“Go For Broke” was the motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an Army unit comprised of Japanese Americans from Hawai’i and the mainland United States. The motto was derived from a gambler’s slang used in Hawai’i to “go for broke,” which meant that the player was risking it all in one effort to win big.1 The player would put everything on the line.

It was an apt motto for the soldiers of the 442nd. As Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, and American-born sons of Japanese immigrants during World War II, they needed to put everything on the line to “win big.” For these Nisei, they were fighting to win two wars: the war against the Germans in Europe and the war against racial prejudice in America.

442nd Regimental Combat Team coat of arms

The Japanese represented the largest ethnic group in the small island community of Hawai’i. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Nisei, like everyone else on the islands, responded to the emergency. They pitched in with other locals to aid the wounded, sort through the rubble, give blood, and bury the dead. Members of the Hawai’i Territorial Guard, the Nisei cadets in the University of Hawai’i’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), stood watch over Iolani Palace, Hawai’i’s government center, and utility installations.2

The Nisei cadets felt deep despair when confronted with such racism. But community leaders convinced the demoralized students to persevere. The students then petitioned the military governor: “Hawai’i is our home; the United States is our country. We know but one loyalty and that is to the Stars and Stripes. We wish to do our part as loyal Americans in every way possible, and we hereby offer ourselves for whatever service you may see fit to use us.”3′

But on January 19, 1942, the Army disbanded the Hawai’i Territorial Guard – only to reform the unit the following day without the Nisei. By the end of March, all Japanese American men of draft age were redesignated as “IV-C” or “enemy aliens.” As enemy aliens, they could not enlist in the armed forces.

The students gave up their books and their chance for the education that would afford them opportunities beyond their plantation and construction jobs. Instead, they became the “Varsity Victory Volunteers,” or “Triple V” – a manual labor support group for the US Army. They picked up shovels and hammers. Under the supervision of the US Army Corps of Engineers, they built barracks, dug ditches, quarried rock and surfaced roads from January to December 1942.

Their dedication and willingness to serve their country in whatever way possible made a significant impression on military officials. The Varsity Victory Volunteers finally got their chance to fight. On January 28, 1943, the War Department announced that it was forming an all-Nisei combat team and called for 1,500 volunteers from Hawai’i. An overwhelming 10,000 men volunteered, including many men from the VVV.4

On the mainland, the reception was much less enthusiastic. The War Department set a goal of 3,000 recruits, and came away with just 1,182.5 The difference clearly stemmed from the drastically different treatment faced by mainland Japanese Americans, who were subject to intense fear and suspicion in their everyday lives.

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, officials began plans to “relocate” the Japanese American community. Any thoughts of moving the more than 150,000 Japanese Americans in the Hawaiian Islands were quickly abandoned given the logistics and the economics of a territory heavily reliant on the Japanese community, which made up nearly 40% of the population there. But on the mainland, the forced removal of the Japanese American community was quickly becoming a reality.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which laid the groundwork for the mass relocation of more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry to remote concentration camps. As early as February 25, officials began moving families away from military areas along the West Coast, beginning with Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, Washington, and then Terminal Island in Los Angeles Harbor. Whole families were incarcerated in crowded, tar paper barracks, in the desolate areas.

Yet even from behind the barded wire, and despite the fact that many of their own rights had been taken away, some 1,100 American-born Japanese men volunteered to fight for their homeland, America.

On February 1, 1943, President Roosevelt activated the 442nd RCT. Hawai’i-born Nisei made up about two-thirds of the regiment. The remaining one-third were Nisei from the mainland. The islanders were nicknamed “Buddhaheads.” While some theorized the nickname stemmed from “buta,” the Japanese word for pig, others claimed it was a reference to Buddhist monks who shaved their heads. The mainlanders were “Katonks” (or “Kotonks”), which for some represented the hollow sound their heads made when they hit the floor in a fistfight.

In April 1943, the Buddhaheads and the Katonks arrived for training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Immediately, the two groups clashed with each other.

The Buddhaheads thought the mainlanders were sullen and unfriendly. The Katonks found the islanders to be impulsive and crude. While the Katonks spoke formal, standard English, the Buddhaheads spoke Pidgin, or Hawaiian vernacular, a mixture of Hawaiian, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese and English.

442nd Regimental Combat Team. Camp Shelby, Mississippi. June 1943. Courtesy of the United States War Department.
Members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. 1943. Courtesy of the United States Army Signal Corps.
Members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, playing "galloping dominoes" upon the bed of a GI truck. Camp Shelby, Mississippi. June 1943. Courtesy of the United States War Department.

Money was another source of division between the groups. The Buddhaheads gambled heavily and spent freely using the cash sent by their parents who still worked in Hawai’i. They thought the Katonks were cheap, because they were less liberal with their money. They didn’t realize that many of them sent most of their meager Army pay to their families imprisoned in the incarceration centers. The Katonks hardly discussed their families’ situation.

Members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, playing “galloping dominoes” upon the bed of a GI truck. Camp Shelby, Mississippi. June 1943. Courtesy of the United States War Department.

To solve the problem, the Army decided to send a group of Buddhaheads to visit the incarceration centers in nearby Arkansas. The men thought Jerome and Rowher were little towns with Japanese families. But when the trucks rolled past the barbed wire fence, past the guard towers armed with machine guns pointed at the center residents, past the tar paper barracks where whole families crowded in small compartments with no privacy, the Buddhaheads finally understood. Word of the “camps” spread quickly, and the Buddhaheads gained a whole new respect for the Katonks. Immediately, the men in the 442nd became united, like a tightly clenched fist.6

From May 1943 through February 1944 the men trained for combat. During training, many would be sent as replacements for the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) fighting in Europe. The men excelled at maneuvers and learned to operate as a team. In April the regiment packed up, and on April 22, 1944, the men left Camp Shelby for their first overseas assignment in Europe. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team included the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, 232nd Combat Engineer Company, 206th Army Ground Force Band, Antitank Company, Cannon Company, Service Company, medical detachment, headquarters companies, and three infantry battalions. The 1st Infantry Battalion remained in the States to train new recruits. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions would join the legendary 100th Battalion, which was already fighting in Italy. The 100th would in essence become the new 1st Battalion of the 442nd RCT. However, it was allowed to keep the “100th Battalion” name in recognition of its unparalleled combat record. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service, in the entire history of the US Military. In total, about 18,000 men served, ultimately earning 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and an unprecedented seven Presidential Unit Citations.
E Company, 2nd Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in formation. Camp Shelby, Mississippi. May 13, 1943. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
The Color Guard of the 442nd RCT stands at attention while citations are read following the fierce fighting in the Vosges area of France. November 12, 1944. Courtesy of the United States Army Signal Corps.

Footnotes

Headquarters Company

Service Company

Cannon Company

Anti-Tank Company

206th Army Ground Forces Band

Chaplains

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