Facing the Mountain: the forgotten heroes of the Second World War

The most highly decorated combat unit in the history of the United States Army is the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, with its distinctive motto ‘Go for Broke’ – a reference to a term in gambling meaning that one stakes all in an effort to win the game.

For the men of the 442nd, this was a particularly apt phrase. They were second-generation Japanese-Americans and, for them, the Second World War was indeed a two-front effort against not only the Axis powers but also against racial prejudice in the United States. In this superb and long overdue volume, Daniel James Brown explores the challenging circumstances that produced this remarkable unit.

On 7 December 1941, air and naval forces of the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on US forces stationed in and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack crippled the Sixth Fleet and dragged the United States into the Second World War.

Public sentiment was especially unforgiving of anyone of Japanese heritage. Despite the fact that the majority of Japanese-Americans had lived in the United States for decades, they ‘looked different’ physically – they resembled the enemy. Politicians – as a class not known for intelligence or discretion – and catering to public outrage over Pearl Harbor, turned their venom not only on Imperial Japan but on anyone who looked Japanese.

Immigration to the US and its territories from Japan had begun in 1869, and from then until 1927 over 200,000 Japanese had moved to Hawaii, while another 180,000 had moved to the continental US, settling mainly on the West Coast. Only some 1,200-1,800 were detained as ‘suspect’ on Hawaii, but on the mainland racism and paranoia ran rampant.

The results were horrendous, as over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were, by government decree, evicted from their homes and businesses – farmers, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, their wives, and children – as the West Coast of the continental US was declared an ‘Exclusion Zone’ and all but emptied of people now labelled as suspected ‘enemy aliens’ and rendered ineligible to enlist in the armed services.

Thousands of Japanese-Americans found themselves uprooted from their homes and businesses, and shipped to remote locations in the continental interior in states such as Texas, Idaho, New Mexico, Montana, and Arkansas. These were almost always situated in bleak, inhospitable environments – often hot, dusty, and windswept regions filled with simple wood and tar-paper barracks surrounded by barbed-wire fences and guard towers.

Even under these Spartan conditions, the Japanese-American community maintained their dignity, improving their environment, protesting their unfair and unjustified incarceration, all the while proclaiming their allegiance to what they had come to view as their homeland.

Nisei soldiers

As the war dragged on and casualty figures mounted, the US government began to relent, with President Roosevelt signing in February 1943 Executive Order 9066 and cautiously calling for 1,500 volunteers to serve in an all-Nisei infantry unit. The Nisei were second-generation Japanese-Americans.

Government officials were unprepared for the response. While 1,256 volunteered from among the Nisei incarcerated in the US, an additional 10,000 Nisei stepped forward from Hawaii. Eventually some 18,000 Nisei would volunteer to fill the ranks, and President Roosevelt authorised the formation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team – an all-Nisei formation (although its officers of the rank of captain and above would initially remain all-white).

The 442nd was then sent to train at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, a post located in the Deep South, where racial prejudice was widespread.

Even allowing for the hostile and overtly racist environment around Camp Shelby, the unit’s immediate challenge was, oddly enough, internal. Most of the soldiers, known as ‘Buddhaheads’, hailed from Hawaii and spoke a sort pidgin English – a mixture of English, American slang, Portuguese, Hawaiian, Japanese, and Chinese – and, as their families were still working in Hawaii, had ready money. Those soldiers from the mainland, known as ‘Katonks’ – supposedly from the sound made by their heads hitting the floor in a brawl – tended to be more sober, even sullen, and found their Hawaiian colleagues too boisterous.

What the ‘Buddhaheads’ did not realise was that their mainland counterparts had experienced the trauma of the relocation centres and were sending most of their meagre pay home to help sustain their families. It was not until the unit’s commander, Colonel Charles Pence, organised a series of field trips to a nearby Japanese-American ‘relocation centre’ (in truth, a form of concentration camp) in Arkansas that the ‘Buddhaheads’ realised what their fellow soldiers from the mainland had experienced. The impromptu trips had a transformative effect on the organisation, with the men finally bonding as a cohesive unit.

Despite their late deployment in the war, arriving in Italy in late 1944, the 442nd found itself in the thick of the fighting as they were hurled against the Germans’ Gothic Line. The Germans were terrified by the tough and skilful soldiers who screamed ‘Banzai’ as they charged up rugged hillsides and blasted pillboxes with gunfire and grenades.

American generals eagerly sought out the 442nd, angling to have it attached to their larger units. From Italy the unit would be redeployed into France with the US Seventh Army, where in October 1944 they participated in some of the fiercest combat of the European theatre.

One of their toughest assignments was the rescue of part of the 141st Infantry Regiment, cut off and surrounded by over 6,000 German soldiers – it was dubbed ‘The Lost Battalion’. After six days of brutal combat, the 442nd broke through and routed the surrounding German forces. Lieutenant Marty Higgins, one of the survivors of the 141st, noted that they were remarkably small, with baggy uniforms and helmets hanging down over their ears, but said: ‘Honestly, they looked like giants to us.’

The 442nd would plunge deep into Germany, destroying enemy forces at a prodigious rate and liberating thousands of prisoners from the Nazi concentration camps. Their exploits would earn them 9,486 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 560 Silver Stars, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 21 Medals of Honor – more than any single unit in American history.

Daniel Brown has compiled a compelling and frequently heart-breaking portrait of the men who served in this fabled outfit. He also describes in detail the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans and their varied reactions to this government overreach.

Drawn from scores of official documents, personal letters and recollections, and interviews with surviving veterans, this book takes a long overdue look at soldiers, conscientious objectors, and entire families whose lives were disrupted and forever altered in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It is particularly timely in the light of recent events in the United States, where the COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in a spate of prejudicial assaults on Asian-Americans. Alternating between the heart-breaking and the inspiring, this volume is nothing short of superb and is highly recommended. The reader will not be able to put it down.

Review by Frederick Chiaventone.

Facing the Mountain: the forgotten heroes of the Second World War, Daniel James Brown, Penguin, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-0241356586.