On February 23, 1942, Japanese American students on Hawaii were allowed to form the VVV (Varsity Victory Volunteers), which was intended to be a military unit under the US Army by its members. However, the unit was merely attached to the US Army Corps of Engineers and quickly became a manual labor unit. The Japanese Americans on Hawaii continually pleaded to be allowed to participate in military operations. Part of the reason was to protect their country, but also they wished to prove themselves, as many other Americans pointed out how they had not operated in the military in significant numbers and so weren’t to be trusted. After over a year of pleading the volunteer Nisei were granted their wish. On February 1, 1943 President Roosevelt announced that the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was to be formed of Japanese Americans. Many members of the VVV had not appreciated how the US had treated them, but plenty others – twice as many as expected in fact – volunteered for the 442nd.
The men of the 442nd were hardly the top-notch trainees of the 100th. They found beer, women, and gambling for the first time in their stint in the military, and were shunned by the 100th when the two units met for the first time on maneuvers in Louisiana. The 442nd was also troubled by internal rivalries, as it was made up of both Hawaiian volunteers and mainland Japanese Americans. Fights broke out constantly inside the unit. These difficulties only escalated once those entered the unit from Japanese internment camps. When the 442nd was sent to the front, however, the situation changed greatly. The 100th was attached to the 442nd and so took on a leadership role due to its members advanced age and superior training and experience. The other members of the 442nd, however, were there to prove themselves.
At a request from the men of the 442nd, the volunteers would be committed to battle while the 100th would be held in reserve during the first engagement of the 442nd. After each battalion of the 442nd is tied down in a German trap and the General of the 442nd is almost captured, he commands Colonel Singles, leader of the 100th, to, “clean up this mess.” During the next three hours the 100th killed at least 178 enemy soldiers, wounded 20, captured 73, and also captured 44 enemy vehicles to only four dead and seven wounded of their own, leaving the enemy in a rout. This was the engagement that earned the 442nd its first presidential citation. Its second would not be far behind.
In another amphibious assault, the US Army landed in southern France. The 442nd was to take Hill A. Hill A was a small bluff covered in trees south of Bruyeres, France. First a smoke screen was laid down to protect the 100th who approached the wooded bluff from a field. Then the artillery barrage began. During each let-up of the barrage, two members of the 100th, Lieutenants Kim and Takahashi stepped out of the smoke screen and beckoned the Germans to give up. Each time they did this they risked their own lives by exposing themselves to the Germans in the forest. Eventually, however, the Germans surrendered at the beck and call of these men, and all that was left was to charge up the empty hill. The other battalions of the 442nd took Bruyeres as well as 143 surprised prisoners. It was this action that gained the unit its second presidential commendation.
For months the members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in particular the men of the 100th Battalion, pushed through the Vosges Forest and beyond of southern France, sustaining incredible casualties and making a name for themselves. When they had initially been transferred to the front, no one wanted these units in their outfit, but now every commander wanted to command the 442nd. Colonel Singles, the leader of the 442nd for most of its existence admitted that his post was perhaps the most envied after next to Eisenhower’s or Patton’s in the United States Army. Following the fall of Rome the 100th was asked to lead a victory march three times when the usual precedent had been set at only one per unit per war. These marches, however, were not the only recognition of the Niseis’ work during World War II.
The 442nd and the 100th has the record for the most unit and individual awards than any other units of comparable size in any branch of the military service for the United States of America. At its peak strength the 442nd Regimental Combat Team had about 4,000 enlisted men and 225 officers, and throughout the war the unit received almost 6,000 decorations. Posthumous decorations and numerous awards following the war has historians estimate that over 8,000 men of the 442nd have been awarded a decoration of some kind, with the majority of those awarded decorations having more than one, for a total 18,143 decorations for bravery and 9,486 Purple Hearts. Of these decorations, seven were presidential citations, the highest award a military unit can receive, and five of those seven were awarded for the two weeks the unit fought in the Vosges – an unprecedented number in such a short time period. Following the war the 442nd held the honor of being the only military unit among those returning from overseas battles to be reviewed by the president. The 442nd was clearly the hardest working unit in the US military, which was reflected in the general Japanese-American public. The proportion of Japanese Americans who served in the US military in World War II was higher than any other group.
Following the rescission of executive order 9066, under which Japanese Americans on the US mainland where sent to relocation camps, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes wrote to Colonel Miller, then the commander of the 442nd, “The members of the combat team have made a magnificent record of which they should be proud. This record, without doubt, is the most important single factor in creating this country a more accepting attitude towards people of Japanese descent.” But things were not idyllic for the Nisei who returned to the US from battle. Some, such as Sergeant Kazuo Masuda, were kept from entering their homes due to their Japanese descent. In Hood River, Oregon, sixteen Japanese Americans were taken of the Honor Roll of the local American Legion Chapter.
Following the war reintegration was slow, but the Japanese Americans showed the same skill and drive back in the states as they had in battle. The law that prevented the naturalization if Japanese immigrants was repealed in 1952 thanks to the efforts of many Nisei officers who had served in the 442nd. In 1968 a bill was passed which banned the creation of any future relocation camps. Thanks to their incredible war record, Japanese Americans were gaining a foothold on American politics by the 1950s that continues, particularly in Hawaii, to this day. Former US Senator Spark M. Matsunaga (Sen. 1976-1996), for example, served in the 100th Infantry Battalion. The GI Bill also allowed Japanese Americans to get a professional education, and since Japanese Americans had entered the armed services at a higher rate than any other ethnic group their prosperity rose dramatically.