442nd Regimental Combat Team


Several months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, a fearful and distrusting America barred its Japanese-American citizens from military service, altering their draft status from 1-A draft eligible to 4-C “enemy alien.” The story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team must really begin with the Nisei’s fight to regain their right to fight for their country in its hour of peril. How did the 442nd get its start?

“The earliest mention of an all-Nisei combat unit was made by Colonel Moses W. Pettigrew in early 1942, according to Brigadier General John Weckerling, former G-2 head of the Assistant Chief of Staff:

‘In the spring of 1942 Colonel Pettigrew formally proposed the organization of a Nisei combat unit. The Commanding General in Hawaii (Emmons) endorsed the plan from the beginning and declared his belief that the Nisei would prove to be an excellent combat soldier. However, opinion was divided . . . concerning the use of the Nisei as a front-line soldier … It was even seriously suggested that the Nisei should not be used at all or limited to non-critical installations in the Zone of the Interior.’ Colonel Pettigrew pursued his plans determinedly, and they were finally approved by the Assistant Secretary of War, Mr. John J. McCloy.”

Considering the hysterical fear, distrust and prejudice against all Japanese following the Pearl Harbor attack, Colonel Pettigrew displayed remarkable foresight, conviction, and courage to even suggest that U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry be organized into an American fighting unit. Then Roger Daniels, in his book, Concentration Camps, USA, mentions that in May 1942 McCloy sent a memo to General Eisenhower stating he favored permitting the Nisei to serve in military service.

In this darkest period for the Japanese Americans, another ray of hope gleamed when Hawaii’s Military Governor, General Delos C. Emmons, rather than discharge all pre-war Nisei draftees, retained them in the 298th and 299th Infantry to guard Hawaii. On May 29, 1942, he assembled them into an all-Nisei provisional battalion and dispatched them to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, for combat infantry training . . . the origin of the legendary 100th Infantry Battalion as the first all-Nisei fighting unit in the U.S. military history!

On June 26, 1942, the Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, received a memorandum on the subject of “Military Utilization of United States Citizens of Japanese Ancestry,” recommending that a board of officers be appointed to study “the advisability of utilizing a small token force, composed of United States citizens of Japanese ancestry … as combat troops in the European Theater.” On July1, 1942, a special five-man military board was appointed to study the question.

On July 9, 1942, four witnesses testified before the Board, one Colonel Haas stating “he did not trust them” and recommended negatively, but three others, Colonel Moses Pettigrew, Colonel Rufus Bratton, and Thomas Holland, representing Dillion Meyer of the WRA, recommended positively. Colonel Pettigrew stated:

“The great majority of second-generation citizens of Japanese ancestry was unquestionably loyal. (He recommended) that a Division of these men be formed in the Army of the United States for combat duty in the theater of war where they would not have to fight Japanese . . . that if such a Division were formed, he would be willing to serve as one of its officers.” Other opinions solicited by the Board included that of Secretary of Navy Frank Knox who opposed the enlistment of Japanese-Americans in the Navy, and that of General John De Witt who favored such enlistment of Niseis if limited to assignment “in service units only, unarmed, in the continental U.S.”.

On July 15, 1942, U.S. Fleet Chief Admiral Chester Nimitz recommended the induction of 10,000 Japanese Americans from Hawaii for service outside the Pacific Area, but on July 21 the War Department advised Admiral Nimitz it would not accept Japanese-Americans for enlistment or induction.

In a report dated September 14, 1942, the special Board studying “The Military Utilization of United States Citizens of Japanese Ancestry” recommended:

“a. That, in general, the military potential of United States Citizens of Japanese ancestry be considered as negative because of the universal distrust in which they are held, b. That certain individual United States citizens of Japanese ancestry be used for intelligence or for other specialized purposes.” In a memorandum on Policy Towards Japan issued September 14, 1942, Edwin O. Reischauer, then a professor at Harvard University, with remarkable prescient understanding and foresight, stated:

“There are probably many methods by which the Japanese Americans can be made an asset rather than a liability, but among the most effective methods would be to encourage them to join the armed forces, and to give them training in political thinking and for specialized services, military or civilian, they can render during and after the war. If they knew they were wanted and that opportunities for advancement were open to them, large numbers of young Japanese would certainly be glad to volunteer. A special volunteer unit of Japanese Americans and other Americans who desire to serve with them could easily be formed for combat service in the European or African zones, where it would probably be as effective as any other unit and where it would cause no special disciplinary or organizational difficulties”. (Emphasis added) Yet, on that same date, September 14, 1942, conforming to the recommendation of the special board, the War Department ordered all commands:

Individuals of Japanese ancestry are in general considered unadaptable to the military service of the United States during the present war. They will not be commissioned, enlisted, inducted, enrolled, or ordered to active duty in the AUS, WAAC, ASC, or the ROTC Advance Course, except as noted below: 2. Certain individuals of Japanese descent who are citizens of the United States may be enlisted for intelligence or for other specialized purposes with the approval of the War Department in each case.”

