The Stuff Of Legends
Hawaii Herald, 3/3/1983
By Ben Tamashiro
Next week the surviving members of the legendary 442 Regimental Combat Team and their families will be assembling in Honolulu to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the unit’s founding. As a tribute to the men of this illustrious unit who gallantly paid the dues to elevate the AJAs from second-class standings with their blood and guts, the Herald dedicates the following article –Editor
On a shelf in the office of Bob Sasaki, executive secretary of the 442 Veterans Club, is a proclamation from the state of Texas directed to the 442 Regimental Combat Team. Dated October 21, 1965, it reads:
“To all to whom these presents shall come, GREETINGS. Know ye, that 442 REGIMENTAL COMBAT TEAM, WORLD WAR II is hereby commissioned HONORARY TEXAS CITIZENS.”
Behind the proclamation lies the story of a great battle of World War II, the Battle of Bruyeres, and. the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” of the 36 (Texas) Division in the northeast corner of France in October 1944. The rescue is an epic of its kind: bitter fighting, dogged determination, overwhelming courage, unimaginable sacrifice-and the ultimate rescue of the “lost.”
The story of the Lost Battalion will be one of many that will be retold as 1,500 members of the 442 assemble in Honolulu this month to celebrate the formation of the famed combat team 40 years ago. One-third of them will be coming from the Mainland and the neighbor islands. Also attending will be members of the Club 100, veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion. * * * The rescue of the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, 36 Division, was part of a larger battle, beginning in mid-October, for the capture of the town of Bruyeres, a key communications center for the Germans. A week later, with hardly a pause for a break in the intense fighting, the 442 was called upon to rescue a battalion which had been trapped in the wooded forest above Biffontaine, a few miles beyond Bruyeres.
By the time the encircling enemy had been beaten back and a pathway opened to the beleaguered battalion, the 442 had suffered over 800 casualties. The trapped Texas battalion itself was down to a bit over 200 men. Following is one account of the moment of rescue, on October 30:
“As the big Texans passed through to safety, they pumped The hands of their small, brown, weary but grinning rescuers. It was a haggard looking bunch of soldiers who shambled through the lane. Isolated for seven days, the encircled force had fought off a series of attacks. but had been unable to push its way out. Many of the wounded had died for lack of medical attention, many men hobbled with trench foot. And, on the day of their rescue, most of the ‘able’ remnants were physically and nervously exhausted.” -Thomas Murphy, Ambassadors in Arms.
In his book, Journey to Washington, Sen. Daniel Inouye recounts his recollection of the occasion. After the fight had been won and over, Gen. Dahlquist, the 36 Division commander, called out the 442 for a retreat parade so he could personally thank the men of the 442. Looking over the abnormally small (for a regiment) assemblage of men, the general wanted to know why the entire regiment was not out in formation. “And Colonel Charles W. Pence (442 commander), as bone-weary as any dogface in the outfit, replied, ‘Sir, you are looking at the entire regiment. Except for two men on guard duty, at each company, this is all that is left of the 442 Combat Team.’ And there we were, cooks, medics, band and a handful of riflemen, a ragged lot at rigid attention, without a single company at even half its normal strength. One had only 17 men and was commanded by a staff sergeant. My outfit, E Company, with a normal complement of 197 men, had exactly 40 soldiers able to march to the parade ground.”
Inouye tells of how the general twice started to speak and choked on the overpowering feelings that took hold of him. The general was finally able to manage an emotional “Thank you.” Inouye concludes: “And the saddest retreat parade in the history of the 442 was over.”
The men of the rescued battalion also have let their feelings be known. Sitting next to the Texas state proclamation is a bronze plaque from the men themselves, bearing this inscription: “To the 442 Infantry Regiment. With Deep Sincerity and Utmost (sic) Appreciation For The Gallant Fight To Effect Our Rescue After We Had Been Isolated For Seven Days-from 24th to 30th October 1944.” The 442 Regimental Combat Team, with an authorized strength of 4,500 men, was made up of Headquarters, Anti-tank, Cannon, Medical and Service companies; three infantry battalions; the 522 Field Artillery Battalion; the 232 Combat Engineer Company; and the 206 Army Band. (The 100th Battalion, having entered combat ahead of the 442, had been receiving replacements from the 1st Battalion of the much larger 442 Regiment. The 100th subsequently became the 1st Battalion, 442.) These units participated in seven major campaigns in Europe and received seven Presidential Unit Citations.
Attesting to the ferocity of battle, the many fights against insuperable odds and devotion to duty, are the 9,500 Purple Hearts awarded to the 442 in the course of its service in Europe. Individual decorations totaled over 18,000. For all these, the 442 is recognized as the “most decorated” unit for its size in the war. But over and above the gleam of the medals is the fact that 680 of its members were killed in combat. “Go For Broke” had exacted its price.
A total of 312,000 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing in Italy. Was the campaign worth that cost? Was the objective of tying down the German troops in Italy to preclude their being committed to opposing the Allied cross-Channel invasion of the Continent (Operation OVERLORD) all that the campaign might have accomplished?
