Young Oak Kim

By early 1944, casualties had reduced the 100th by more than half, earning it the nickname of the “Purple Heart Battalion.” In May, while preparing for the breakout from the beachhead that had become known as “Bloody Anzio” because of the heavy casualties suffered in four months of brutal combat, Kim and Private First Class Irving Akahoshi went on one of the most daring raids of the Italian campaign. Leaving the 100th’s command post around midnight, they crawled slowly but steadily through several hundred yards of brush, pausing only when they heard German patrols nearby. By morning they were near an enemy outpost, where they overpowered two enemy soldiers. Then, in broad daylight, Kim and Akahoshi forced their prisoners to crawl back across the same expanse they had covered in the dark. By afternoon they had delivered the Germans for interrogation.

Kim and Akahoshi’s breathtaking raid made a vital contribution to the intelligence gathering that led to the Allied liberation of Rome in the beginning of June. In recognition of their courage, Clark personally decorated Akahoshi and Kim with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest award.

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By the end of the summer, the 100th had become the first battalion of the newly formed 442d Regimental Combat Team. But by personal order of Clark, in honor of its pioneering role, the unit retained its designation as the 100th Battalion.

Following the successful Allied invasion of Southern France in August, the 442d joined the 36th “Texas” Division in the Vosges Mountains in mid-October 1944. By then, the Allied advance had slowed to a crawl. Faced with rapidly deteriorating weather and a determined German army entrenched in the rugged mountains of Eastern France, the 442d battled yard by yard through dense forests obscured by rain and fog.

On October 18, the 100th led the attack that secured Bruyères, a key railroad and communications center in the region. Three days later, the 100th advanced a few miles east through the woods toward the village of Biffontaine. As the battalion’s intelligence officer, Kim had expressed misgivings about advancing ahead of the rest of the 442d to secure what he regarded as a “worthless tactical objective.” His worst fears were realized on October 23, when German forces to the rear cut off the overextended 100th.

In a house liberated from the enemy in Biffontaine, Kim was looking through a window when he spotted a German with a submachine gun. Suddenly a shower of bullets ripped through his hand.

The next thing he knew, he was being carried on a litter by German prisoners of war who were being guarded by Americans. As the litter train wended along steep mountain trails, it was suddenly surrounded by a German patrol. No shots were fired, but the Americans, healthy and wounded alike, now found themselves prisoners.

But Kim told one of the medics, Richard Chinen, “I’m not going to surrender.” In the confusion, the two men slipped away into the woods. To the astonishment of their comrades in the rear, they made their way back together to an aid station behind American lines.

“I thought I was going to die,” Kim recalled later, and in fact his death had already been reported to headquarters. His friend Sakae Takahashi, who had also been wounded in the attack on Biffontaine, only realized Kim was alive when he heard him moaning in a nearby cot.

The loss of Kim and Takahashi cost the battalion two of the last remaining frontline officers linking the pioneers in the 100th Battalion (Separate) to their successors in the larger 442d. Though Kim recovered from his wounds, his combat duty was over before the Germans surrendered in 1945. But Kim’s contribution to Japanese Americans and Asian Americans in general — like Takahashi’s — did not end in Eastern France.
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After World War II, Kim reenlisted in the Army, where he would eventually serve 30 years and rise to the rank of colonel before retiring as the most decorated Asian American in the U.S. military. In Korea, he was the first Asian American ever to command a regular combat battalion in war. And until his death, he maintained strong ties to his former comrades in the 100th Battalion and to Japanese Americans in general. Though he was a Korean American, Kim was one of the founders of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and of the Go For Broke National Education Center in Torrance, California.

In 2000-2001, Kim served on the official Department of Defense panel reviewing charges of American war crimes at No Gun Ri during the Korean War. And in February 2005, the consul general of France awarded him the Legion of Honor in a ceremony at the Go For Broke Monument in downtown Los Angeles, a few blocks away from the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles, where he grew up.

On December 29, 2005, Young Oak Kim died of cancer. In 2009, a middle school in the Los Angeles public school system was named after him. In 2010, the University of California at Riverside opened the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies.

In an obituary that appeared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Senator Daniel Inouye, winner of a Congressional Medal of Honor as a member of the 442d Regimental Combat Team, said that “there was one name that always commanded attention and respect: Captain Kim’s. He was a bona fide hero of the 100th Infantry Battalion. When I got to meet him after I entered combat, my respect and admiration of him grew because he was such a fearless leader who, through his deeds, inspired his men.”

-by Robert Asahina

Robert Asahina is an editor, writer, and consultant. He is the author of Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad — The Story of the 100th Battalion/442d Regimental Combat Team in World War II, published by Gotham Books/Penguin in 2006.