On October 2, 1942, Elmer Davis, Director of the Office of War Information, wrote to President Roosevelt the following:

“For both Mr. (Milton) Eisenhower and myself, I want to recommend that you take two actions designated to improve the morale of the American-citizen Japanese who were evacuated from the Pacific West Coast:

  1. Two bills in Congress — one aimed at depriving the Nisei of citizenship and the other proposing to “intern” them for the duration of the war — have heightened the feeling that this may after all be a racial war and that, therefore, the evacuees should be looked upon as enemies. A brief public statement from you, in behalf of the loyal American citizens, would be helpful. I think WRA and the Justice Department would concur in this recommendation.
  2. Loyal American citizens of Japanese descent should be permitted, after individual test, to enlist in the Army and Navy. It would hardly be fair to evacuate people and then impose normal draft procedures, but voluntary enlistment would help a lot.

This matter is of great interest to OWI. Japanese propaganda from Philippines, Burma, and elsewhere insists that this is a racial war. We can combat this effectively without counter-propaganda only if our deeds permit us to tell the truth. Moreover, as citizens ourselves who believe deeply in the things for which we fight, we cannot help but be disturbed by the insistent public misunderstanding of the Nisei: competent authorities, including Naval Intelligence people, say that fully 85 percent of the Nisei are loyal to this country and that it is possible to distinguish the sheep from the goats. ”

A draft of a letter from Secretary of War Stimson to President Roosevelt dated October 14, 1942, indicated that both Stimson and General Marshall favored permitting Japanese Americans to enlist in the U.S. armed services. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy had gone on record favoring the use of Japanese Americans in the Army through his memorandum to Secretary Stimson of October 15, 1942, which stated:

I also believe that loyal American citizens of Japanese descent should be permitted, after individual test, to enlist in special units of the Army and the Navy. I believe the propaganda value of such a step would be great and I believe they would make good troops. We need not use them against members of their own race, but we could use them for many useful purposes. There is a current report by a board of officers which is adverse to these views. I have asked General McNarney to hold it up pending an opportunity for me to express my views before final action is taken. In short, I agree with both of Mr. Davis’ suggestions as contained in his letter to the President.”

Stimson himself, in a personally handwritten memorandum to the Chief of Staff (General Marshall) dated October 14, 1942, wrote:

“I am inclined strongly to agree with the views of McCloy and Davis. I don’t think you can permanently proscribe a lot of American citizens because of their racial origins. We have gone to the full limit in evacuating them — That’s enough (signed) HLS.”

Predictably, Secretary of Navy Knox, on October 17, 1942, responded adversely to any enlistment of Japanese Americans in the U.S. Navy. But McCloy further urged Stimson to adopt a military policy utilizing Japanese Americans in the armed forces. In a memorandum dated October 28, 1942, he argued:

“The all-Japanese unit appears to offer greater possibilities from both propaganda and service viewpoints. The assembly of Japanese, either by recruitment or induction, into one unit would enable the unit to manifest en masse its loyalty to the United States, and this manifestation would provide the propaganda effect desired.

As a beginning, it is suggested that a regiment of infantry might be recruited and organized. This regiment would have all American officers and would be organized as a separate infantry unit. It could be assigned a station initially not in or contiguous to a theater of operations or defense zone. Such an organization would, in a measure, be a challenge to the Japanese protestations of loyalty and the personnel of such an organization would, it is believed, go to great lengths to demonstrate that loyalty. Certainly the experiment would be worth the trial, and I am not prepared to say that, provided the officers are carefully selected, the regiment would fail to develop into a highly effective combat unit which could be employed as a corps d’elite in an African or European theater.”

When asked to estimate the number of Nisei from Hawaii who would volunteer, General Emmons cabled his reaction back to the War Department on November 5, 1942, stating:

“I hope project will receive approval as it will mean so much to this Territory. Am confident that these men will give an excellent account of themselves in an European theater.” Pursuant to a request by McCloy to submit a study on “the formation of combat units composed of Americans of Japanese ancestry,” on November 17, 1942, Colonel Moses Pettigrew submitted an extensive rationale which concluded with the recommendation: “That there be activated on April 15, 1943, for use in the European Theater, an infantry division with enlisted personnel composed of American citizens of Japanese ancestry.” On the same date, Colonel Pettigrew wrote McCloy emphasizing that officers selected to lead the proposed Nisei Division must be “thoroughly in sympathy with this project” and offered his own name to command this unit, saying: