RHINELAND CAMPAIGN-VOSGES (September 15 - November 21, 1944)
100th/442nd RCT and The Rescue of the "Lost Battalion," October 1944
The battle for which the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is perhaps best known is the rescue of more than 200 men of the 141st Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, who were cut off from the rest of their regiment in the Vosges Mountains.
The battle has attained almost legendary status in American history. The 442nd fought with such heroism and ferocity that the unit earned the eternal gratitude of the soldiers the men rescued and the profound admiration and respect of their fellow soldiers in the war.
The 442nd and the 141st Infantry Regiment were both part of the 36th (Texas) Division under the command of Major General John Dahlquist. They were fighting in eastern France, near the German border.
The 442nd had just finished ten brutal days of fighting to liberate the French towns of Bruyères and Biffontaine. Finally, on October 23, 1944, the Nisei got clean, dry clothes, hot food and much-needed rest.
But they did not rest for long. Dahlquist had a trapped unit that needed rescuing, the 141st Regiment, which had been ordered to advance four miles beyond friendly forces. The soldiers warned that they would get cut off, but they pushed on as ordered.1
The Germans quickly surrounded them on three sides. In fact, 6,000 fresh German troops moved into the area, ordered to hold their positions at any cost.2 No surrender. No retreat.
More than 270 members of the 141st's 1st Battalion, later dubbed the "Lost Battalion," were stranded on a ridge near St. Dié. For two days, they were pounded by enemy fire. Attempts to rescue them by the other two 141st battalions failed as the trapped men ran low on food, water, medical supplies, and ammunition. Finally, Dahlquist ordered the Nisei soldiers of the 442nd back to the Vosges to attempt a rescue.
Once again, on October 25, with less than two days of rest and a shortage of men, the Nisei trudged through the dark and the icy cold rain. The four miles forward of their lines seemed more like nine miles. The hills were steep, the ravines and fields were littered with mines, and the few roads that crossed the terrain were narrow, sodden logging trails bristling with German roadblocks. By early afternoon on October 27, the Nisei were moving toward the narrow ridge that held the besieged soldiers.
On the right flank, the 100th chased the Germans across a gully toward the next hill. But it was a trap, and the Germans blasted the Nisei with an hour-long artillery barrage. The shelling wounded many of the Nisei, but the 100th held its ground.
In the center, on the narrow ridge, K Company hit a series of three heavily entrenched barriers. By evening, the 100th and 3rd Battalions had gained only a few hundred yards, but they had managed to take dozens of German prisoners.
That same night, 2nd Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel James Hanley led E and F Companies to circle behind the enemy troops around a nearby hill, Hill 617. Meanwhile, 2nd Battalion's G Company spread itself thin to simulate a battalion. At dawn, G Company attacked frontally, while E and F Companies attacked Hill 617 from the west and stormed down from the high ground, surprising the Germans. The 2nd Battalion quickly captured Hill 617 and a number of German prisoners.
By October 29, the situation for the "Lost Battalion" was desperate. Isolated for six days, the men had beaten back five enemy assaults. Deaths and casualties mounted, yet they couldn't evacuate the bodies. They pooled their meager supplies of food and ammunition and risked German sniper fire to get water.
The Allies tried to send supplies. First, they shot shells filled with chocolate, but the shelling caused casualties. A few days later, the Allies dropped supplies by parachute, but most of the packages landed in German-occupied positions.
Tall trees and steep slopes made it often impossible to adjust artillery fire properly. The terrain made tank travel nearly impossible as well. The 522nd Field Artillery Battalion's pinpoint accuracy hit the Germans without harming the trapped soldiers or the Nisei rescuers.
The Americans had to fight with what they could carry: bazookas, grenades, BARs, machine guns, Tommy guns, pistols, and rifles with bayonets.
