The 442 Infantry Regiment was, pound for pound (i.e. pro-rated for size), the best and most decorated fighting unit in the European Theatre. Two dozen Medal of Honors; Seven Presidential Unit Citations; 9,000 Purple Hearts; 6,000 Bronze and Silver Stars, and more. More than one medal per man! They gained fame for saving the WWII "Lost Battalion" of the 443 Infantry Regiment after they were surrounded by Germans for over a week. This book is about the rescue of the Lost Battalion and who did the rescuing.
In addition to its battle record, the 442nd was unique in another way. The 442 was a segregated unit. If you are thinking they were black… close but no cigar. They were all Nisei, aka Japanese Americans, except for the officers, who were all white. All were volunteers, most from the Japanese concentration camps that were set up by the bigoted US government after Pearl Harbor. Many were from Hawaii. Canada segregated the entire Japanese population of British Columbia during the war, so we should be humble. Like the segregated black units, the Nisei were shit on by their country, but fought for it anyway.
If you are a movie buff, there is the 1951 film about the 442nd's exploits called "Go For Broke" (the unofficial Regimental motto) starring Van Johnson. It is hard to find except on DVD. I recommend it.
The Nisei had to beg to be allowed to fight. Finally, FDR made a speech where he described what a true American was, and how all Americans had the right to fight. He did not mention that those same Americans he was referring to were stripped of their most basic rights because of US bigotry.
The 442 served in Italy with distinction. On October 24, 1944, the unit found itself in the Vosges Forest in France. In two months, the Battle of the Bulge would begin. The Vosges has Germany to the north east and Switzerland to the south east. The 441st Texas battalion was cut off and surrounded on hill 595 (595 is the hill's height above sea level). The Vosges is a very dense forest, featuring 45 degree hills and continuous cold rain and mist.
The Germans were defending their homeland's border. They fought fiercely and bravely. Both sides were under-supplied, and neither side knew how poor off the other was. Both sides faced the same issues: miserable weather, foul water, little or no food for days, dwindling ammo supplies, and limited ability to treat wounded. For the Americans, one of the biggest risks was exploding trees. When hit with an artillery, trees splintered into a thousand flying knives.
The 442nd was assigned the task of rescuing the 441st Texas Battalion. The German's were one thing that demand attention. Others include trench foot; acts of enormous courage and sacrifice; lack of everything (food, water, medicine, bandages etc); and friends dying every day as they fought to free the 441st. The biggest problem was resupply for the trapped Texans. Planes dropped gas tanks full of supplies that landed in enemy hands as often as they did friendly hands. Artillery was used to shell the Americans with supplies… a very dangerous procedure, as you might imagine. One soldier was killed by a can of cheese from a exploding resupply shell (the resupply shells had small charges in them).
This book, like many others, documents the conditions of war… hell on Earth. There are many tear-inducing moments in the narrative.
Perhaps the most galling thing about the battle was the actions of Major General John Dahlquist. He was an asshole of major proportions. Every few hours, he would get status information from the 441st and 442nd. Low on everything, fighting strength diminished, many untreated wounded etc. And every few hours, Dahlquist, the overall commander in the area, would give orders to do what he was just told was not possible to do. On several occasions, a junior officer flatly refused to carry out his orders, as they amounted to suicide for his men. The 442nd Nisei hated Dahlquist and respected their commander, Gordon Singles, for telling him to shove off. Shortly after the combat in the Vosges was over, Dahlquist assembled the 442nd for review. He was outraged that so few of them showed up... until he was informed that what he saw was all that was left of the 442nd. Dahlquist got in trouble later in the aftermath of the war for cozying up to Goering. IOW: he liked Germans better than he like Japanese Americans. Dahlquist's bigotry was baked into the army at the time.
Some years later, Dahlquist attended a parade review of the 442nd. Dahlquist approached Singles in front of his men. Singles snapped to attention. Dahlquist held out his hand, suggesting that perhaps now they could bury the hatchet. Singles said nothing and held his salute until Dahlquist withdrew his hand and returned the salute. A perfect take-down. The 442nd remembered.
Even after the war was over, things had not changed. Some west coast States tried to keep the Japanese from returning to their "homes" (in quotes, because their homes had been sold)! Many soldiers in the 442nd were put forward for medals. From the Congressional Medal of Honor to the Purple Heart, and everything in between. But after the war, most of the 442nd's medals were downgraded. This was blatant bigotry in action. It was not until Presidents Reagan and Clinton that some of these sins were redressed. Reagan paid reparations for stolen property and Clinton addressed the medals issue. Unfortunately, most of the major medal recipients were already dead. The last died about 10 years ago.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.