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The 232nd Combat Engineer Company

Pfc. Noel Okamoto (right) and another member of the 232nd Combat Engineer Company. Courtesy of the United States Army.

When the US government approved the formation of an all Nisei combat unit, it was with the understanding that Caucasian officers would lead the team as a whole. Of the units that comprised the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 232nd Combat Engineer Company was unique because it was run by Japanese American officers, not Caucasian ones. Captain Pershing Nakada, a 25-year old Nisei, and seven Nisei officers led about 200 enlisted men.1

The men of the 232nd tended to be older than most men in the infantry and the artillery. The majority of them had a high school diploma, and many had backgrounds in engineering and the sciences. Nakada himself had a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Nebraska.2

The combat engineers' role was to keep the lines of communication and transportation open for the infantry. While construction engineers supported occupied areas, the combat engineers were at the front. They ensured that the wounded could be evacuated. They also ensured that needed supplies could make their way to the men. They cleared the way so that the unit could quickly and safely move forward, and supplies and the wounded could be transported. They swept areas for enemy mines along the unit's path and laid mines of their own for their defense. They built abatis, field fortifications made of fallen trees and often booby-trapped. They felled trees to build roads and constructed bridges.

The Germans didn't make the work easy. On October 15, 1944, near Bruyères, France, the infantry encountered a quarter-mile long roadblock of logs and fallen trees. It was the only supply and evacuation route available, and it was heavily booby-trapped.3 As the engineers worked to clear the way, the Germans fired at them from four machine gun nests.4 Riflemen from the 100th Infantry Battalion assisted them in silencing all four nests, and the engineers returned to their work.5 For eight and a half hours, under intermittent heavy mortar and artillery fire, the engineers defused mines and hand-sawed the downed trees.6

From October 27-30, two platoons of engineers accompanied front-line infantrymen during the rescue of the "Lost Battalion." For four days the engineers endured enemy fire and the cold wet weather, but they managed to clear more than 30 mines in the path of the advancing infantry. They worked day and night, stopping only to eat or sleep for brief moments.7

Near Biffontaine, another engineer unit refused to clear a minefield because of heavy enemy fire. The 232nd stepped in and cleared the field, allowing the grateful infantrymen to advance.8

Throughout the Vosges campaign the rugged terrain and wet weather made the 232nd's job of keeping the supply lines open even tougher. The few narrow logging roads that crossed the steep wooded hills were quickly turned to soggy bogs. The three platoons worked constantly in 12-hour shifts. They laid more than a mile of plank-board, dumped truckloads of gravel and built culverts across badly shelled roads.

From November 6-8, the engineers stopped their day-and-night work to become infantrymen and relieve the exhausted and decimated 100th Battalion A Company.9 The engineers also served as infantry riflemen in the Rome-Arno and the Po Valley campaigns.10

During the drive on the Gothic Line, squads of engineers were frequently assigned to clear gaps through minefields and do other engineer work during infantry assaults.11 Meanwhile the rest of the 232nd worked to keep the supply lines open for the swift-moving infantry.12

German anti-personnel Schu mine. Courtesy of the United States Government.

During the Rome-Arno campaign, the 232nd built four bridges, 26 bypasses, six culverts, and 10 fills. The men hauled away more than a ton of dynamite from five bridges the Germans failed to destroy, removed about 24 booby traps and more than 300 anti-tank mines.13These mines included large mines designed to disable tanks and heavy equipment, and anti-personnel Schu and "S" mines, or Shrapnellmine.14 The small wooden Schu mines were impossible to detect with minesweepers, and they could maim or kill a soldier who stepped on them. The "S" mine, or "Bouncing Betty," was usually triggered by a trip wire. The initial charge would send it up three feet in the air, where it would blow apart spreading shrapnel in a wide circle.

German anti-tank Riegel mine. Courtesy of the United States Government.

In the Rhineland-Vosges campaign, the 232nd neutralized about one hundred "R" mines, or anti-tank Riegel mines, and scores of "S" mines and booby traps. The men removed hundreds of roadblocks and built two bypasses.15 During the "Champagne Campaign," they also pulled a two-man submarine from the sea.16

During the Po Valley campaign in April 1945, the 232nd cleared a vital supply and evacuation route from Massa to Carrara, made nearly impassable by a 30-yard long crater dug by the Germans and filled with anti-personnel, anti-tank, and makeshift mines. Under periodic artillery fire, they worked tirelessly to clear the way.

