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442nd Regimental Combat Team
U.S. Army
Multiple awards
Europe 1943–45

Camp Darby is a tiny U.S. Army post just outside Livorno on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Its central square is dedicated to Private Masato “Curly” Nakae, who earned the Medal of Honor a few miles north, near Pisa, on Aug. 19, 1944. At the dedication ceremony in 2006, I had the privilege of being the presiding senior U.S. Army officer.

On the eve of the ceremony, I hosted a dinner for Nakae’s daughter, Anne Nakae Kuroda, her husband, Randy, and their children, Stephanie and Kenneth. Throughout the evening my thoughts drifted to Curly Nakae’s two grandchildren. Not only had their grandfather earned the Medal of Honor, so had their great uncle Robert Kuroda, while their other grandfather, Roland Kuroda, had earned the Distinguished Service Cross. How did one family produce so many heroes, all serving in the same war and in the same unit?

That unit, of course, was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), the most decorated outfit in American military history. Most of its soldiers were men with a burning drive to prove something, not to themselves, but to their country. The 442nd was a segregated unit, consisting almost entirely of Nisei—second-generation Japanese-Americans who were natural-born American citizens.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, prejudice ran high against anyone of Japanese descent. Deeply distrusting their loyalty, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing military commanders to force more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans from their homes, farms and businesses into hastily constructed detention camps, where they lived in tarpaper shacks behind barbed wire fences.

All the camps were on the mainland. Due to the high numbers of ethnic Japanese in Hawaii, mass internment was logistically impossible, but they were subjected to economic sanctions and draconian restrictions on their freedom. Under such circumstances, it is astonishing that so many young men from families like the Nakaes and Kurodas were not just willing to serve in the American military, they pushed hard for the privilege.

In June 1942, the War Department formed the Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion and sent it to Camp McCoy, Wis., for training. Redesignated the 100th Infantry Battalion, it did so well in training that the Army approved formation of an entire regiment composed of Nisei, drawn from the islands and the mainland. The 442nd RCT started training at Camp Shelby, Miss., while the 100th Battalion shipped out to North Africa in September 1943.

The 100th distinguished itself during the landings at Salerno and Anzio and on the subsequent push for Rome. Its high casualty rate earned it the moniker “Purple Heart Battalion.” The 442nd, along with its organic 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, landed at Anzio in May 1944. The regiment’s 1st Battalion remained stateside to train replacements. The 100th—which retained its designation in recognition of exemplary service—merged into the 442nd as the first of three regimental infantry battalions. The combined unit then fought on in Italy and southern France.

By the time the war ended, the little more than 3,000 troops comprising the 442nd/100th had earned an astounding 9,486 Purple Hearts, one Medal of Honor, 51 Distinguished Service Crosses and 560 Silver Stars—plus 28 Oak Leaf Clusters indicating a second award. The unit also earned seven Presidential Unit Citations, the highest number of any outfit in the war (the PUC is the unit-level equivalent of the DSC). Many of those who received the DSC had been nominated for the Medal of Honor, but their decorations were downgraded to the DSC for purely racist reasons. The U.S. military and Congress finally corrected that travesty in June 2000, awarding 20 of the DSC recipients—including Nakae, Kuroda and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii)— the Medals of Honor they should have received more than 50 years earlier.

No other brigade- or regimental-sized unit in the U.S. Army has approached the number of combat decorations— or casualty rate—of the 442nd RCT and 100th Infantry Battalion. Their unit motto, “Go for Broke,” said it all. The Nisei felt they had something to prove to their fellow citizens, and they demonstrated their patriotism time and again. Americans may never see another outfit like it.


Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here