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Army Lieutenant Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii dreamed of becoming a doctor after World War II, but his hopes were shattered on an embattled ridge overlooking the Italian town of San Terenzo in April 1945. Inouye was leading a platoon of the 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, when it came under fire from a bunker manned by die-hard Italian Fascists fighting for the Germans. There was no cover on the hill, so Inouye crawled up alone to reconnoiter.

While his men were pinned down by enemy fire, Inouye, bleeding from the stomach, staggered farther up the hill and threw two more grenades into the second enemy position. He fell again. Dragging himself toward the third machine-gun position, he stood up and pulled the pin from another grenade. Just as he was about to throw it, an enemy rifle grenade smashed his right elbow. His men ran to help him, but the young officer ordered them back. With his good left hand, he tossed the grenade and destroyed the position. With his right arm flapping at his side, he started finishing off the enemy survivors with his Tommy gun. Then he was hit in the right leg and fell down the hill. When his men ran to him, Inouye yelled: “Get back up that hill! Nobody called off the war!” He refused to be evacuated until his men were deployed in defensive positions.

Twenty-five enemy troops were killed and eight captured in the action. Inouye’s right arm had to be amputated, and his dream of becoming a doctor ended. But he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. And, many years later, Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye went to Washington to represent Hawaii, the first Japanese-American member of Congress.

His bravery, incredible though it was, was not unusual in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), whose indomitable esprit de corps became a legend of the U.S. Army in World War II. Made up of Nisei (Japanese-American citizens), it fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, Southern France, the Rhineland and Central Europe from September 1943 to May 1945 and won seven Presidential Unit Citations. Some high-ranking U.S. officers, initially opposed to the use of Nisei troops, came to regard them as the best assault troops in the Army. The 100th Infantry Battalion of the 442nd suffered so many wounds and deaths at Monte Cassino that it was nicknamed “the Purple Heart Battalion.”

The 442nd “Go for Broke” RCT was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in American military history, and Honor By Fire (Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 1995, $24.95) is the definitive book on the group. The author, Lyn Crost, covered the 100th Battalion for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and she has written a thorough, dramatic and compelling narrative.

Crost explains that the Nisei GIs’ service was all the more heroic because, while they were fighting for their country and freedom, their own liberties were from time to time in question. Many of their relatives were languishing in internment camps on the West Coast, and the soldiers themselves encountered racial prejudice while training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, during their overseas service, and even after they returned to America with many battle streamers pinned to their colors. As President Harry S. Truman told the 100th Battalion when it returned from Italy in July 1946, “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice–and you have won.”

The Nisei troops were known for the unique enthusiasm and cheerfulness with which they went into action–whether fighting their way up numerous craggy ridges in the bitter Italian campaign or battling in the winter-shrouded Vosges Mountains to rescue 140 surrounded men of the 36th (“Texas”) Infantry Division. There, the Japanese-Americans suffered 800 casualties.

Crost’s narrative of the 442nd RCT’s progress through the war is liberally laced with stories of valor and sacrifice. The Nisei were awarded 18,143 decorations, including 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, 560 Silver Stars (28 with Oak-leaf clusters), 22 Legions of Merit, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 12 Croix de Guerre and 9,486 Purple Hearts. This compelling chronicle also recounts the indispensable service of the 6,000 Nisei linguists of the Military Intelligence Service who took part in every Pacific theater campaign from New Guinea to the Aleutian Islands to Okinawa. Honor By Fire is the first public acknowledgment of their deeds. Crost’s book is a moving and powerful account, a richly deserved group portrait of young men who displayed physical and moral heroism of the highest order.

By Michael D. Hull