These questions are posed by the Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army, in the last (published in 1977) of its 4-volume history of the war in Italy. The veterans of the 442, and all who participated in the war there, may find bittersweet memories in this final paragraph assessing the nature of the conflict: “When the Germans laid down their arms, the longest sustained Allied campaign of World War II came to an end. A total of 570 days had Passed from the landings in Italy on 9 September 1943 to the capitulation on 2 May 1945. Each day had seemed an eternity, as many a veteran of the campaign on both sides has testified. Almost always at a foot-slogger’s pace- a pace rendered all the more interminable by the infrequent exhilaration of pursuit-and seemingly always approaching precipitous heights controlled by a well-concealed enemy, Allied troops, under a broiling sun or in numbing cold, had slowly pushed ahead. Nowhere on the far-flung battlefront could the end have brought more relief than to those who fought the prolonged fight in a cruel, bitter campaign that all too often seemed to be going nowhere.”
Going nowhere? In one of the war’s most outrageous incongruities, many of the men who served in the 442 had volunteered out of the very relocation centers they had been locked up in since the beginning of America’s entry into the war. And overseas, while facing up to the probabilities of being killed or wounded, their kin were still being held behind barbed wire back home. In retrospect, given the circumstance in which America was formally thrust into the war and the hysteria of the times, that Americans of Japanese ancestry were given a chance at combat role was, by itself, an extraordinary event. In that climate, the nisei was faced with fighting a two-headed war: the enemy within and the enemy without. There were few, if any, precedents. But that is a mark of war. And when the war was over, the Nisei had established a standard where none had existed before.
Now, 40 years later, we are witness to a congressional commission making a finding that a “grave injustice” had been done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly removed from the West Coast and interned in relocation centers. Many from Hawaii were also affected by this injustice. Certainly, the record of the 442 and the thousands of Nisei who served with equal distinction in other military units has had a significant hand in the commission’s finding.
With all that said, how do we insure that overt racism and injustice will not raise their ugly heads in another time to plague yet another minority group? How do we insure that racism will never again be perpetuated by means of an executive order, or whatever, to ever again justify the establishment of concentration camps on American soil, as was done in WWII? For the Nisei, to have gone all the way to the battlefields—could this, with respect to the issue of prejudice and racism, be but a path to nowhere? It is hoped not. It is hoped, instead that the joining of the constitutional question, by the congressional committee, to the uncommon display of fortitude and loyalty by the Nisei warriors will point the way…to let them know, to make them feel, that their sacrifices were truly not in vain.
One of the thousands who served in the 442 was Yoshiji Aoki, [sic] He was a scout in the 1st Squad, 1st Platoon, L Company. His route to the 442 is as firmly imbedded in the waters of Pearl Harbor as anyone’s.
In the East Loch of Pearl Harbor is a spit of land known as Fisherman’s Camp. It lies between McGrew Point and the Aiea Naval Landing, an area touched in dawn’s early light by the huge shadow of Aloha Stadium. Fisherman’s Camp is a pimple of land that once was home to a colony of Japanese immigrant fishermen who made their living fishing in the home waters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
The lifeblood of the fishermen was the omaka, a small-in shore fish comparable in size and shape to the more common akule. Fishing in the harbor back then was almost unrestricted, from East Loch to Middle Loch (Waipahu end), from West Loch (Ewa) to the harbor entrance. The only restricted area was the narrow strip of water between Ford Island and the naval shipyard, the so-called “Battleship Row”; that spot where the Pacific Fleet was to lose eight of its battlewagon in the debacle of Japan’s sneak attack in 1941.
The Aokis were one of six families living in Fisherman’s Camp. Besides the parents, there were four boys and three girls. The eldest of the children was Robert Hatsuji. Yoshiji came next. Helping their father net and cast for fish, the two, along with the other boys, in time came to be as skilled in fishing as their fisherman-father.
Many other families residing along the miles of shoreline rimming Pearl Harbor also made a living off the splendid fishing grounds of the vast naval base. This freedom to fish in and around the waters of the naval base could be looked upon as an indicator of the lethargy of the Navy in adequately preparing defenses for the naval bastion. But unpreparedness is, surely, a common failing.
The freedom to fish, then could also be looked upon as a reflection of the degree of trust the military authorities in Hawaii had in the local citizenry, not that the Oriental population did not come under the distrust and suspicion of others. But more to the point was the fact that there were enough cool-headed and common sense bodies within the federal and military establishments whose experiences with the populace had given them an understanding of how the local people felt about things. It was a kind of trust that was wanting on the West Coast, especially in the aftermath of Dec. 7, 1941.
On a day that the young Yoshiji should have been at his job at the Pearl Harbor shipyard (he was a steelworker, practically on a 7-day week footing then), he was, unaccountably, at home. So he had a “front row seat” at the early morning bombing of Pearl Harbor. Battleship Row lay dead ahead of Fisherman’s camp.
