A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

January 2006

Go For Broke
The All Japanese American 442nd Infantry Regiment

by Dr. Michelle Marshman

December 13th, 1944. “Mitsuo (Mike) Iseri, who volunteered for army service shortly after Pearl Harbor, died in France from wounds received in action on November 4th. Such was the word brought to Auburn last week by Mun Iseri, the soldier’s brother who received the message from the war department....” The Iseri family was a well-known and respected family here in Auburn. Kent News-Journal. August 10th, 1944. “Pfc. Richard H. Naito, 32, Kent-born Japanese, was seriously injured in fighting in northern Italy, according to word received from the war department by his wife, now living in Seattle.”

While their friends and families waited for news of their sons and brothers in internment camps, men like Iseri and Naito, along with thousands of other Americans of Japanese ancestry, courageously served the United States in the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team. They served during a time of extreme degradation and great heroism in the history of our United States. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 requiring “all Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien,” to be forcibly evacuated from the West Coast for reasons of national security. Americans of Japanese ancestry were classified as 4C, Enemy Alien, and so ineligible for the draft. Nisei serving in Hawaii’s National Guard were discharged. Eventually, the military and government reversed their position on Nisei military participation. On February 1, 1943, over a year after the “day of infamy”, and not one year after Executive Order 9066, President Roosevelt announced from the White House the organization of the 442nd. More than 110,000 Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans confined behind barbed wire in relocation camps heard his words:

No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship, regardless of his ancestry. The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.

With such eloquence as inspiration, and with “Go For Broke” as their motto, thousands of Nisei filled the ranks of Unit 442. Who were these men who made up the “most decorated unit in United States military history”? How and where did they serve in WWII?

Recruited From Camp
The first all-Japanese American Nisei military unit was the 100th Battalion, which was the designation for the unit which was formed from the Japanese Americans who comprised a large part of the Hawaiian National Guard. These Nisei were sent to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin for combat training and later were moved to Camp Shelby, Mississippi for additional training. After President Roosevelt’s 1943 announcement, recruiters were sent to relocation camps. Thousands of Nisei volunteered from the camps. At Camp Shelby, Nisei volunteers primarily from Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and California were formed into the 442nd. The 442nd Infantry Regiment consisted of a number of units: Regimental Headquarters Company, a medical detachment, First, Second, and Third Battalions, 232nd Engineer Company, and 552nd Field Artillery Battalion. Nevertheless, the Nisei remained under a watchful eye. The War Department organizational plan specified that all officers down to the company commander level were to be “white American citizens.” Further, although the majority of the men in the unit were Buddhist, most Buddhist ministers were interned in camps; and so three Japanese-American Protestant chaplains from Hawaii were attached to the 442nd.
In all, the 442nd fought in eight major campaigns in France, Italy, and Germany, made two beachhead assaults, captured a submarine, and participated in the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. In August of 1943, the 100th Infantry Battalion (also consisting of personnel of Japanese ancestry) left Mississippi for North Africa and was attached to the 34th “Red Bull” Division. The Americans fought with British to reclaim Kasserine Pass, and engaged the Afrika Korps around Tunis, North Africa. Shortly thereafter, on September 19th, 1943, the 100th left Oran and headed for Italy. There, they joined with the 442nd, and with other Allied troops, began the painfully slow, town-to-town and hill-and-valley engagement with the Wehrmacht. On September 28th, 1943, the first casualty of the 100th/442nd was taken, and selflessly the Battalion began to walk the road of Purple Hearts. Battles on the European continent included the battles at Belmont, Bruyeres, and Biffontaine. At Biffontaine, one year into their deployment, Unit 442 valiantly fought to rescue “the lost battalion.”

