Serving with Distinction – Asian and Pacific Islanders in WWII

By Faye Higbee

The President has declared May 2017 as Asian and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, which is also being celebrated by the Department of Defense. Thousands of Japanese Americans served in WWII, and about 115,000 serve in various capacities in the DOD now.

President Truman on the day he presented their 7th Presidential Unit citation – wikimedia image

WWII was a tough time for Americans of non-white races, especially those of Japanese descent. After Pearl Harbor, no one trusted them. While understandable, it made life exceedingly difficult. On the mainland, thousands were arrested and taken to internment camps behind barbed wire fences.

“The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a brutal blow.  You were soon reminded that your faces were not like other Americans—you had the face of the enemy and all that it represented, but truly you had the heart of an American.” Eric Saul to the 442nd Regiment veterans on the 71st anniversary of WWII.

Hawaii’s Japanese Americans stepped up to serve

We often forget that Hawaii was not yet a state in 1941. The US Military had bases on Oahu, but it was just a US Territory. The attack on Pearl Harbor created an air of suspicion that affected Japanese Americans on all of the Islands.

The Hawaiian Territorial Guard  had trained hard to protect strategic points around Honolulu prior to Pearl Harbor. After the attack, the men were assembled as a group and told they could not serve. Their rifles were taken away.

They were humiliated. But instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the men founded the Varsity Victory Volunteers. They worked on roads, built buildings, and served the war effort with everything they had to give in order to prove their loyalty.

Local authorities in Hawaii pressured the Army to form an all Japanese Battalion: the 100th Infantry (One Puka Puka). After being sent to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, the Army decided that an all Japanese regiment was warranted: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. When they put out a call for 2,500 volunteers, 10,000 Nisei showed up at recruitment headquarters. Some of them even cried when they were turned away. (Nisei- born in the US of Japanese immigrant parents).

Even though thousands of Japanese Americans were uprooted from their homes on the West coast, at least 1,000 of those in internment camps volunteered for the new regiment. Between the Hawaiian contingent and the West coast, thousands served in the 100th – more than 14,000, which included the 442nd and 522nd (Field Artillery) regiments.

Rescuing the Lost Texas Battalion

Two hundred eighty soldiers, mostly from Texas,  were surrounded by Germans in October of 1944. The 442nd was sent to bring them out. Five days of solid fighting left more than 100 killed and nearly 1,000 injured. One 442nd member, George Sakato, single-handedly killed 12, wounded 2, and captured 34 prisoners. But they broke through German lines and led the surviving 211 Texas battalion members to safety.


In total, the 442nd was the most decorated unit in American history for its size and length of service, receiving over 18,000 awards. Some of those included: 21 Medal of Honor Recipients (19 of which were upgrades in 2000), 9,486 Purple Hearts, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, 22 Legion of Merit medals, 15 Soldiers Medals, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, and 4,000 Bronze Stars plus 1,200 Oak Leaf Clusters.

In 2010, the members that served in Military Intelligence were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. The 442nd was also awarded the French Legion of Honor for rescuing the Texas Battalion.

The 442nd Regiment’s Patriotism and loyalty to America was proven by the blood they shed.


Featured Photo via Department of Defense 2017