By October 29, the Nisei had fought for five days, but hadn't made much progress against the heavily entrenched Germans. Third Battalion's I and K Companies, exposed on a narrow ridge with a steep drop on the left and right, had no choice but to go straight up the middle in a "banzai charge."3
I Company Private Barney Hajiro, who just over a week prior had demonstrated "extraordinary heroism" in two separate incidents in Bruyères, found himself pinned down on the ridge.4 He saw enemy machine guns kill eight and wound 21 of his buddies. Then suddenly, a few men, including Hajiro, decided to "go for broke," or give it their all.
Hajiro charged up the ridge, shooting his BAR and running 100 yards under fire. He single-handedly destroyed two machine gun nests and killed two enemy snipers. His brave actions spurred his comrades to rally and boldly attack the Germans.5 Hajiro was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his valor.
That same day, 23-year old Private George Sakato of 2nd Battalion's E Company led a charge that rescued his squad and destroyed a German stronghold.6 He earned a Distinguished Service Cross for his heroic act. Both medals for Hajiro and Sakato were upgraded to Medals of Honor in June 2000.
Finally, on October 30, after six days of desperate combat, the 442nd broke through to the "Lost Battalion." The Nisei infantry in B, I, and K Companies were the first to reach the trapped men, but the entire 442nd had helped in the rescue. Forward observers from the 522nd fought along with the infantry. Members of the Anti-Tank units carried the wounded and braved enemy fire. Clerks, cooks and Nisei from the 232nd Combat Engineer Company also joined in combat. Many medics braved enemy fire and saved countless lives. More than 25 of K Company's wounded were treated by Technician Fifth Grade James Okubo, an Army medic, who earned a Silver Star for his heroism.7 In 2000, his Silver Star was upgraded to a Medal of Honor.
During the six days the 442nd fought the Germans and rescued 211 men, more than 30 men were killed and many more were wounded and sent to hospitals. The campaign resulted in a staggering number of casualties, estimated at more than 800.8
At the end of the siege, the men of the "Lost Battalion" and their rescuers exchanged happy greetings. The 442nd offered their provisions to the men while they in turn expressed their profound gratitude.
But it was a short celebration.
The rescue of the battalion was complete. The 442nd had endured 16 days of almost non-stop combat. It was the worst the 100th/442nd had ever experienced. After losing many of their buddies and officers, the soldiers expected to be relieved, like the 211 men who had been rescued and sent to rest. But instead, Dahlquist ordered the men to keep pushing on and securing the forest. So the Nisei continued on for nine more days.
During that time, on November 7, Private First Class Joe M. Nishimoto, an acting squad leader in G Company, 2nd Battalion, broke a three-day stalemate against German forces near the village of La Houssière. He destroyed a machine gun nest with his hand grenade, and killed the German crew of another nest with his Tommy gun.9 Sadly, Nishimoto was killed in action a week later. He was 25 years old. He received a Distinguished Service Cross posthumously, which was upgraded to a Medal of Honor in 2000.
On November 8, when the 442nd was finally relieved, the dead and the wounded outnumbered the living. The 442nd ended up at less than half its usual strength. K Company, which started out with 186 men, had only 17 riflemen and part of a weapons platoon left. I Company started out with 185.10 At the end, there were only 8 riflemen.11
For the 442nd, the entire Vosges campaign was just over a month of almost non-stop combat. It included the liberation of Bruyères and Biffontaine, the rescue of the "Lost Battalion," and nine days of driving the Germans through the forest. The 442nd's total casualties were 160 men dead and more than 1,200 wounded.12
On November 12, Dahlquist ordered the 442nd to assemble for a recognition ceremony. Seeing the small number of men in formation, he allegedly reprimanded 442nd Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Miller, stating, "You disobeyed my orders. I told you to have the whole regiment." The colonel looked him in the eye and reportedly said, "General, this is the regiment. The rest are either dead or in the hospital."13
For the US Army, the rescue of the "Lost Battalion" remains one of the top ten ground battles in its history.14 For many, questions remain unanswered about the campaign to this day. What were Dahlquist's motivations for ordering the 141st Infantry Regiment to advance beyond reasonable support and without protection in the rear? For calling on the 442nd to perform the rescue? For pushing them on after the rescue was completed?
