The chaplains of the 100th/442nd represented the Protestant faith. Although many of the Nisei were Buddhist, the differences in religion seemed to matter little when it came to lending their support and understanding. Initially, the chaplain for the 100th was Major Earnest E. Eells, who was mistakenly assigned to the 100th when regulations called for the battalion chaplain to rank no higher than a captain. Hence, he was replaced by Captain Israel Yost.2
Chaplain Israel Yost joined the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) on October 5, 1943, in Italy.3 An ordained Lutheran pastor, he had previously been assigned to the largely Lutheran 109th Engineer Battalion, 34th Division, so the transfer to an all-Nisei, primarily Buddhist battalion was a major change for him. Still, he quickly adapted to the change, and came to befriend and respect the men of the 100th, whom he felt “all had the aloha spirit.”4
He worked closely with one of the medical team leaders and morale officer Captain Katsumi Kometani, and served with the 100th in some of its worst battles, enduring his own wounds.5 One of his first duties was to assist Chaplain Eells with a memorial service for Sergeant Shigeo “Joe” Takata and Private Keiichi Tanaka, the first two 100th soldiers who were killed in combat on September 29.6 As the 100th’s chaplain, he earned the Legion of Merit and a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster.7 When the 100th merged with the 442nd, Chaplain Yost was granted his request to be transferred with the men of the 100th.
Captain Masao Yamada, an ordained Christian minister from Kauai, was the first Japanese American chaplain in the US Army.8 Upon hearing that white chaplains had been assigned to the 442nd, he specifically requested to join up with it. He then went to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and was assigned to the Third Battalion, following the regiment when it first met up with the 100th in Italy. From there he accompanied the battalion through October 1945, seeing some of its worst battles and enduring his own serious wounds,9 for which he earned the Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster and the Legion of Merit award.10 He counted among his most difficult missions the rescue of the Lost Battalion, about which he would write in a letter to battalion commander Colonel Sherwood Dixon, “My heart weeps with our men, especially those who gave all. Never has any combat affected me so deeply as has this emergency situation.”11
Captain Hiro Higuchi, a Hilo native who volunteered in the Army so that he could support the 442nd RCT, joined the regiment at Camp Shelby and accompanied the Second Battalion throughout its time in Italy and France.12
Like Chaplain Yost, he himself faced the same shelling and gunfire that the soldiers endured. He earned the Legion of Merit award twice, and because he was wounded in Italy, was eligible for the Purple Heart but turned it down.13
The last chaplain to join the 100th/442nd was Chaplain George Aki, a California native and ordained Christian pastor who volunteered to serve while he and his family were incarcerated at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas. Because he was from the mainland and the other chaplains hailed from Hawai’i, Chaplain Aki was recommended by Chaplain Yamada to join the 442nd to serve the mainland Nisei. Although he wanted to accompany the first detachment overseas, he was told to remain at Camp Shelby to help train the regiment’s replacements.14 In January 1945, he was sent to Italy to replace Chaplain Yost.15
In her history of the 100th/442nd Honor by Fire, war correspondent Lyn Crost writes that the chaplains had the “saddest of all duties”:
They had to comfort the injured and dying. They had to go through the belongings of the dead, searching for personal items to be shipped home – a last note, a picture, a cherished letter – and then compose words of condolence to a bereaved family. It was often heart wrenching. Once, a dying Nisei handed his wallet to a chaplain, saying, ‘Give to someone who needs it. I won’t anymore.’16
The chaplains were officially non-combatants like their medical detachment team members, and under the Geneva Convention they were granted special protection from enemy attacks. The white Latin cross on their helmets and armbands indicated as such. However, as the medics themselves soon learned, their status did not guarantee their immunity from gunfire and shelling. Many times the chaplains were often in the thick of battle, darting from foxhole to foxhole to render aid and lift the men’s spirits.
Their dedication to the spiritual and moral well-being of the men was always tantamount to their own needs. Even after the war ended, despite the hardships they endured and the questioning of their own faith brought on by their wartime experiences, the chaplains went on to continue offering spiritual support to the veterans.
- 1Lyn Crost, Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), p. 66.
- 2Dorothy Matsuo, From Boyhood to War: History and Anecdotes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (Honolulu, HI: Mutual Publishing, 1992), p. 141.