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  • James Houser

May 2, 1945 - The Nisei Soldiers of World War II and the Italian Campaign

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

Asian-American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month: May 2, 1945. After months of fighting, the U.S. 442nd Infantry Regiment accepts German surrender in Italy. The 442nd is composed entirely of Japanese-Americans, most of whose families are in internment camps. Their story is a refutation of racism and an epic of struggle and valor unparalleled in American history. Their motto is “Go For Broke!”

Even as it fought horrific manifestations of racism and bigotry abroad, the United States was notably tainted by the same evils at home. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment of Japanese-American citizens on the West Coast and in Hawaii. There was never any real evidence of their disloyalty, and two thirds of those of Japanese origin had been born in the United States. The second-generation Japanese-Americans were known as “Nisei”; they were categorized as “enemy aliens” and were not subject to the draft. Despite their status as American citizens, Japanese-Americans were immediately suspected and treated as second-class because of their heritage.

The internment camps are justifiably famous as a great crime committed against the liberties of American citizens by the federal government. Less well-known is the discrimination pitted against Nisei within the military. The War Department approved the removal of all soldiers of Japanese ancestry from active service, and all Japanese-American ROTC cadets were dismissed. Some National Guard units from Hawaii, where the population was one-third Japanese, were retained, but they were sent to Wisconsin – far away so they couldn’t commit any “suspicious acts.” There, they were combined into the 100th Infantry Battalion.

The Japanese-American soldiers and cadets were deeply ashamed by the lack of trust their country had shown in them – they were just as American as anyone else, and almost all of them had been born in the United States. The expelled ROTC cadets petitioned to be allowed to serve their country, and were accepted as a construction unit – the “Varsity Victory Volunteers.” The 100th Battalion was treated abominably, kept separate from other troops and subjected to repeated “tests” of their loyalty. Despite skepticism and abuse from the locals, the 100th performed brilliantly in training, and earned the respect of some civilians when five Nisei saved some local civilians from drowning in a frozen lake.

The negative publicity from Japanese internment, and the loyalty shown by the VVV and by the 100th Battalion, convinced the War Department to allow the creation of a Japanese-American Combat Team, mainly consisting of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. The 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regiment were not trusted to fight the Japanese, as the high command still questioned their loyalty; instead, they would go fight the Germans and Italians.

While the 442nd Regiment was still in training, the 100th Battalion, still a separate unit, was shipped off to Italy. It served as an “advance element” of the regiment and quickly made a name for itself. The 100th entered the line on September 29, 1943, and went into battle with high morale and combat fury that surprised American commanders. In January 1944, the battalion participated in one of the many terrible assaults on Monte Cassino, a heavily fortified German strongpoint in the Italian mountains. They launched attack after attack on the 1500-foot peak, only to be cut up and decimated by German tank and machine gun fire. They failed to take Cassino, but their actions on the mountain earned them the nickname “Purple Heart Battalion,” and reporters patronizingly referred to them as “little men of iron.” Out of 1300 men originally sent overseas with the 100th Battalion, only 500 were left after the Battle of Cassino. The 100th later fought at Anzio and helped liberate Rome, after which they were pulled from the line.

Why did the Japanese-Americans of the 100th Battalion, and later the 442nd Regiment, fight with so much fury? Why did they take such high losses, even when compared with other American units? They had something to prove. These were men who had lived their whole lives as Americans, only to be treated differently because of their ancestry and see their families locked up in internment camps in the California desert. Much like African-Americans, the treatment was racial, but it was also different for the Nisei. For African-Americans, the going racist assumption was one of low intelligence or poor discipline; for the Nisei, racism centered on disloyalty and untrustworthiness. The dynamic was poisonous in a different direction.

Because of this presumption, the Nisei of these units felt a burning desire to prove themselves loyal and worthy of being American. They never should have had to prove it; the United States has always been a refuge for the “poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Yet the Nisei felt they did have to prove it, to themselves if no one else. They would prove that they were not just Americans – they were some of the greatest Americans to ever wear the uniform. It was time to go for broke.

In June 1944, the 442nd Regiment arrived in Italy, and the 100th Battalion finally joined their fellow Japanese-Americans in uniform, becoming an official part of the 442nd but keeping their special unit insignia. Now the Nisei were ready to fight. They were quickly committed to fight the German units retreating to the north of Italy.

The 442nd plowed up the road, engaging multiple German forces in fierce skirmishes. The new battalions fought just as well as the veterans of the 100th did. In July 1944, the Nisei came up against the slopes of Hill 140, the main line of enemy resistance. One soldier, Harry Abe, described the battle as “Hill 140, when the medics were just overrun with casualties, casualties you couldn’t think to talk about.” On July 7, the 442nd captured the fortress-hill, suffering nearly one third of their number as casualties. The Germans continued their retreat through Italy.