World War II Europe and Africa Map

Lost Battle
In October of 1944, an estimated 700 enemy fighters trapped and surrounded 275 members of the 141st Infantry Regiment on a ridge, deep in the Vosges forests. On October 27, 1944, the 442nd was ordered to join the rescue of “the lost battalion.” On Sunday, October 29, 1944, engaged in the fight for the lost battalion, Noboru Fujinaka of the 442nd wrote home: “Mother and Father, please don’t worry about us. I am careful about everything so please set your minds at ease. The real achievement is to give one’s all for the country, and then to come home alive.” (Umezawa Duus, 202) Enemy forces had the lost battalion surrounded with land mines, tanks, and troops. The terrain was mountainous, hilled, and forested. Directing the rescue effort, General Dahlquist ordered the 442nd’s Lieutenant Colonel: “Keep them going and don’t let them stop. There’s a battalion about to die up there and we’ve got to reach them.” The young men of the 442nd fought with remarkable courage in the face of machine-gun fire, grenades, land-mines, and anti-tank rocket fire. After four days of fierce fighting and terrible human losses, the 442nd broke through enemy lines. Sergeant Bill Hull, a member of the lost battalion, recalls the enemy attack the morning 442nd broke through: “They mounted a terrific attack on three sides of our broken perimeter.... I thought to myself, ‘This is the last fight.’ It was like the enemy was determined to wipe us out one way or another. That was the first time I thought I was going to die… I kept shooting not worrying about saving my ammunition. Then suddenly there was a lot of noise behind me. They’re finally coming in from the rear, I thought, and when I turned to look I saw this little Japanese American soldier jumping into the dugout. I just can’t put into words what I felt then.... It was the Japanese Americans who broke through the enemy and saved us. I was giving thanks to God, and that Japanese American soldier looked real special to me.” (Umesawa Duus, 210)

The 100th/442nd taking part in rescuing the Lost Batallion

Terrible Losses
After the rescue of the lost battalion, the 442nd was ordered to take the next hill, continuing the battles in the Vosges Mountains and forests. The forest battles depleted the ranks of the 442nd. On November 12, when the troops stood at attention to be recognized for the heroism in the forest battles, 161 of the 2,943 entering the engagement had been killed, 43 were missing, and about 2,000 were wounded. After leaving the Vosges battles, the men of the 442nd had a four-month reprieve in southern France, guarding the border between Italy and France before being sent to further engagements in eastern France and Germany.
Between September, 1943 and May, 1945, the men of the 442nd earned 9,486 Purple Hearts and 680 were killed in action. They were awarded 18,143 individual decorations for bravery, including: 1 Congressional Medal of Honor; 52 Distinguished Service Crosses; 1 Distinguished Service Medal; 588 Silver Stars; 22 Legion of Merit medals; 19 Soldier’s Medals; 5,200 Bronze Stars and 14 Croix de Guerre, among many other decorations. It bears repeating that the 442nd /100th is one of the most decorated units in military history. Of approximately 4,500 men at maximum strength, 680 men were killed in action, and 67 missing in action. In all, over 33,000 Nisei soldiers served the United States army in World War II.

Mike Iseri in uniform

Local Soldiers
On a more local and personal level, soldiers from the Kent-Auburn region fought in Unit 442. Three Americans of Japanese ancestry from Kent helped rescue “the lost battalion”: Seigo Shimoyama, Keiji Nakatsuka and Minoro Tsubota. (Kent News-Journal, March 15, 1945) Other local veterans of the 442nd include Mitsuo (Mike) Iseri, mentioned in the Auburn Globe reference above, who died of wounds received in action in France on November 3, 1944. “At noon, the war began, by 7:30 in evening, our father was taken by the FBI, and that same week, Mike volunteered for service,” as recounted by Mae Yamada, Mike’s sister and local area resident. Mike had a sinus infection which prevented his immediate service, but two months later, on February 10, 1942, at 35 years of age, Mike Iseri volunteered for action.

