By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 3, 2009 - For three days in October 1944, a Japanese-American military unit fought in dense woods, heavy fog and freezing temperatures in the mountains of France, answering the prayers of an American battalion pinned down by German forces. In a bloody rescue mission that became one of World War II's most famed battles, more than 800 troops fighting with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team died as the unit saved 217 American forces.
"The 442nd, for its size and length of service, is the most decorated unit in the entire history of the United States military," Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week in remarks before the Japanese American Memorial Fund. "Their story has taught me so many things and has likely inspired all who have heard it."
German forces had cut off the Texas National Guard's 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, in the Vosges Mountains when commanders ordered in the 442nd. The German troops already had repelled repeated rescue attempts by the 141st's other two battalions.
Nearly half of the men in the Japanese-American unit would be dead or wounded three days later, with the Texas battalion still isolated.
"Then, something happened in the 442nd," according to an official account at the Army Center for Military History. "By ones and twos, almost spontaneously and without orders, the men got to their feet and, with a kind of universal anger, moved toward the enemy position. Bitter hand-to-hand combat ensued as the Americans fought from one fortified position to the next. Finally, the enemy broke in disorder."
The original 4,000 men had to be replaced nearly three and a half times. In total, about 14,000 men served at the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, ultimately earning 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor, and an unprecedented eight Presidential Unit Citations, Mullen told an audience that included troops from the 442nd and 141st.
"I am truly humbled in the deepest sense possible to be in their midst, to share with you some of the many lessons I have learned from their intrepid service," he said. "Their story has taught me so many things and has likely inspired all who have heard it."
Mullen said a study of what inspired Japanese-American troops is a lesson in pride, courage and a heartfelt belief in the liberties promised by the U.S. Constitution.
"These Japanese-Americans nobly volunteered to serve the very country who persecuted and imprisoned them and their families," Mullen said, referring to the U.S. policy of placing Japanese-Americans in internment camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. "Yet, these Japanese-Americans who chose to serve felt not only a deep sense of patriotism, but they also felt that they had to prove their patriotism, their loyalty to a then-ungrateful nation."
The chairman said he derives another important lesson from the 442nd from an anecdote about one of the unit's officers. When a Colonel Kim, a Korean-American, was told to transfer out of the unit because of a historical Korean-Japanese friction, he refused the order.
"'They are Americans. I am an American. And together, we are going to fight for America,'" Mullen said, quoting Kim.
"In everything we do, every choice we make," Mullen continued, "we should strive to make our communities and this nation as rich and diverse as possible by living up to the principles upon which the United States of America was founded."