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How a Japanese American Regiment Rescued WWII's 'Lost Battalion'

L. Stuart Hirai, Mitchell T. Maki 8-10 minutes 11/10/2021

WWII’s Battle of the ‘Lost Battalion’ has been hailed as one of the fiercest—and most heroic—ground battles in American military history. In October 1944, as Allied forces fought to expel the Nazis from France, a unit of Japanese American soldiers deployed on a seemingly impossible mission. Sent into the harsh terrain of the Vosges mountains of northeastern France—a region not breached militarily since the Roman Empire—they were ordered to extract a Texas National Guard unit trapped deep in the forest, surrounded by 6,000 Nazi troops.

The Japanese Americans, known as Nisei, served in the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team (442nd). A segregated unit under the command of white officers, the Nisei had faced intense racism and discrimination at home, especially after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the U.S. to imprison many of them and their families in wartime incarceration camps. During their French campaign, the 442nd included the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and the 232nd Engineer Company—all of which played crucial roles.

The Nisei men knew many wouldn’t return from the rescue mission. Previous attempts had failed, incurring heavy losses. The trapped Texans were running dangerously low on ammunition and rations. But the Nisei fought ferociously in close combat, slogging through the muddy forest and mine-laden roads in ugly weather, sometimes outnumbered four to one. When the mission was over, the 442nd had amply lived up to its chosen motto “Go For Broke,” becoming the most highly decorated regiment in U.S. military history for its size and length of service.

READ MORE: How Two Japanese Americans Fought Nazis Abroad—and Prejudice at Home

Liberating French Towns: Bruyères and Biffontaine

When the 442nd arrived in France on October 8, 1944, they were attached to the 36th Infantry Division, which also included the Texans. Under the command of Major General John Dahlquist, they fought aggressively to liberate French towns and push the Nazis back across the German border. But both the Nazis and the mountains proved formidable.

As bone-chilling rain settled over the region, the Nisei arrived still kitted in their summer-issue uniforms. Most came by motor transport, but some traveled in railroad boxcars stinking of horse manure—a visceral reminder of the horse stalls Japanese American families were relegated to at U.S. “Assembly Centers” before their incarceration in camps under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.

The Nisei’s first Vosges mission was to liberate two small towns: Bruyères, which required overtaking four surrounding hills, and Biffontaine.

The campaign began October 15, in miserable conditions. Fog and dense vegetation limited the Nisei’s visibility to a dozen yards. Cold rain soaked their uniforms, socks and boots. And the Nazis aimed their artillery shells at the treetops so when they exploded, shrapnel and wood splinters showered down on the Nisei soldiers. By the end of the first day, the 442nd had advanced only 500 yards. After three days of intense fighting to capture the four hills, the Nisei entered Bruyères and engaged in fierce, door-to-door combat. By nightfall of October 18, they liberated the town.

But it came at a steep cost: "There were so many dead people on the road that they had to bring a bulldozer to push 'em off the road," said 442 veteran James Matsumoto in an oral history interview with the Go For Broke National Education Center. "We lost a lot of men there."

Officers of the 442nd’s 100th Battalion believed the tiny nearby hamlet of Biffontaine had no tactical value. But General Dahlquist ordered them in. They entered the town under enemy fire and for a time, were cut off from supply and reinforcements. Exhausted after eight days of fighting, and hunkering down in cellars of ruined buildings as the Germans yelled at them to surrender, the 100th held strong until reinforcements arrived. On October 23, they succeeded in liberating Biffontaine. But in the process, they lost many of their most experienced officers and enlisted men.

WATCH: Hidden Heroes: The Nisei Soldiers of WWII premieres Thursday, November 11 at 8/7c. Watch a preview.

How the Texans Got Trapped

On October 24, the 442nd was granted a well-deserved rest. One of the units relieving them was the 1st Battalion of the 141st Regiment, a Texas National Guard team made up of approximately 275 white American soldiers. The Texans marched four miles and occupied two hills outside Biffontaine, unaware that the Nazis were allowing them to pass through, only to then attack the column’s rear and seal off any retreat or resupply with landmines and machine gun nests. The Texans were trapped.

The next day, two other battalions of the 141st tried to break the Nazis’ stranglehold, with no success. That afternoon, the Texans sent out a 36-man patrol to attempt a breakout. Only five returned.

Timeline of the ‘Lost Battalion’ Rescue

October 26: Originally, General Dahlquist ordered the Nisei, on just two days rest, to make a frontal attack on the hill where the Texans were stranded. But his officers argued that such a maneuver would incur high losses, proposing instead that they outflank the Nazis.

October 27: Nisei soldiers mobilized on both sides of the ridgeline road north of Biffontaine. German landmines, thick underbrush, dense forest and a persistent defense slowed the Nisei advance.

October 28: Under heavy artillery and mortar fire—and growing casualties—they advanced to within 1,500 yards of the Texans.

October 29: The Nisei battalion command received a radio message that the Texans’ situation had become desperate. A platoon of tanks arrived, providing support fire from its 75-mm cannons, but it fell to the Nisei infantrymen to continue alone up the steep bluff teeming with Nazis, later dubbed "Suicide Hill."

After an order to “fix” bayonets, men from “I” and “K” Companies rose, firing from the hip, advancing as one, led by their commanding officer. According to Pfc. Ichigi Kashiwagi, of K Company, "We yelled our heads off and shot the head off everything that moved... We didn't care anymore.”

At the sight of this action, the Germans, who had just engaged in a fierce 30-minute firefight, threw up their arms and fled their positions. 

About the same time, 3,000 yards to the rear, the “E” and “F” companies used a pincer movement to outflank the Nazis as planned and attack from behind, while “G” company advanced frontally, catching the enemy by surprise. The coordinated action annihilated the Germans.

October 30: “I” Company made first contact with the lost battalion. The radio message from the Texans said: “Patrol from 442nd here. Tell them that we love them!” Approximately 211 soldiers of the lost battalion’s original 275 survived the siege.

WATCH: World War II in HD on HISTORY Vault

High Casualties, High Honors

July 15, 1946: After President Harry S. Truman inspects the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he pins the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation banner to the colors of the unit. Composed of Americans of Japanese ancestry, the 442nd distinguished itself in combat in Europe.

July 15, 1946: After President Harry S. Truman inspects the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he pins the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation banner to the colors of the unit. Composed of Americans of Japanese ancestry, the 442nd distinguished itself in combat in Europe.

Nearly two weeks later, on November 12, General Dahlquist ordered a review of the 442nd. Seeing only a fraction of the unit assembled, the general admonished the acting regimental commander about troops missing in formation.

“Where are they?” Dahlquist demanded.

Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Miller responded, “That’s all that’s left.”

Between October 14 and October 31, during the campaigns to liberate Bruyères, Biffontaine and the lost battalion, the 442nd suffered more than 800 casualties. They were deployed again November 13.

Accolades and honors for the 442nd “Go For Broke” combat team poured in, from President Truman on down. "They were superb!,” General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff, later said of the 442nd. “They took terrific casualties. They showed rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit… Everybody wanted them."

Among the many recognitions bestowed, five Nisei soldiers received Medals of Honor for their action in the Vosges: George “Joe” Sakato, Barney Hajiro, James Okubo, Robert Kuroda and Joe Nishimoto.

In 1962, Texas Governor John Connolly paid tribute to the entire unit by making them all honorary Texans.