Private First Class
442nd Regimental Combat Team
3rd Battalion, K Company
Ko Tanaka was born on December 1, 1919, in Lodi, California, the son of Yoshinobu Frank and Shikeko (Matsumoto) Tanaka, who were workers on a fruit farm. Yoshinobu emigrated from Niho-machi, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, in 1902 as a child with his parents, Hanhichi and Yuka (Matsumoto) Tanaka. Yoshinobu traveled to Japan and married Shikeko on March 9, 1918. The following year, Shikeko arrived in San Francisco on the Shinyo Maru on January 15, 1919. Ko was the eldest of their eight children: seven sons – Ko, Akira James, Joe Kozo, Ted Yoshio, Masao Sam, Edwin, John, and one daughter – June. All references to Ko give his name spelled as Kow or Ko.
Ko attended Ray Grammar School and Lodi Union High School. He registered for the draft on July 1, 1941, at Local Board No. 35 in Lodi. At the time, he was living with his family at Route 2, Box 77, in Lodi. He listed his father Frank as his point of contact. Ko was a self-employed farmer at the family property where they lived. He was 5’5” tall and weighed 130 pounds.
On January 23, 1942, Ko Tanaka was inducted into the Army at the Presidio of Monterey, California. His civilian occupation was listed as “Semiskilled chauffeurs/drivers, bus/taxi/ truck/tractor,” and he had attended two years of high school. That spring, his family was evacuated to the Stockton Assembly Center, located on the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds. On October 7 they were incarcerated in the War Relocation Authority internment camp at Rohwer, Arkansas. They were individually released on different dates in late 1944. His parents later settled in Stockton, California.
Tanaka entered active duty at Camp Roberts in Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties, California. He was later stationed at Camp Robinson in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Camp Grant, near Chicago, Illinois.
In 1944, Ko was sent to Camp Blanding, near Jacksonville, Florida, for combat infantry training. On September 18, he was among the 672 men – mostly mainland Nisei – who joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which had entered combat in the Rome-Arno Campaign over a month earlier. Tanaka arrived in Naples and was assigned to 3rd Battalion, K Company. As a replacement, there was not much time to be trained and integrated into his new company.
On September 26 and 27, Tanaka was among the 442nd men as they were loaded aboard light assault boats that shuttled them from Naples to the Navy transports – Thurston, Dickman, Chase, and Henrico. At precisely 12:00 p.m. on the 27th they sailed for France, arriving in Marseilles, France, on September 30.
After a week at a staging area near Septèmes, just outside Marseilles, the Combat Team was moved north to the Vosges Mountains about 500 miles away. The 3rd Battalion was transported by train – an assortment of “40×8” boxcars, the last of the 442nd to arrive into the assembly area at Charmois-devant-Bruyères at midnight on October 13. Their first objective was to liberate the important road junction of Bruyères in the Vosges Mountains. The intense battles to liberate Bruyères and neighboring Biffontaine lasted from October 16 to 24.
The Combat Team was then put into reserve in the nearby village of Belmont for a brief rest. After two days, on the afternoon of October 26, they were ordered to the front lines again to aid in the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” – the 1st Battalion of the 141st (Texas) Infantry Regiment. This battalion had gotten ahead of the lines and was surrounded on three sides by the enemy. Attempts by the 141st and other units to free it had been unsuccessful, so the 442nd was called in.
On October 27, all three battalions were in line abreast and launched an attack against the Germans. At 3:30 p.m., the Germans launched a counterattack against I and K Companies. When their tanks were knocked out, the Germans slowly withdrew. As night fell, the 3rd Battalion did not pursue since it was impossible to maintain control in the pitch darkness. The next morning the Regiment resumed its assault on the German line.
On October 29, the 100th and 3rd Battalions attacked at dawn. Fierce fighting in the steep, forested hillside of the Vosges was slow-going; the Germans had dug in and controlled the high ground. Artillery fire was heavy and casualties on both sides were very high. K Company was stopped in the attack with heavy losses. In the third attack, the soldiers of I and K Companies got to their feet and charged in a “banzai” attack up the hill with a will to win. They drove the Germans off the top of the hill. By the end of the day, K Company had heavy losses and casualties, including the loss of all its officers. Private First Class Ko Tanaka was one of five men killed and twenty wounded in this engagement.
Pfc. Tanaka was interred at the U. S. Military Cemetery in Epinal, France; about 20 miles from where he was killed. His death was reported in the newspapers in Rohwer, Arkansas, where his family was then interned, and in Lodi, his hometown in California.
For his military service, Private First Class Ko Tanaka was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two bronze stars, World War II Victory Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, and Distinguished Unit Badge. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on October 5, 2010, along with the other men of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team. This is the highest Congressional Civilian Medal.
In 1948, the Army was closing the smaller cemeteries in Italy and France. They offered the families the option of their son remaining in a larger American cemetery or being returned home. The Tanaka family decided to have Ko returned to the US. As a result, his remains were among the 4,183 that arrived at 9:00 a.m. on May 8, 1948, at the Brooklyn Army Base in New York Harbor on the U.S. Army Transport ship USAT Lawrence Victory. Soon afterwards, he was shipped onwards to Oakland with 142 other of California’s war dead.
From Oakland, Tanaka’s flag-draped casket arrived in his hometown of Lodi at 6:30 p.m. on June 22, 1948, along with two other local war dead: Staff Sergeant Kenneth J. Thompson and Corporal George S. Nakamura. Each casket was accompanied by a military escort. The train was met by over 1,000 people, including members of the veterans’ groups who would participate in the military funerals. After the caskets were removed from the train, they were placed in hearses and taken to local funeral homes with full military color guard and veterans marching alongside. The caskets for Tanaka and Nakamura, accompanied by escorts Technical Sergeant Masoni Hinoki and Sergeant Robert Yamamoto, were taken to the Lodi Funeral Home, where family and friends attended brief services and offered personal tributes and remembrances.
Nakamura, a member of 2nd Battalion, E Company, and Ko Tanaka were the first Nisei men from Lodi to die in the War. Corporal Nakamura was killed in the battle to rescue the Lost Battalion the same day as Pfc. Tanaka.
A joint funeral, with the Reverend S. Mizutani officiating, was held at the Buddhist Church at 2:00 p.m. on June 23, 1948, for Private First Class Ko Tanaka and Corporal George S. Nakamura. Members of both the local Caucasian and Japanese American communities attended. Following was the graveside service for Tanaka at Cherokee Memorial Park, conducted by Lodi Post No. 22 of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Disabled American Veterans. Tanaka’s father filed for a flat granite government tombstone on June 24, 1948. The order was verified on July 6, 1948, and ordered from West Chelmsford, Massachusetts, on August 24, 1948.
On June 25, the Tanaka and Nakamura families printed a Card of Thanks in the Lodi News-Sentinel for the expressions of sympathy and floral offerings they had received, with special thanks to the veterans’ organizations and their auxiliaries that participated in the funeral and burials.
Pfc. Ko Tanaka’s name is among the 31 names of soldiers killed in the War that are inscribed on the Rohwer Internment Camp Veterans Memorial marker located at the Rohwer Heritage Site, Rohwer, Arkansas.
Ko’s brothers also served in the U.S. military during World War II.
Researched and written by the Sons & Daughters of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in 2021.