A Lesson in Courage

  • Published
  • By Colonel Dale Andrews
  • 433rd Airlift Wing
In war there are units that acquire what  would appear to be an unenviable nick-name, "Purple Heart Outfit". During WWII there was one such unit, which also happens to be the most highly decorated unit in the history of the American armed forces. In WWII this unit won 21 Medals of Honor, a phenomenal feat. They were the United States Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The 442nd fought with unusual bravery and valor in the European theater. This unit was restricted from fighting in the Pacific theater. Because this unit was made up for the most part of Japanese-Americans.

Today the term 'politically correct' is often met with a painful wince. To many it would seem that being "politically correct" has little to do with "correct" and more to do with 'politics'. In light of what happened to loyal Japanese-Americans after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, such an argument might seem 'quaint'. All Japanese males of draft age were categorized as 4C, enemy alien. Subsequently, Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, gave authority to military commanders to exclude any person from any prescribed military areas. Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States military, in fear of a Japanese attack declared the entire west coast of the United States a military area. Unfortunately, this set the stage for the 'politically incorrect' removal and internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese-American U.S. citizens. These citizens were moved from cities and towns along the west coast of the United States and moved to camps in desolate locations inland. Strangely enough, because it was impractical due to the large size of the Japanese-American population present, this was never done in the Hawaiian Islands, one of the places where the Japanese had actually attacked the U.S. forces. This sad state of affairs is important because it highlights the dedication of many of the young men who served in the 442nd. Because indeed a large number of them volunteered to fight for their country while their families were suffering in the internment camps.

After initial training at Camp Shelby Mississippi, the 442 RCT was sent to North Africa September of 1943 where it was assigned to guarding supply trains. Unit commanders, realizing the lack of confidence that this assignment showed in their troops' fighting abilities, pressed for a combat assignment. With things heating up in the Italian campaign combat duty was not long in coming. On 29 September, 1943, Sergeant Shigeo Takata became the first member of the 442nd to be killed in action during the beach assault on Salerno, Italy. There would be many more. Over the next two years the 442nd would fight in most of the major battles along the Italian peninsula, France, and on into Germany itself. One item of note for those of you from Texas, for a short while the unit was attached to the 36th Infantry Division, originally and now again a Texas National Guard unit. Unit members, in addition to the aforementioned 21 Medals of Honor would be awarded 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 560 Silver Stars, 22 Legion of Merit Medals, and 15 Soldier's Medals among others. In the process of earning all those decorations the unit is reported to have suffered a 314% casualty rate (replacements account for that number).

The courage and dedication the young men of the 442nd RCT was instrumental in changing American minds about the loyalty and dedication of its Japanese-American citizens, resulting in the dismantling of the internment camps before the end of the war. After the war, it was the example of their patriotism and loyalty which was instrumental in the vote to admit Hawaii as the 50th state in the Union.

A stellar performance by a group of young men who kept faith in their country long before it had faith in them added a 50th star to our flag, and taught their fellow Americans about the nature of patriotism. The 433 AW HRDC believes that diversity is the key to the strength of this country and its armed forces. We take the example of the young men of the 442nd to heart and seek and accept excellence wherever we find it.