The 100th/442nd’S Men of the Cloth
Military chaplains are an important part of any military unit, but even more so during wartime.
In the strictly hierarchical chain of command necessary for military discipline, the chaplain serves as a go-between — a friend and spiritual guide, regardless of rank — and as the conscience of the organization. They also help write weekly reports and assist the wounded.
But their work begins to take an emotional toll when they must confront the death of young lives, especially, on an almost daily basis — helping to retrieve the bodies of fallen soldiers, identifying the dead and writing letters of condolences to the families of soldiers lost in battle.
In World War II, U.S. Army chaplains were drawn from the mainstream American religions of that era — Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism, for which there were many religious traditions. But there were no provisions for other faiths such as Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism. The U.S. War Department did not consider this a problem at all when it decided to create the Japanese American 100th Infantry Battalion, 90 percent of whose soldiers were Buddhist. Army Headquarters in Italy simply assigned a chaplain to the 100th from its available pool — which is how the Lutheran Reverend Israel Yost became the 100th’s chaplain.
When the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed, the Japanese community pressured the military to assign the unit a Japanese American chaplain. That led to the appointment of Reverends Masao Yamada and Hiro Higuchi — Japanese American ministers from the mainline Protestant faith in Hawaii — as the 442nd’s chaplains. Yamada, in turn, suggested the Reverend George Aki, a native of Fresno, California, be appointed to assist the Mainland Japanese American soldiers. He arrived in Italy four months before the war in Europe ended.
All four 100th/442nd chaplains would operate under often dangerous and difficult conditions to aid their men. In her 1994 book, “Honor by Fire,” former war correspondent Lyn Crost, who reported on the Nisei units for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, noted that the chaplains were not merely rear-echelon figures. “They were the ones who went between the lines, under the Red Cross flag, to evacuate the Nisei dead . . .”
The chaplains faced severe adversity as they worked with the medical detachment on the front lines to support the soldiers in combat, comfort the wounded and administer last rites.
Chaplains Yost, Yamada and Higuchi were with their units during their bloodiest battles and were known to serve as litter bearers when needed and to retrieve the bodies of the dead, sometimes in mined fields. In fact, they were often scolded by the enlisted men in their unit for putting themselves in harm’s way.
Although they never intended to come home with medals, their actions did, in fact, earn them medals. Yost, Yamada and Higuchi each received the Legion of Merit, while Yost and Yamada were each awarded a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Clusters.
But it was the Nisei soldiers’ knowledge that someone — even their chaplain — was looking out for them that resulted in friendships that endured for decades after the war’s end.