Not long after the 7:55 a.m. bombing had begun, he saw a plane break off from the battle and head in his direction, toward Aiea. The plane was in flames. As it passed low directly over him, he noticed that the pilot was slumped in his seat, apparently shot. But the rear gunner was okay. Says Yoshiji, “As the plane flew over me, I could see the Rising Sun emblem on the fuselage. The gunner was leaning out over the plane, peering at the ground. He and I exchanged glances as the plane flashed by. He seemed to have a worried look on his face.” Second later the plane crashed in the hills above Aiea.
When Yoshiji reported for work the following day, he and all the other Japanese boys were escorted out of the Navy yard by an armed Marine guard. But a week later, he was recalled to work. He kept working until the day in March 1943 that he volunteered for the 442.
The 442 Regimental Combat Team had been activated at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, in February with a skeletal crew of officers and enlisted men. The War Department issued a call for 4,000 volunteers. Nisei from all over the continental U.S. volunteered and converged on Camp Shelby. The quota for Hawaii was 1,500. In a response that was a reaction to the doubts cast by others concerning the Americanism of the AJAs, over 10,000 young AJAs volunteered for the limited number of spaces. To accommodate this unexpected flood, the quota was raised to 2,900. And so it was that April, Yoshiji found himself in that group headed for Camp Shelby and the 442. the 442. [sic]
His older brother, Robert, had been drafted before the war and was in training at Schofield Barracks at the time of Pearl Harbor. Robert subsequently became a member of Company B, 100th Infantry Battalion when the battalion was activated at Schofield Barracks in June 1942. The 100th trained at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin and at Camp Shelby. It entered combat in Italy in September 1943.
The 442 arrived in Italy in June 1944, at which time the 100th became its 1st Battalion (as noted earlier). The rest is history, as the two nisei unit fought together as one, in Italy and France, till the end of the war.
The 442 received its baptism of fire in the fights around the town of Suvereto and Belvedere, above Rome. It fought its way up the Ligurian coast until it reached the Arno River line which hooked up the triad of cities of Leghorn on the coast, Pisa a few miles inland and Florence on the right flank. In early September, the combat team was pulled out of the line and shipped back to Naples, the port where it had entered Italy three months earlier. That ended the 442’s first campaign in Italy.
From Naples the team was shipped to Marseilles, France. It was trucked 430 miles northward up to the Rhone River valley to enter the fight for Bruyeres, a campaign which has been touched upon earlier.
Returned to the south, the French Riviera district, after the Bruyeres battle, the 442 spent the winter guarding the mountain passes on the French- Italian border. There were long patrols in the snow, interspersed by sporadic fighting, but the so-called “Champagne campaign” was more like a pleasant interlude after the brutal fighting of Bruyeres. The enchantments of the Riviera Holiday, however, had to come to an end. In March, the combat team was shipped back to Italy, to enter the Po Valley Campaign.
The Allied offensive to drive the Germans out of Italy had faltered at the German Gothic Line whose southern anchor was built into the high mountain fortresses north of Leghorn. The 442’s mission was to break this anchor. In the early morning hours of April 5, the combat team climbed the 3,000-foot high mountain peaks and in a surprise attack, hitting the enemy from a totally unexpected quarter, broke the back of the German defense line which had held the Allied at bay for five months. The war in Italy ended a month later.
Yoshiji Aoki was wounded thrice but made it back to Hawaii in one piece, not much the worse for all the wear and tear of having served his country in war. He recently retired from the Department of Education after 27 years of teaching, the last 25 at Manoa Elementary School.
As for Fisherman’s Camp, it looks much the same today as it did back then, except that now, dead ahead, is the Arizona Memorial. But if one could peer long and hard across the stretch of East Loch, through the sparkle of the early morning sunlight flitting upon the waters, one may yet be able to discern in the distance the gray ghosts of Battleship Row.
In Italy, Robert Aoki was taking refuge in a foxhole when an enemy artillery shell landed nearby and almost blew him out of his protective cover. That took him out of the war. The concussion caused a severe wrenching of his back; it bothers him to this day. He is retired from his position as a chemist with Oahu Sugar Company. He used to be nicknamed “Froggy,” not because he swam like a frog, but because he was skilled at catching frogs in the lotus root pond at night.
Daniel Inouye left his saluting arm in the Po Valley. In 1946, while still undergoing rehabilitation treatment in Mainland hospitals, he managed to come home on leave. It was after midnight. He had called from the airport so the whole family was waiting for him. Everyone was uncomfortable about the metal hook dangling from his arm. His mother hovered over him, hoping that Dan would say he was hungry so she could cook something for him. No, he wasn’t hungry. He lit a cigarette. Everyone’s eye’s popped open. Writes Dan (in Journey to Washington): “And Mother came to her feet as though pinched. ‘Daniel Ken Inouye!’ she said in exactly the old way. I looked sheepishly at the cigarette, then at her, then at the rest of them. And then we all began to laugh, my mother, too, and I knew that I was home.”