Their Japanese ancestry caused them to be unwanted, feared, distrusted and even despised. An expected Japanese invasion of Hawaii induced their hasty removal from their beloved island home. The Army didn’t know what to do with them after 14 months of training, even after their dispatch to North Africa. They were the Army’s “orphan outfit,” playing “guinea pig” for Japanese Americans in military service. Finally, after assignment to the 34th Division they gained the opportunity to engage in combat as the first and only segregated, all-Japanese infantry unit.
Soon they earned the reputation as the “Purple Heart Battalion” as the most decorated unit of its size and time in battle in the American Army of World War II. They not only proved the “Americanism is not a matter of race or ancestry” but also won for other Niseis the right to fight for their country.
That is the heart-warming “Cinderella story” of the original 100th Infantry Battalion (separate), proudly identified by the men of the 100th as “The One Puka Puka.”
The true origins of the 100th must trace back to 1909 and 1920 when immigrant Japanese field workers staged a general strike for fair wages and decent working conditions, which erupted into bitter racial hostility and denigrated the entire Japanese population to be treated for the next 20 years as an economic, political, and national security threat to Hawaii. Statehood was denied because of its large Japanese population and the questionable loyalty of even the American-born Japanese youth. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941, the question was directed at every Nisei, “Who you going shoot?” and the men of the 100th knew in their hearts that the burden fell upon them to answer this challenge emphatically and for all time, on behalf of every Nisei everywhere.
At the time of the Pearl harbor attack on December 7, they served in the 298th and 299th Infantry of the Hawaii National Guard, inducted through three military drafts prior to Pearl Harbor. As the waves of hysteria, fear ad prejudice against all Japanese swept Hawaii after the attack, Nisei in the Hawaii Territorial Guard were discharged. Nisei then stationed at Schofield Barracks remember being herded into a confined encampment with machine guns trained on them a few nights after the Pearl Harbor attack. Jim Lovell, Captain in the 298th and later Executive Officer of the 100th, recalls a few weeks after Pearl Harbor when General Maxwell Taylor came to inspect the 298th Headquarters at the Kaneohe Ranch site and found Lovell’s pup tent pitched amidst those of the Nisei soldiers, asked incredulously “Don’t tell me you guys sleep here with them?”. But the abiding faith and trust of General Walter Short in the Japanese Americans prevented their discharge from the 298/299th and be retained to guard Hawaii shores against possible Japanese attack. But on a national scale, when the problem of pre-war draft Nisei soldiers still serving in the Army in Hawaii was raised at FDR’s cabinet meeting, the diary of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson for January 30, 1942, indicates: “I told the President we were planning to send these men to other points in the continental United States where their loyalty would not be tempted.”
The post-Pearl Harbor picture was very dark, grim and threatening for all Japanese in Hawaii. Japan had overrun Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, and the invasion of Midway and Hawaii next seemed imminent. False rumors of disloyalty and sabotage by local Japanese ran rampant. President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which General DeWitt used to imprison 120,000 mainland Japanese into American concentration camps. The order reclassified all Nisei from 1-A (draft eligible) to 4-C (enemy alien) and barred them from military service. Navy Secretary Knox and President Roosevelt constantly urged General Emmons to conduct wholesale removal of Japanese from Hawaii, which Emmons deliberately ignored.
On April 6, 1942, Gen. Delos C. Emmons requested the War Department for authority to organize the 2,000 soldiers of Japanese extraction in Hawaii into units for action in Africa or Europe, but on May 2, 1942 the War Department denied Emmon’s request and directed that they be “transferred to service units” or to Zone of Interior installations. On May 11, 1942 Emmons replied:
“TO ASSIGN ALL TROOPS INVOLVED TO LABOR OR OTHER SERVICE UNITS WOULD HAVE SERIOUS REPERCUSSIONS ON THEM AND ON LARGE JAPANESE POPULATION HERE WHICH IS NOW COOPERATING FULLY WITH AUTHORITIES IMPORTANT TO OUR SITUATION HERE THAT THESE SOLDIERS BE TRANSFERRED AS A COMBAT UNIT THEREFORE URGE TRANSFER TO MAINLAND OF ONE BATTALION OF THE TWO HUNDRED NINETY EIGHTH INFANTRY TO INCLUDE ALL REMAINING JAPANESE OFFICERS AND SOLDIERS UNDER ARMS APPROXIMATELY ONE THOUSAND.”
Finally, on May 29, 1942, as the Japanese Navy approached Midway, Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall ordered Emmons:
“ORGANIZE PROVISIONAL INFANTRY BATTALION OVERSTRENGTH IF NECESSARY CONSISTING OF ALL OFFICERS AND SOLDIERS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY IN TWO NINETY EIGHTH AND TWO NINETY NINTH INFANTRY. SEND UNIT TO MAINLAND UNITED STATES BY FIRST AVAILABLE WATER TRANSPORTATION . . . WAR DEPARTMENT PROPOSES THAT CGAGF REORGANIZE AND TRAIN THIS UNIT IN CENTRAL UNITED STATES AS AN INFANTRY COMBAT UNIT . . .”
