Friday, May 10, 2002

The 2002 Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month national theme is 'Unity in Freedom'

Nicknamed the "Purple Heart Battalion," the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team are two of the most highly decorated units in U.S. Army history.

These units had to overcome not only adversity on the battlefield but also at home. These men had to gain the trust and right to fight for freedom and the American way of life in spite of a number of their families being interned at home.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government was skeptical about the loyalty of Japanese-Americans and were consequently labeled 4C (enemy alien.) They who were also ineligible for the draft.

Disappointed in the American government's position on their perceived lack of loyalty, veterans of the Hawaiian Territorial Guard offered to work for and support the U.S. Army in whatever capacity the Army might choose to use them.

Work offered to the Hawaiian Territorial Guard usually consisted of trash detail, building construction and ground maintenance, to name a few. These soldiers did these taskings without complaining and did an excellent job. As a result of their diligence, the general in Hawaii recommended to the War Department that Japanese-Americans should be formed into a special unit and sent to the mainland for training. This unit was later called the 100th Battalion. By the time the men of the 100th finished their basic military training, military and political leaders were changing their minds and losing their doubts and suspicions.

During the first year of the 100th's existence, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the War Department were inundated with petitions and lobbied by prominent Americans, both civilian and military, to re-open military service to Japanese-Americans.

Due to the 100th Battalion's success during training, the Army began the activation of the 442nd RCT in early 1943.

Initially, the Army requested about 1,500 volunteers from Hawaii. To the Army's surprise more than 2,500 men volunteered and were accepted for service in the 442nd.

Meanwhile back on the mainland, over 100,000 American citizens were forced from their homes and shops, and moved to relocation centers. But in spite of the mass government relocation efforts in their community, about 1,000 mainland Japanese-Americans volunteered and were accepted.

These units became legends on the battlefields, feared by the Germans and highly respected by the Allies. The soldiers of the 100th Battalion and 442nd RCT carried a heavy burden. They carried the hopes and dreams of Japanese-Americans who wanted the chance to prove that their sons and families were just as loyal and patriotic as other Americans. Their hopes and dreams would be paid in blood.

The game of craps was popular during that time in Hawaii. There at times came a point at the end of the dice game when the player would "go for broke" and risk everything. However, on the battlefield, the game was serious and the results could impact Japanese-Americans for life.

This philosophy become their motto and on the battlefield the soldiers of the 100th Battalion and 442nd RCT risked everything to complete their missions and "go for broke."

In fact, in the 100th Battalion almost everyone who served in the unit was wounded in action and was awarded the Purple Heart Medal. Also, during the war, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team had the highest number of decorations in U.S. Army history for a unit of its size. As a result of their courage and valor over 86 percent of the 442nd earned individual decorations.

Asian-American military firsts

While this is not an exhaustive list it does provide some important examples of Asian-Pacific American firsts in the military and their contributions to America's freedom.

1863: Chinese-American William Ah Hang became one of the first Asian-Americans to enlist in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.

1942: The U.S. War Department authorized the first Filipino infantry battalion from among Filipino-Americans.

1942: Filipino Army Sgt. Jose Calugas earned a Medal of Honor for heroism in the Philippines during World War II. He was among the first Filipinos to do so for services in World War II.

1943: Korean-American and U.S. Army Col. Young Oak Kim was the first Asian-American to command a combat battalion and to date he is the most highly decorated Asian-American soldier.

1943: Wilbur Carl Sze became the first Chinese-American officer in U.S. Marine Corps.

During World War II: 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Japanese Americans who came out of the mainland concentration camps, was the most decorated unit of its size with seven Presidential Distinguished Unit Citations, 18,000 individual decorations, including a Congressional Medal of Honor, 47 distinguished Service Crosses, 350 Silver Stars, 810 Bronze Stars, and more than 3,600 Purple Hearts.

1984: Maj. Gen. John Liu Fugh became the first Chinese-American to attain general officer status in the U.S. Army.

1993: Maj. Gen. John R. D'Araujo Jr. became the first Filipino-American to be hold the rank of major general and the position of director of the Army National Guard Bureau.

1998: Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, a Japanese-American, assumed duties as the 28th vice chief of staff, to date the highest ranking Asian in the U.S. armed forces.

(Courtesy of the Department of Defense)