The 442nd was soon sent to fight in France as part of Eisenhower’s forces trying to break German defenses in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace. Battles came quick, with hill after hill and town after town becoming a new entry in their unit’s chronicle. In October, they took the town of Bruyeres, breaking through concrete barriers and storming the city against resistance from the SS. Soon they gained a new mission, though. On October 23, the 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry – a Texas National Guard unit – was cut off and surrounded by German mountain troops near the town of Biffontaine. The 442nd was ordered to cut in a path and save the Texan “Lost Battalion.”

For the next few days, the 442nd engaged in its heaviest fighting so far, advancing through heavy rain, dense fog and bitter cold. They moved deeper into the dark forest, shooting and maneuvering their way through heavy German resistance along the crests and valleys of the mountains. When they reached the final enemy defenses, the Nisei launched a surprise bayonet attack, yelling “Banzai!” Now it was the German turn to experience what so many Americans had experienced in the Pacific. As one Nisei dropped after another, the 442nd shattered the German force, saving the Texan Guardsmen in the process. One 442nd soldier, a young Sergeant named Daniel Inouye, was saved from a near-fatal bullet by the two silver dollars he had in his pocket.

The price was high. General Dahlquist, the Texans’ commander, had the regiment come out for an award ceremony. As they stood in formation, he began yelling at the regiment’s commander, Colonel Miller, asking where the rest of his men were. Colonel Miller looked behind him. Of the 200 that K Company had started the campaign with, only 18 stood in formation. Colonel Miller turned to General Dahlquist and said, “That is K Company, sir. All of it.”

The 442nd was sent to a quiet part of the line for the next few months, allowed to replenish its strength with new recruits. In March 1945, though, they returned to Italy to fight in the final offensive against German forces in that country. Even though they had an incredible record so far, it was in Italy that they would truly earn their fame. They would serve under the 92nd Infantry Division, the only African-American division to serve on the front lines of World War II. The United States had all its mistreated sons together under a single command.

The Allied armies in Italy were prepared for the final crushing blow against the Axis, and had prepared a systematic attack against the great complex of mountain strongpoints they faced, known by the Germans as the “Gothic Line.” The Allies had been hammering at the Gothic Line for almost six months and had made little progress, but with the war coming to an end they were ready to make one last push. The 442nd’s job was to launch a diversionary attack on the left while the rest of the army pushed through to the right.

On April 3, 1945, the Nisei moved into position in the darkness, and at 5:00 am launched their assault. They caught the Germans by surprise, and within 30 minutes took their objectives, cracking the Gothic Line. They didn’t stop. The 442nd kept pushing with reckless courage, driving a deep wedge within the German lines and outrunning their left and right units. Mountain after mountain fell, even as the Japanese-Americans suffered tremendous casualties. Soon the Allied high command realized that the 442nd had turned a diversion into an all-out attack.

The Nisei outpaced their supplies, even as losses mounted. On April 21, 1945, they reached the strongpoint of the Colle Musatello ridge. It was here that recently promoted Lieutenant Daniel Inouye led his platoon in a flanking maneuver against the ridge. Shot in the stomach, he ignored his wound and led his men to destroy two machine gun nests before collapsing from blood loss. Even after he collapsed, he crawled forward, cradling his Thompson submachine gun. There was one last bunker to take out.

As Inouye crawled forward and prepared to throw a grenade, an explosion tore his right arm off – even as it still held the live grenade. As he watched a German soldier reloading his rifle and preparing to fire, Inouye tore the live grenade out of his severed arm and tossed it in the bunker slit, saving his soldiers from the machine gun fire.

The 442nd’s advance had cut off the German retreat to the west, and thousands of Nazis came streaming in to surrender. As they spotted the Mediterranean from the mountain peaks and counted their dead, word came in to the Nisei that German forces in Italy had surrendered. For the Japanese-Americans of the 442nd Regiment, World War II was over.

Of the 4,000 men who initially signed up in 1943, the 442nd Regiment suffered 240% casualties, including the replacements and reinforcements they received. Over 14,000 Nisei eventually served in the 442nd.

The Nisei returned home to a hero’s welcome from their own; the service of the 442nd in Europe had helped convince the U.S. government to end the practice of internment before World War II ended. They still faced terrible racism from their countrymen; the American Legion refused to accept Nisei veterans until white officers from the 442nd intervened. The Nisei veterans were later instrumental in convincing Congress to accept Hawaiian statehood.

Though it took time to acknowledge their sacrifice, the belated approval of many award recommendations served to make the 442nd Infantry Regiment the most decorated unit in United States Army history. As a whole, 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, and over 9,000 Purple Hearts were awarded to members of the 442nd, and the unit as a whole received eight Presidential Unit Citations. Whatever the Japanese-Americans felt like they had to prove, they had gone far beyond it.

Daniel Inouye survived his wounds and received the Medal of Honor for his actions on April 21. After the war, he went to law school and served in the Hawaii territorial House of Representatives. In 1959, he became Hawaii’s first U.S. Congressman, and in 1962 was elected to the United States Senate as a Democrat. Inouye served 50 years as a Senator and never an election in his life. In 2012, he died at the age of 88 during his eighth term – the second-to-last living Medal of Honor recipient of the 442nd Regiment. (Private George T. Sakato died in 2015.)

Talk about Going for Broke.

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