It is a fact of history that the most decorated unit in American warfare was composed of Asian Americans.
They are the Nisei — second-generation Japanese American — soldiers of the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The unit’s formation can be traced back to 1941 — just after the attack on Pearl Harbor — when the U.S. government classified all Japanese-American men of military age as 4C, or “enemy aliens.”
As a result, these Nisei were not eligible to be drafted and officials considered sending them straight to internment camps.
But sending them to such camps was not an intelligent decision for Hawaii, which had the largest population of Japanese-Americans at the time. They fueled the Hawaiian economy and the move would be catastrophic to businesses that depended heavily on their work. In the end, only 2,000 from the islands were interned.
Then, 1,432 of Hawaii’s Japanese-American soldiers from the existing 298th and 299th Infantry Regiments remained in service. They were organized as the “Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion” and sent to the mainland. By June 5, 1942, they boarded the USS Maui and sailed to Oakland, California.
The soldiers thought they were heading to internment camps, but this never happened. On June 15, 1942, they became the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate), also known as the “One Puka Puka.”
The 100th Battalion trained exceptionally well for more than a year. Many wanted to go to the Pacific to avenge the Pearl Harbor bombing, but the government worried that their allegiance could be challenged as soon as they face soldiers who looked like them.
For this reason, they were instead sent to fight in the Mediterranean, where they were nicknamed “The Purple Heart Battalion” in memory of the amount of their casualties. By this point, they were down to 521 men.
The 100th Battalion was soon replenished by the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), a self-sufficient fighting formation composed entirely of Nisei volunteers.
By Aug. 14, 1994 the 442nd RCT consisted of the 100th, 2nd and 3rd Battalions. The 100th Battalion took the place of the 1st but was permitted to keep its unit designation for its distinguished fighting record.
The all-new 100th/442nd Infantry soon engaged in more battles. They pushed Germans out of Italy, liberated towns in France and rescued soldiers of the “Lost Battalion” — 211 men of the 1st Battalion, 141st Regiment of the 36th “Texas” Division who found themselves surrounded by Germans.
Their motto: “Go for Broke” —the Hawaiian slang for “shoot for works.”
The 100th/442nd Infantry was replenished nearly 2.5 times by the time the war ended. About 14,000 soldiers served in total. In recognition of their allegiance, the unit received eight Presidential Unit Citations.
Meanwhile, members received a total of 18,143 awards, including 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Cross, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 560 Silver Stars, 22 Legion of Merit Medals, 15 Soldier’s Medals, 4,000 Bronze Stars and of course, 9,486 Purple Hearts.
The 100th/442nd Infantry hence became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in American warfare.
It must be noted, however, that while the Nisei of the 100th/442nd Infantry demonstrated allegiance to the American flag, they were still perceived as enemies when they returned home. Employers did not want to hire them and many of their families remained in concentration camps.
On the streets, one sign blasted “We don’t want any Japs back here… ever!”
It was a difficult time, but Harry S. Truman, who was president at the time, had their backs. He commented on the abuse of the returning Japanese:
“These disgraceful actions almost make you believe that a lot of our Americans have a streak of Nazi in them…it certainly makes me ashamed.”
Truman praised them for fighting for America (via Rise of the Asian Male):
“Their service is a credit not only to their race and to America, but to the finest qualities in human nature.
“You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice—and you have won.”