Cassino—other Allied forces took over at Monte Cassino. The 100th regrouped to receive reinforcements, then fought their way over 40 miles from Anzio, Italy, north to Rome, where they were soon joined by the rest of the 442nd and officially attached to the regiment.

By May 1944, when the 442nd’s Second and Third Battalions sailed for Europe, the 100th had racked up a stunning three Distinguished Service Crosses, 21 Bronze Stars, 36 Silver Stars, and 900 Purple Hearts. The Second and Third Battalions quickly showed they were determined to not only uphold the reputation of Nisei soldiers in Europe, but to add to it.

COMBINING THEIR EFFORTS

When the three battalions met outside of Rome to capture the small town of Belvedere, the Second and Third Battalions volunteered to lead the fighting, allowing the 100th to stay in reserve—but One Puka Puka wouldn't be held back. The 442nd destroyed the German troops, took the town, and captured a huge number of enemy weapons. They even decimated an entire SS battalion alone, losing only four of their own men.

By then, French commanders were asking the regiment to join the fighting in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France, near the border with Germany. The 442nd fought in Bruyeres and Belmont, but perhaps their most famous campaign was the rescue of the 141st Infantry Regiment’s First Battalion—known as the Lost Battalion.

A 442nd squad leader looks for German movements in a French valley
A 442nd squad leader looks for German movements in a French valley
U.S. Army, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During fighting in the Vosges Mountains, the 141st’s First Battalion had been cut off from the rest of the Allied Forces and nearly 300 men from Texas were trapped by 6000 German troops.

On little rest and with a shortage of men, the 442nd answered the call to rescue their Texan brothers. The mountainous terrain was made more difficult by the icy weather of October 1944, and the 442nd had to travel on soggy dirt trails and fight through German roadblocks to reach the trapped men.

The 442nd’s Second Battalion won a hill from the Germans and took prisoners, but while it helped break the German line, it wasn’t enough to free the trapped men. The Lost Battalion—which had gone without food for several days—beat off five waves of German attackers. The Third Battalion tried to fight from the outside, but got no closer to reaching the Texan troops.

Seeing no other choice, the 442nd decided to “go for broke” straight up the middle in another banzai charge. One of the leaders of the charge, Private Barney Hajiro, single-handedly took down two German machine gun nests. After six days of fighting, the Nisei managed to break through to the lost Texans.

Whether they were still trying to prove themselves or not, the 442nd did just that in the rescue. The Milwaukee Journal summed up the shifting opinion about “Our Heroic Nisei” on November 8, 1944, just days after the campaign:

“At the last minute, relief troops got through. Who were they? Japanese Americans of the famous 442nd regiment—the outfit that had already blazed its way to glory in the toughest spots in Italy. What the relieved Yank soldiers think of their Nisei buddies is best expressed by one grateful private who said: ‘Boy, they are real Americans!’”

For their valor, Governor John Connally made all the surviving members of the 442nd “honorary Texans” in 1963.

The 442nd continued to fight in major battles in France and Italy through the end of the war, often on the front lines. They guarded 12 miles of the French border in what became known as the Champagne campaign, and joined other American forces in liberating the Dachau concentration camps in April 1945.

Thousands of the regiment’s men were killed or wounded in the war, including future Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, who was nearly killed in two separate incidents—once, when a bullet to his chest was stopped only by two silver dollars, and again when he nearly bled out in battle refusing to leave his men behind.

CAPTURING HEARTS AND MINDS

Back on the home front, the 442nd’s reputation helped to build bridges between Americans of Japanese ancestry and their fellow citizens. Army officials authorized more widespread publicity for the 442nd—provided it wouldn’t give away key military intelligence. By then, war correspondents on the front were already eager to share stories about the Nisei troops.

Lieutenant Edward Chasse relayed the bewilderment of German troops captured by the 100th to the Associated Press. In a story published by the Oakland Tribune on February 17, 1944, Chasse said, “We got some prisoners and they didn’t know what was happening. They wondered if the Axis had turned against them.”

Writing for The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, C.L. Sulzberger described an interaction between a captured German officer and an American interpreter after the prisoner saw members of the Nisei regiment. “Said the German to an interpreter, ‘But they look Japanese; it can’t be.’ Said the interpreter, ‘Sure, didn’t you know they were on our side? Or do you believe this stuff Goebbels puts out?’”

Members of the 442nd who sacrificed their lives on the front became some of the human faces of the war—such as Pfc. Sadao Munemori, who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Glendale, California, native was killed on April 5, 1945 when he and his fellow soldiers were pinned down by enemy fire. He attacked enemy gun nests alone so his comrades could escape; he nearly made it out himself, but threw himself onto a grenade just feet from safety to save his fellow soldiers.

But while the Nisei soldiers of the 442nd came home to praise and gratitude from some Americans, others were unwilling to look beyond their heritage.

As interned Japanese-Americans and Nisei veterans were returning to their West Coast homes in the spring of 1945, the War Department began receiving reports of what it deemed terrorist attacks against them.

“In the most recent instances reported to Washington, cars have driven by Nisei homes at a high rate of speed and the occupants have fired into the house,” one newspaper reported. “In one case, the homeowner was a returned veteran. With him was a Nisei friend in uniform on furlough.” Fortunately, they were not injured.

Some attacks were more subtle. A Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Spokane, Washington, drew attention after it denied membership to Private Richard Naito. His former commanding officer, Virgil Miller, sent an angry complaint to the post, arguing that "When supposedly reputable organizations such as yours violate the principles and ideals for which we fight, these young Japanese Americans are not the only ones to wonder about our war aims." Corporal George Gelberg, representing a group of veterans stationed at nearby Geiger Field, wrote a letter to the editor of the Spokesman-Review, saying, “The men wished it to be understood that an attack on any minority group in our country strengthens the hands of the Fascist enemies who have been beaten on the military field.” Other Nisei veterans organized a campaign to apply to the post, and when news of the rejection reached the national VFW organization, they issued an apology and stated that Japanese-American veterans were welcome to join.

President Barack Obama and guests after signing a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to the 442nd Regiment and 100th Battalion
President Barack Obama and guests after signing a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to the 442nd Regiment and 100th Battalion.
White House, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 2011, nearly 70 years after Japanese-American citizens were interned and briefly banned from military service, the 442nd was honored for its members’ sacrifices. Congress awarded the veterans of the 442nd, the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the Military Intelligence Service, which performed intelligence work against the Japanese military, with Congressional Gold Medals—the highest civilian award Congress can bestow.

During the ceremony when the awards were delivered, Representative Adam Schiff of California, who co-sponsored the bill honoring the veterans, said: "These American heroes did defend our freedoms and our ideals ... even when these ideals were denied them at home."

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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