Lynn Heirakuji
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the formation of the famed 100th Infantry Battalion, whose original members were from Hawai‘i, most of them Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans). 

The story of Hawai‘i’s Nisei soldiers is richly textured. It speaks of their serving in several Army units, fighting a war on two fronts (European and Pacific), and undertaking a second battle for civil liberties on the home front when they returned to the islands. The remarkable efforts and accomplishments of the Nisei soldiers and veterans helped shift the country’s perception of Americans of Japanese ancestry in a positive direction and fueled their visionary push for societal changes in Hawai‘i. 

Most Nisei soldiers served in the following four U.S. Army units: the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate), 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service and the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion. Many Nisei women also supported the war effort by serving in the Women’s Army Corps and Army Nurse Corps. 

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team at Iolani Palace, March 1943. (Honolulu Star Bulletin)

The 100th Infantry Battalion was originally comprised of 1,432 AJAs who had been draftees in the Hawaii National Guard or were already serving in the regular Army. On June 5, 1942, these men, organized as the Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion, were quietly shipped to Oakland, Calif. On June 12, 1942, they were redesignated as the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) – Separate, meaning that they were not attached to any larger Army unit. The 100th Bn trained at Camp McCoy, Wis., and Camp Shelby, Miss., and were then deployed to North Africa, where the unit was assigned to the 34th Infantry Division. In September 1943, they began fighting in Salerno in southern Italy. The 100th Bn was the first Nisei unit to see combat in Europe and remained activated until the war’s end in Europe in May 1945. Due to its extraordinarily high number of casualties, especially in the battle for Cassino, Italy, in early 1944, the 100th Bn earned the nickname, the “Purple Heart Battalion.” A Purple Heart is awarded to soldiers who are wounded or were killed due to enemy action. 

When war broke out on Dec. 7, 1941, members of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of Hawai‘i were called to duty and subsequently renamed the Hawaii Territorial Guard. However, the 169 AJAs in the ROTC were dismissed from duty because of their Japanese ancestry. After brooding over the injustice that had been dealt to them, these men, encouraged by YMCA leader Hung Wai Ching and educator Shigeo Yoshida, petitioned Hawai‘i’s martial law government for the opportunity to serve their country. In February 1942, they were allowed to form a volunteer labor battalion known as the Varsity Victory Volunteers, working on Army construction projects while based at Schofield Barracks. 

The Army was so impressed by the superior training record of the 100th Bn and the outstanding spirit of service of the VVV that on March 23, 1943, it authorized the formation of the 442nd RCT – an all-volunteer, nearly all-AJA, fighting unit. The government put out a call for 3,000 AJA volunteers from the mainland and 1,500 from Hawai‘i. More than 10,000 from Hawai‘i stepped forward to serve. Many of the AJAs in the VVV stepped forward to serve in the newly created 442nd RCT. Ultimately, the 442nd RCT was comprised of 1,500 AJAs from the mainland and nearly 3,000 from Hawai‘i. 

The 442nd RCT completed training at Camp Shelby, Miss., and entered combat in Italy in June 1944. The 100th Bn was incorporated as the 442nd RCT’s 1st Battalion, but was allowed to retain its unit name due to its exceptional fighting record. Together, the 100th Bn/442nd RCT fought in eight major military campaigns in Europe and earned an unprecedented seven Presidential Unit Citations, the highest award for valor given to an entire unit. To this day, the 100th Bn/442nd RCT remains the most decorated U.S. military unit for its size and period of combat during WWII. 

Nisei MIS soldiers fought with Merrill’s Marauders, Burma, May, 1944. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army)

Six thousand AJAs – about half from Hawai‘i – with Japanese language skills, secretly served during World War II with the Military Intelligence Service, doing a variety of tasks, including some extremely dangerous work. They served in the Pacific War as linguists, intelligence specialists, translators, interpreters, interrogators and cave flushers, and have been credited with shortening the war and saving countless lives. The MIS was often referred to as the war’s “secret weapon” because Japan did not know that America had soldiers who could speak, read and write the Japanese language. After the war, many MIS AJA soldiers remained in Japan as government liaisons helping to rebuild the country and heal the wounds of war. However, their story could not be told for decades because their work remained classified until the 1970s. The MIS was belatedly awarded a President Unit Citation in 2000. 

Even before America entered World War II, four Nisei from Hawai‘i were performing top-secret intelligence work. Also, during the war, Nisei linguists served in the China-Burma-India theater, the Central Pacific theater, the South West Pacific theater, as well as in Hawai‘i, stateside and even in Europe.

1399th Engineer Construction Battalion. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion was a Hawai‘i-based all-AJA unit that was activated in April 1944. The unit of nearly 1,000 men remained in Hawai‘i and supported the war effort by completing 54 major defense construction projects. While these men did not see combat, they nevertheless, provided a valuable military service for the country during the two years that they were activated. 

Nisei women became eligible to join the Army Nurse Corps and the Women’s Army Corps in 1943. A total of 142 Nisei women served in the WAC and performed administrative, medical and linguistic duties. They, too, should be acknowledged for stepping forward to serve at a time when AJAs were facing pervasive discrimination in their own country.

Nisei women in the Army. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Signal Corps)

When the Nisei veterans returned to Hawai‘i, they knew that they had proven their loyalty to America beyond all doubt and had shed their blood on the battlefields to do so. With a sense of ganbari (perseverance) and renewed cultural pride, they worked with many other ethnic groups in Hawai‘i to bring about major social, economic and political changes in the islands. For example, their political participation was key to the 1954 Democratic “revolution” which resulted in Democratic Party majorities in both the territorial House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time. That resulted in a profound and enduring shift in Hawai‘i’s political power structure. Their achievements in fighting the post-war, home-front battle for equality and civil liberties for everyone are an integral part of the Nisei soldiers’ legacy.

Hawai‘i’s congressional delegation (from left): Sen. Spark Matsunaga (100th Bn), Rep. Patsy Mink, president Lyndon Johnson, Hawai‘i governor John Burns and Sen. Dan Inouye (442nd RCT) in Honolulu during the 1960s. (Photo courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library)

During this time of deep divisions in our country and the alarming rise in Asian hate crimes, it’s important to remember what these Nisei men and women did so many decades ago when they chose to step into a larger narrative. While each of the units in which they served has its own powerful and unique history, their collective stories reveal a compelling legacy that is still relevant today. They took a stand against discrimination, sacrificed livelihoods and lives to prove their loyalty, led upstanding lives when they returned from war, and worked with many others in pushing for societal change – they did their part to change the course of Hawai‘i’s history.

Lynn Heirakuji is the president of the Nisei Veterans Legacy (NVL), an O’ahu-based non-profit organization whose educational mission is to preserve and share the war and post-war legacy of the Nisei soldiers of World War II. 


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