But at the time, the Nisei soldiers didn't ask questions. They just performed their duty as American soldiers.
1Franz Steidl, Lost Battalions: Going for Broke in the Vosges, Autumn 1944 (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 57.
3Duane Schultz, "American Samurai," October 5, 2011, History.net.com, accessed on December 2, 2014, http://www.historynet.com/american-samurai.htm.
4The citation for Hajiro's Medal of Honor encompasses three separate incidents, including his valor during the rescue of the "Lost Battalion." The other incidents are as follows: "Private Hajiro, while acting as a sentry on top of an embankment on 19 October 1944, in the vicinity of Bruyères, France, rendered assistance to allied troops attacking a house 200 yards away by exposing himself to enemy fire and directing fire at an enemy strong point. He assisted the unit on his right by firing his automatic rifle and killing or wounding two enemy snipers. On 22 October 1944, he and one comrade took up an outpost security position about 50 yards to the right front of their platoon, concealed themselves, and ambushed an 18-man, heavily armed, enemy patrol, killing two, wounding one, and taking the remainder as prisoners." See "Private Barney F. Hajiro," Asian Pacific American Medal of Honor Recipients, US Army Center of Military History, last updated June 27, 2011, accessed on January 12, 2015, http://www.history.army.mil/html/moh/ap-moh_citations.html#Hajiro.
6"Private George T. Sakato," Asian Pacific American Medal of Honor Recipients, US Army Center of Military History, last updated June 27, 2011, accessed on January 12, 2015, http://www.history.army.mil/html/moh/ap-moh_citations.html#Sakato.
7"Technician Fifth Grade James K. Okubo United States Army," Asian Pacific American Medal of Honor Recipients, US Army Center of Military History, last updated June 27, 2011, accessed on January 12, 2015, http://www.history.army.mil/html/moh/ap-moh_citations.html#Okubo.
8Many accounts give the figure of 800+ casualties. See, for example, Lyn Crost, Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1994), p. 197; C. Douglas Sterner, Go For Broke: The Nisei Warriors of World War II Who Conquered Germany, Japan and American Bigotry (Clearfield, UT: American Legacy Historical Press, 2008), p. 87; Derek K. Hirohata, "Rescue of the Lost Battalion," Densho Encyclopedia, accessed on January 7, 2015, http://www.densho.org/assets/images/hirohataarticle.pdf ; "The Lost Battalion: Rescue in the Vosges Mountains," Home of Heroes, accessed on January 7, 2015, http://www.homeofheroes.com/moh/nisei/index7_lost_bn.html ; John C. Fredriksen, The United States Army: A Chronology, 1775 to the Present (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010), p. 271. Although most accounts give the figure of 800+ casualties, James M. McCaffrey writes that recent figures calculate that number to be closer to 400, including those wounded or killed by mines, sniper fire, heavy artillery, and spraying shrapnel. See James M. McCaffrey, Going for Broke: Japanese American Soldiers in the War Against Nazi Germany (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013): pp. 269-270. McCaffrey notes, "The two Nisei infantry battalions that had helped rescue the 'Lost Battalion' suffered significant losses in the process, but much misinformation has attached itself over the years to the issue of casualties. Earlier works cite eight hundred Nisei killed and wounded while rescuing only a fourth of that number... A close study of the official records of the 442nd Regiment, however, reveals different statistics. They show that for the entire month of October, losses from the combat team amounted to 119 killed or missing in action and 671 wounded. However, during the period between October 26 and October 30, the two Nisei battalions that played an active role in the rescue, the 100th and the 3rd, lost thirty-seven killed. Determining the number of wounded by date is more difficult, but the number does not exceed 410. Although these numbers still represent heavy losses, they are considerably less than eight hundred. And one can only surmise how many of these casualties might have occurred in regular combat actions during this time even if there had not been a trapped battalion to rescue."
9"Private First Class Joe M. Nishimoto," Asian Pacific American Medal of Honor Recipients, US Army Center of Military History, last updated June 27, 2011, accessed on January 12, 2015, http://www.history.army.mil/html/moh/ap-moh_citations.html#Nishimoto.