For three days in mid-April 1945 on La Bandita Ridge near Gragnana, Italy, the engineers and C Company infantrymen fought a strong German counterattack. In this action, 10 C Company men, several engineers and Nakada were wounded.17 From April 5 to April 23, the 232nd removed more than 150 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines and over one hundred pounds of cratering charges.  They filled more than 25 craters, built 12 bypasses, three bridges, two ford crossings, and miles of mule trails.18

While the infantrymen wielded rifles, machine guns, and bazookas, the engineers used bulldozers, saws, and minesweepers as their "weapons." While the infantrymen cleared machine gun nests, the engineers cleared roads. Although combat was not their primary function, the engineers still faced enemy sniper, mortar and artillery fire and the constant danger of booby traps and mines. Nearly 30 percent of the engineers were wounded and seven died because of their hazardous work keeping the supply lines open.19

The 232nd provided one additional thing that earned the gratitude of the infantrymen: hot showers. For soldiers facing cold, wet weather and trudging through thick mud, hot showers did wonders for their morale, even if the showers themselves were infrequent and only three minutes in length.20

The engineers devised an ingenious portable hot shower unit, built using bits and parts retrieved along the way: an American jeep engine, a German electric dynamo, a fuel pump motor from an Italian self-propelled gun, a condenser from a beer factory, and shower heads salvaged from a demolished resort hotel. The shower unit was capable of producing 50 gallons of hot water a

minute. Thanks to the engineers, the 442nd was likely the only regiment to enjoy hot showers in combat.21

The 442nd could not have succeeded without the 232nd's support. The 232nd participated in a total of four campaigns, received two Presidential Unit Citations for its actions in the Vosges and at the Gothic Line, and numerous individual awards.22

Footnotes

1The Army Historical Foundation, "232nd Combat Engineer Company," National Museum US Army, accessed February 8, 2015, https://armyhistory.org/232d-engineer-combat-company-nisei-442d-regimental-combat-team/.

2Dorothy Matsuo, From Boyhood to War: History and Anecdotes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (Honolulu, HI: Mutual Pub. Co., 1992), p. 213.

3Ibid, p. 211.

4George Goto, "History of the 232nd Engineer Combat Company," [pamphlet], 232nd Engineer Combat Company, US Army, p. 7.

5Chester Tanaka, Go For Broke: A Pictorial History of the Japanese-American 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442d Regimental Combat Team (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), p. 76.

6Goto, p. 7.

7"36th Division in World War II: Engineers Build a Road," Texas Military Forces Museum, accessed February 6, 2015, http://www.texasmilitaryforcesmuseum.org/36division/archives/vosges/engineer.htm.

8Ibid.

9Goto, p. 7; Tanaka, p. 103; Matsuo, p. 219.

10Tanaka, pp. 76, 136.

11Goto, p. 10.

12Ibid; Lyn Crost, Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), p. 257.

13Goto, p. 6; Tanaka, p. 136.

14Charlie Ijima, "What was the 232nd Engineers' role in World War II?" Go For Broke Bulletin Archives XLVIII.4 (October-December 1997), reprinted by Sons and Daughters of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, accessed on February 8, 2015, http://442sd.org/other-news/gfb-bulletin-archives-232nd-combat-engineer-company/.

15Goto, p. 9.

16Crost, p. 233.

17Crost, p. 257; James M. Hanley, A Matter of Honor: A Memoire (Springfield, MA: Vantage Press, 1995), p. 89; Tanaka, pp. 130-131; Goto, p. 11.

18Goto, p. 13.

19Matsuo, p. 217.

20Ibid, p. 216.

21"232nd Combat Engineer Company (Nisei): Hot Showers - when and where you needed them!" 36th Infantry Division Association, accessed on February 6, 2015, http://www.34infdiv.org/feature/232engrco.html.

22The Army Historical Foundation.


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