Mike Iseri was born in Sumner, Washington, on June 4, 1909, and he attended high school in Kent and Auburn. The Iseri family was a well-known and respected family in Auburn, involved with local businesses and community politics. Mike Iseri worked as a produce warehouse foreman before his service in the army. He married Alice Fujinaga in December of 1942, in Little Rock, Arkansas, while training at Camp Robinson. “After training at Camp Robinson, and attaining a T/3 rank, Mike was transferred to Fort McClellam, Alabama, to a segregated Japanese-American group and demoted to Pfc, while others were discharged,” according to Yamada. Shortly thereafter, Iseri was transferred to the 442nd, and shipped to Europe where he fought in battles of Bruyeres and Biffontaine; Iseri also participated in the battle to save “the lost battalion.” In one of his letters to his sister, Mae, Mike wrote: “Dear Sis, Hello Mae and thanks for your letter and pictures, Enjoy them very much. … There isn’t much I can tell you except that I’m ok but a little tired and of one thing I can tell you. That this war can’t end too soon to suit me. It’s a terrible thing and I’d like to forget it as soon as possible when I get back. The life in foxholes and through rain and mud and cold and eating cold meals from cans isn’t my idea of life. … Well, Mae and Maki take good care of yourselves won’t you and I sure hope to see you all before too long.” The letter was postmarked October 28, 1944; Mike was injured October 29th, and died from wounds received in action on November 3, 1944.

“Mike’s spirit was there, it was with us,” said Mae Yamada, reflecting on the mystical and deeply meaningful pilgrimages she took to honor her brother. In 1993 and again in 1998, Mae, several family members, and family friends from Hawaii made the trips to France and Germany. Mae had a truly amazing set of experiences on her journeys, including serendipitously meeting and dining with the mayor of Bruyeres, the town outside of which Mike was mortally wounded. Mae met men and women who, despite their youth, remember well the men of the 442nd, including one who remembers that his family “gave the AJA boys cabbage” since it was the season (October). Mae even met a card-carrying member of the French Underground. The people Mae met on her pilgrimages showered her and her traveling party with graciousness and hospitality; clearly the heroism and courage of the 442nd and the Allied forces in general left a permanent mark on the French psyche. Mae explains her experiences as “Mike’s spirit blessing his family.” Mae lives in Auburn, serves on the Board of the White River Valley Museum, and has spoken to students from Green River Community College about her and her family’s experience during World War II.

Other local residents who gave their lives in service to the United States include Hisashi Iwai, born in White River, who was killed in action on April 19, 1945 near Castelpoggio, Italy during the Po Valley campaign. William Shinji Mizukami, born in Auburn, also served the 442nd and was killed in action on July 12, 1944 south of the Arno River in Italy. William Hiroshi Taketa, born in Kent, served the 442nd and also was killed in the Po Valley Campaign on April 28, 1945. All of these men were recipients of the Purple Heart, in addition to dozens of other medals and honors.

At the time, Issei parents had mixed feelings about their sons joining the 442nd. Some were upset at the designation of the battalion, as the Japanese word for “four” (shi) is pronounced in the same way as the word for “death” (shi). Others were concerned their sons would be used as a labor battalion, or as a “shield for the white soldiers.” But most understood that the young men simply wanted to show their devotion and loyalty to the land of their birth.

Even though most of their lives were far too short, their heroism and courage stand long before us. For their sacrifice, as Dick Naito, another local 442 veteran says, as retold in a 1994 interview by Budd Fukkei in Nikkei Northwest, “... [the] loyalty of the Japanese Americans is no longer a major issue. Also, ... just seeing and knowing that the Sanseis and Yonseis have been accepted and are doing extremely well in various fields was worth his sacrifice – his right leg shattered by enemy fire during a 442nd RCT push on the Italian front.” Fukkei titled his article about Dick Naito “A classy guy in war and peace.” The stories of Dick Naito, Mike Iseri, and each individual man who served in the 100th/ 442nd are uncommon stories from, as Francis Fukuhara penned, “Uncommon American Patriots.” V

The regimental 442nd Combat Team marching in France

Bibliography Available at Museum
For more information go to www.goforbroke.com