Fight of the 442nd
Excitement was in the air at Fort Sill's observance of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month on Thursday.
First up was the Pacific Warriors Dancers performing examples of dances from New Zealand and Fiji. They filled the aisle and the stage with their exotic costumes and resounding whoops.
Introducing the guest speaker, Col. James T. Shuto, chief of staff for the Army National Guard's deputy commanding generals for field artillery and air defense artillery, was Col. Michael E. Dinos, commander of Fort Sill Dental Activity, the luncheon's host.
Shuto had two stories to tell. For the first, he began with an event that changed the United States of America and the world, the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. It prompted thousands of Americans to volunteer for military service, but Americans of Japanese ancestry were "un-invited" to join that cause. They were reclassified as 4C and denied the opportunity to serve.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order giving the Secretary of War unchallenged power.
With that, 120,000 Japanese-Americans were removed from the West Coast, some to frigid climes, some to the swamps of southeast Arkansas. They were given two weeks to get their belongings in order. They had to sell their homes, their businesses and their furniture for 10 cents on the dollar, Shuto said.
More than a year later, Army leaders relented somewhat by organizing the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) on March 23, 1943. Shuto explained that "Nisei" is a term for second-generation Japanese-Americans.
The unit ran into training problems because the Hawaiian Japanese-Americans and the mainland Japanese-Americans did not get along. Shuto said they would get into knockdown, drag-out fights. Their leaders feared they would turn on each other in combat and said, "This is bad."
One of the Army leaders decided to send the Hawaiian Japanese-Americans to Jerome, Ark. As they neared the place the trainees saw a big compound, a guard tower, bright lights and water-cooled machineguns.
As they got closer they noticed the guards were all locked and loaded. Then they noticed something else: The guns were pointing inside rather than out. It dawned on them that this was a Japanese-American internment camp.
There were no more problems after they returned to Camp Shelby, Miss. Not a word was spoken during the four-hour return trip.
"Would I have signed up if I had known they were going to intern my family?" was a question in everyone's minds.
The internal conflict ended, but they still faced discrimination in the form of a trick question on a survey. It would incriminate them whether they answered "yes" or "no." A young Korean-American officer who would go on to achieve great distinction, Young-Oak Kim, protested on their behalf, saying, "Respectfully, sir Ö we are Americans. We're going to fight like Americans."
And they did They liberated the French towns of Bruyeres and Biffontaine. When 270 soldiers of "The Lost Battalion" were surrounded by 8,000 Germans, the 442nd RCT, 36th Infantry Division, was sent to their rescue. The Japanese-Americans knew too well they were considered expendable, but they also saw this as an opportunity to prove themselves.
The Germans had the high ground, and the 442nd moved only 1,000 yards the first day, said Shuto. But they were determined, and at the expense of 800 lives, they broke through. The Lost Battalion, by now reduced to 211, couldn't believe what they saw.
For their efforts, the 442nd earned seven Presidential Unit Citations, 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, 560 Silver Stars with 28 oak leaf clusters, 22 Legion of Merit awards, 4,000 Bronze Stars with 1,200 oak leaf clusters and 9,486 Purple Hearts.