Within five days, 1,432 Nisei soldiers transferred out of 298th and 299th into the “Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion” and sailed from Honolulu on the SS Maui on June 5, 1942. Upon arrival in San Francisco, the War Department activated them into the “100th Infantry Battalion (Separate)”, “separate” meaning not attached to a regiment or any other military unit, literally a military orphan outfit. In spite of such inauspicious origin, the unit 15 months later was destined to become the famed and legendary 100th Battalion.
The 100th was sent to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, to be organized and trained as an infantry attack unit. For the next six months they trained rigorously and so well that most men were cross-trained into use of other weapons and equipment. As reports of their superior training record reached the War Department, the 100th became the subject of rigid and frequent inspections by army brass, “the most inspected unit in the Army”. Men of the 100th endured all this with equanimity and intense unit pride, striving to become the finest in the U.S. Army, ever realizing that they “must do better than the average soldier because the eyes of America were on them”. Later, on January 28, 1943 when Gen. Emmons issued the call for 442nd volunteers, the superb training record of the 100th at McCoy was attributed as one of the main reasons the Army decided to form the volunteer all-Nisei combat team.
Seven more months of maneuvers at Camp Shelby and in Louisiana followed. On August 21, 1943, the 100th shipped out of Staten Island on the SS James Parker headed for North Africa. Even after reaching Oran, Algeria, no plans had been made for the 100th. When the 100th faced assignment to guarding supply trains, Col. Farrant Turner and Maj. Jim Lovell hurried to Gen. Eisenhower’s Headquarters at Mestaghnem to protest. Finally, on September 2, the 100th received notification it would be assigned to the 133rd Regiment, 34th Division, for a combat role! Morale uplifted, the men of the 100th received the news with cheers. On September 22, 1943, the 100th stormed ashore in an amphibious landing at the Salerno beachhead as part of the 34th “Red Bull” Division. What followed is now familiar recorded history. Tough battles, especially at Cassino, marked the harsh and bitter route of the 100th from Salerno to Rome.
For the Cassino battles alone, the 100th suffered 48 killed, 144 wounded and 75 hospitalized for trench foot. The 100th landed at Salerno with over 1,300 personnel, but after Cassino only 521 remained. The “Guinea Pig Batallion” had now become known as the “Purple Heart Battalion.” On March 10, April 2 and May 24, 1944, three waves of replacements from the 442nd arrived, replenishing the ranks of the 100th with 555 replacement troops. On June 11, 1944, the 100th, still retaining its name “100th Infantry Battalion,” became part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and fought together until the surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945. But this story is only about “the original 100th Battalion,” the “One Puka Puka,” and its incomparable and distinguished combat record that is being told here.
Generals who had previously shunned this unit of Japanese Americans now jockeyed and vied with each other for assignment of the 100th to their commands. General Charles Ryder of the 34th Division called them “the best troops in the division.” Bill Mauldin, famous war correspondent writes of the 100th, “no combat unit in the army could exceed them in loyalty, hard work, courage, and sacrifice.” General Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Army simply says “they are one of the best fighting units in the world.” But beyond the widely acclaimed military prowess, men of the “One Puka Puka” convincingly proved their point. The July 31, 1944 issue of TIME magazine said:
“From a cautious experiment the Army had received an unexpectedly rich reward. A group of sinewy Oriental soldiers, only one generation removed from a nation that was fighting just as fanatically for it. Last week, the War Department wrote “proved” on the experiment. It added a unit citation (for “outstanding performance of duty in action”) to the already remarkable collection of medals held by the Japanese-American 100th Battalion.”
By war’s end the 100th had complied and contributed this incomparable record of 338 killed in action, 3 Presidential Unit Citation, 1 Congressional Medal of Honor, 24 Distinguished Service Cross, 147 Silver Star (for valor) and 2, 173 Bronze Star (for meritorious service), 30 Division Commendations and 1,703 Purple Heart awards and citations.
But the true significance, contribution and legacy left by the “one Puka Puka” is best summarized in this warm tribute and accolade of the 100th rendered by Lyn Crost, wartime correspondent for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and staunch friend of the 100/442:
“The original 100th Infantry Battalion was the first Japanese American combat unit in the history of the United States. In fulfilling the trust given it, this unique battalion helped erase much of the nation’s suspicion of Japanese Americans and cleared the way for thousands of them to join the 100/442 Regimental Combat Team, which became the most decorated military unit in American history for its size and length of service . . .
As years pass, statistics and decorations and the numbers of men killed and wounded may be forgotten. But the record of that original 100th Infantry Battalion and what it means in the acceptance of Japanese Americans as loyal citizens of the United States must be remembered. If it had failed in its first months of fighting in Italy, there might never have been a chance for other Americans of Japanese ancestry to show their loyalty to the United States as convincingly as they did on the battlefields of Europe. The 100th had proved that loyalty to the United States is not a matter of race or ancestry. And it had set an example for people of all nations who seek sanctuary here to fight for those values and concepts of government which have made the United States a refuge from the hunger and despair which haunts so much of the world.”
Yes, had the men of the 100th “screwed up” when they were sent into battle from Salerno to Rome, had they retreated or broken ranks, or shown any signs of disloyalty, the 442nd and other Nisei in military service of the United States might never have come to pass. That “guinea pig battalion” never failed. That is why, with deep indebtedness and underlying gratitude, we salute the original “One Puka Puka!”