Heroes all, the nisei GIs who fought so superbly in World War II needed no urging to ‘go for broke!’

By Michael D. Hull

They were mostly young men with their futures before them, ordinary youths who wanted to live. But they became extraordinary because they had left the internment camps and volunteered to fight for the land that had incarcerated them and their families. And they became heroes in the course of a struggle not merely to win a war, but to become equals with other members of American society.

That is how Captain George Aki, the chaplain of the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, to which it was attached, described his comrades. They were the “go for broke” nisei soldiers who covered themselves with glory in World War II. While their Japanese-American families languished in internment camps, the soldiers of the 442nd, attached to the Fifth and Seventh armies, hammered their way up the Italian boot and through the rugged Vosges Mountains of northeastern France against determined German resistance.

They fought in seven campaigns, made two beachhead assaults (one in gliders) and pulled off one of the most dramatic infantry rescue operations of the war: the relief of the surrounded 1st “Lost Battalion” of the 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th (“Texas”) Division, near Biffontaine in the Vosges in October 1944. Many of the Texans, who had been trapped for a week, broke into sobs when the nisei GIs reached them.

Chester Tanaka’s Go For Broke (Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 1997, $39.95) is not the first book written about those warriors, but it is the first pictorial history, and it will enthrall WWII buffs. Packed with action photographs and an authentic narrative based on interviews with survivors and their relatives, it provides a vivid record of the gallant unit in both training and action.

Tanaka served in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 442nd RCT, and was one of the few men in the unit to survive the war. During the rescue of the Lost Battalion in the Vosges, K Company dropped in number from 187 riflemen to 17–one of the heaviest casualty rates of any company in the war. Tanaka assumed temporary command of the company. He was subsequently awarded the Presidential Unit Citation with oak leaf cluster, the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart with cluster.

As this fine book shows, from Salerno to Cassino, from Anzio to Rome-Arno and from Champagne to the Po Valley, no American soldiers fought with more spirit, determination or effectiveness than the nisei. They were magnificent fighters, and combat commanders could not get enough of them.

As General Mark W. Clark, Fifth Army commander, said of the unit: “These are some of the best goddamn fighters in the U.S. Army. If you have more, send them over.” General George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, said: “They were superb; the men of the 100th/442nd took terrific casualties. They showed rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit…everybody wanted them.” Said Maj. Gen. Jacob L. Devers, commander of the Sixth Army Group in Europe: “They volunteered for Army combat service, and they made a record second to none. In Europe, theirs was the combat team most feared by the enemy.”

Many decorations were heaped upon the 442nd. They included eight Presidential Unit Citations, one Medal of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, 560 Silver Stars, 22 Legion of Merit Medals, 9,486 Purple Hearts and 4,000 Bronze Stars. It was the most highly decorated unit in U.S. Army history, but the cost had been terrible–an overall casualty rate of 300 percent by the end of World War II.

In 1946, the nisei soldiers marched proudly through the rain along Pennsylvania Avenue to receive their final Presidential Unit Citation on the White House lawn from President Harry S. Truman, who told them, “You fought for the free nations of the world…you fought not only the enemy, you fought prejudice–and you won.”

Tanaka has provided the surviving veterans with a tribute to make them, their army and their countrymen truly proud, featuring stunning artwork and crisp, highly detailed text.