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Published on Friday, May 15, 2020 read more ...

Fighting on Two Fronts: The 442nd Regimental Combat Team

By JENIFER LEIGH VAN VLECK on 5/19/2020

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, today we highlight the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), which fought in World War II. More than twenty members of the 442nd are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  

Organized in March 1943, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team remains the most-decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. During World War II, the 442nd fought in Italy and France and earned seven Distinguished Unit Citations, the nation’s highest award for combat units. Its members received more than 18,000 individual decorations, including one Medal of Honor (an additional 20 Medals of Honor were awarded to members of the unit after a congressionally-mandated review in the 1990s), 53 Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 Silver Stars, 5,200 Bronze Stars and 9,486 Purple Hearts. The 442nd’s notable combat actions included liberating the French towns of Bruyeres, Belmont and Biffontaine (where monuments stand in the unit’s honor), participating in the liberation of the Dachau extermination camp, rescuing a “lost battalion” of 211 Texan soldiers surrounded by German forces in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France, and, in April 1945, breaking through the “Gothic Line”—the last German defensive line in northern Italy. These actions took a heavy toll on the 442nd, which suffered 9,486 total casualties and 600 men killed. 

Pictured, above: Infantrymen from 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team hike up a muddy road in the Chambois Sector, France, October 14, 1944. (U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was notable, however, not only for its World War II combat record, but also for its ethnic composition. The 442nd was a segregated unit, whose members were almost entirely Japanese American—part of the “Nisei,” or second generation, born in the United States or in Hawaii (then a U.S. territory). Along with the 100th Infantry Battalion, a unit of Japanese Hawaiians, these soldiers fought on two fronts, against “the enemy abroad and prejudice at home”—as President Harry S. Truman stated in a 1946 tribute (pictured, right).

“Prejudice at home” was significant during World War II. Longstanding anti-Asian racism in the United States had resulted in laws, passed between the 1880s and 1920s, which excluded Asian Americans from citizenship rights and drastically restricted further immigration from Asia. But those of Japanese ancestry faced the additional burden of being treated as “enemy aliens,” suspected of disloyalty to the United States. On February 19, 1942, ten weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the U.S. government to exclude any person from designated areas of the country, ostensibly to prevent espionage or sabotage. During the next six months, the government forcibly removed approximately 122,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent—nearly 70,000 of whom were U.S. citizens—from their West Coast homes and placed them in remote internment camps, where they remained confined for the duration of the war. These internees included many Nisei who went on to fight, and in some cases to die, for the United States in the military. 

At first, the U.S. government recommended that Japanese Americans be prohibited from military service. In September 1942, the War Department issued a report stating that “the lone fact that these individuals are of Japanese ancestry tends to place them in a most questionable light as to their loyalty to the United States.” Yet some prominent military leaders, including Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy and General George Marshall, believed that Japanese Americans could, and should, prove their loyalty by serving in segregated units under the command of white officers. Segregation, after all, had long been the military’s policy with regard to African Americans and remained in practice during World War II. In Hawaii, with a large population of Japanese descent, Japanese Hawaiians served in the Territorial Guard; in May 1942, they were reorganized into the 100th Infantry Battalion and sent to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin for basic training. The successful training of the 100th Infantry Battalion—as well as the nation’s need for additional military manpower—prompted General Marshall to approve, on January 1, 1943, the creation of an all-Nisei unit, which became the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Within one month, 2,686 volunteers from Hawaii and 1,500 from the U.S. mainland reported to Camp Shelby, Mississippi for basic training. By the end of the war, some 33,000 Japanese Americans had served in the U.S. armed forces. 

The first Japanese American casualties from World War II to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery were two soldiers from the 442nd, both of whom were killed in action during the rescue of the Texas battalion in France: Private First Class Saburo Tanamachi (Section 12, Grave 4845, pictured) and Private First Class Fumitake Nagato (Section 12, Grave 4607, pictured, in background). Their joint funeral took place on June 6, 1948. It symbolized the postwar inclusion of Japanese Americans in national narratives that characterized World War II as a triumph of multicultural democracy—as well as the transformation of Japan from a wartime enemy to a Cold War ally.  Media coverage of the funeral scarcely noted the history of internment, even though Dillon S. Myer, former head of the War Relocation Authority (the federal agency established to manage the wartime internment of Japanese Americans) served as a pallbearer at the funeral. Rather, it emphasized that Tanamachi and Nagato had, through their service and ultimate sacrifice, unquestionably proven their loyalty as U.S. citizens. The racism and prejudice encountered by these men and their comrades played little role in the public narrative of their deaths.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team has rightly received public recognition for its heroic combat record, as well as for the important postwar contributions of its members. For example, Daniel K. Inouye—who was grievously wounded in the war and earned the Distinguished Service Cross—became, in 1959, the first Japanese American to serve in the U.S. Congress, as a representative from the new state of Hawaii; he later became a senator. But the 442nd was not the only military unit in which Japanese Americans served during World War II. Others made notable contributions as translators and linguists in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). Through their work in the MIS, some 60 Japanese Americans played a crucial role in U.S. intelligence efforts in the Pacific, both during the war and the postwar Allied Occupation of Japan.

One of these was Lieutenant Key Kobayashi, who is interred at ANC in Columbarium Court 3 (U-9-1). Kobayashi was living with his family at the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, an internment camp, when he was drafted in 1944. The war had ended by the time Kobayashi completed his training as an Army linguist, but the MIS sent him to occupied Japan, where he translated captured documents for the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section in Tokyo. In an oral history interview, Kobayashi recalled how he worried that “the Japanese people would really resent having one of their countrymen, so to speak, come into their country as part of the Occupation Force.” Yet the Japanese “welcomed us with open arms, especially when they found out that we could converse with them in Japanese. They felt a close identity with us and treated us very favorably and kept asking … ‘What is democracy?’ because that was, I guess, the favorite catchword."

Recalled to active duty during the Korean War, Kobayashi served in Korea with the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, where his duties included intercepting and interrogating Japanese refugees for information on North Korea. After being discharged, Kobayashi worked at the U.S. Patent Office and then at the Library of Congress, where he became assistant head of the Japanese Section.

Key Kobayashi was also an active member of the Japanese American community in the national capital region. In 1948, with Mike Masaoka (whose brother, Ben F. Masaoka, served in the 442nd and is buried in Section 13, Grave 6683-17), Kobayashi organized a Memorial Day service at Arlington National Cemetery to honor Japanese American service members. Held every May since 1948, it is the longest-running annual ceremony at the cemetery (besides the national Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances).

This year, Arlington National Cemetery is proud to honor Japanese American service members, even though the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the 2020 ceremony (along with many other ceremonies that typically occur during Memorial Day weekend). Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month offers an opportunity for us to virtually commemorate Kobayashi, members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infantry Battalion, and all Asian and Pacific Americans who have honorably served, and continue to serve, the United States.