10McCaffrey, p. 274.
11Crost, p. 197.
12"What Was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team?", 442nd Regimental Combat Team, accessed on January 7, 2015, http://www.the442.org/442ndfacts.html.
13The story is cited several times over, becoming sort of an urban legend, with actual statements varying from source to source. See Masayo Umezawa Duus, trans. By Peter Duus, Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and 442nd (Honolulu, HI: UH Press, 1987), p. 217; C. Douglas Sterner, p. 95; Duane Schultz, "American Samurai," History.net.com, accessed on December 2, 2014, http://www.historynet.com/american-samurai.htm. Also see Terri DiBono and Steve Rosen, Beyond Barbed Wire, film, directed by Steve Rosen, (1997; New York: Turner), DVD.
14Landon McDuff, "Remember the Alamo!-Anzio!: The Brave and Controversial Texas Army National Guard in WWII," Military History Online, March 20, 2011, accessed on December 3, 2014, "http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/wwii/articles/texasnationalguard.aspx. Also see "36th Division in World War II: The Lost Battalion," Texas Military Forces Museum, accessed on December 2, 2014, http://www.texasmilitaryforcesmuseum.org/36division/archives/lostbat/lostbat.htm.
ORAL HISTORY CLIPS
625 James Oura
Starts on Tape Four, perhaps 60% through
But you know, on this Lost Battalion ---you see on the 27th . . . and this is the 22nd, October 27th . . . only a few more days . . . is just when we started to go out to rescue the Lost Battalion. And every October, this is my feeling, I will take out a manual, a book, a history of the 442nd and I'll come down to the Lost Battalion. And I'll read about it and sort of memories come back, you know, keep on coming back, but I shed a lot of tears . . . reading about it. But every October 27th I have this feeling that I have to read and think back of all the guys we lost. But I don't know when I'll get over the feeling, but 27th is close by and my books will be ready to be read again.
300 James Matsumoto
Starts on Tape Five, between 14 and 16 minute marks
We had a big, big, big battle there at Bruyères. We'd finally liberated that town, but there were so many dead people on the road that they had to bring a bulldozer to push 'em off the road. We lost a lot of men there. We took that town. We battled night and day. And then they finally got rest, but we liberated it, the Germans pulled back. And the line was broken, and that's when they were---Lost Battalion started. 141st Battalion from the 36th Division got suckered into---the Germans opened up the area there that they were pushed into and opened it up, and then those guys went in there and then the Germans closed them up behind 'em. So we only had a day and a half rest. And they said "Okay, get ready, we got another push. We gotta go rescue this Lost Battalion. They said, "Rescue them at any cost." So that was our big job.
183 Rudy Tokiwa
Starts on Tape Eight, between 0 and 1 minute marks
And I'll never forget that one of their units got surrounded. And they were about 10 miles in, and I was---they must have got sucked. And, you know, they had three times the men of us besides the ones that we're in fighting already, because they were a big unit and we were just a small regiment. And---but, no, we were given the orders to go back in and make the rescue. I'll tell you how long we were back on the rear echelon was, we got to the area we were supposed to rest for the night. So we got out of the trucks, we put our sleeping bags out, and before we know it we're putting the sleeping bags and wrapping 'em back up and getting ready to move out. And I'll tell you how dark it gets in the Vosges Forest. On the night when there's no moon or anything, you walking in the Vosges Forest, if you put your fingers out like that, you won't see your hand.
Please place this one near the very end.
183 Rudy Tokiwa
Starts on Tape Eight, between 14 and 16 minute marks
And I've always felt sorry because, when we were going after---going in to make the rescue of the 36th, there was a regimental battalion out of the 36th that got surrounded in the Vosges Forest, and, you know, the 36th has four times the amount of men we do, but we're the ones that they want to go in and make the rescue. So we started going in to make the rescue. But we---like the company I was in, we had a little over 300 men when we started out. And we went in and it took us over six days to make the rescue. And I'll show you how bad the battles were. When K Company came out, there was only 17 people left.
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