The Medics of the 100th and 442nd
Medical Detachment, 442nd RCT. Camp Shelby, Mississippi. November 1943. Courtesy of the United States Army.
The 442nd Medical Detachment was led by Major Clarence H. Buckley, MD. The 442nd unit included officers, who were either in medicine or dentistry, and enlisted Nisei, who either had received first aid training as Boy Scouts, served in emergency assistance2 or had no medical or first aid training at all.3 The medical teams thus comprised doctors, dentists, special assistants, aid men, litter bearers, and drivers.
The 100th’s medical team was led by battalion surgeon Captain Isaac Kawasaki, MD. He worked alongside Lieutenant Richard Kainuma, MD, and dentist Captain Katsumi Kometani, who was also the battalion’s morale officer and who received training in first aid.1
Medics were recognized by the red crosses they wore on their helmets and sometimes on armbands. Aid men administered first aid onsite to the wounded.
Litter bearers would assess the wounded and evacuate them as needed. If evacuated, they would be treated by doctors at forward aid stations. If the wounds were superficial, they were treated at the stations and returned to their companies. If the wounds were more severe, they would be transferred to field hospitals. Those who died were placed in “mattress” bags, and placed in the care of Headquarters Company.4
Medics were accompanied by chaplains who provided spiritual support and boosted the morale of the troops. They wore a white Latin cross painted on their helmets.
The medics were trained separately from the combat units. Although they received instruction on the very basic skills of firing a gun and marching in formation, they were taught how to treat wounds and illnesses, and how to render aid to the dying. They studied bodily functions and learned ways to assess the body’s condition, to tie tourniquets, to give medication for pain relief, to cleanse wounds, and to move the wounded quickly and carefully.5 The medical detachment of the 442nd also helped with the inoculations for the entire regiment and physical examinations before its overseas deployment.6
In the mountainous regions of France and Italy, the evacuation of the wounded was particularly difficult because of the rough terrain and the long distances to the aid stations. Because of this, the medics set up relay stations where minimal but vital emergency services were given, like blood transfusions and the administering of morphine, to help soldiers with serious wounds. Still, many died from exposure or loss of blood due to the delay in getting treatment. At times, the 100th’s front line was so far from an aid station that the evacuation of the wounded required up to 10 four-man litter teams.7 Aid trucks were also often thwarted by muddy roads and wet or snowy conditions.
Above everything else, medics were trained to not risk their lives to render aid. However, despite this training, most medics would not hesitate to run to a soldier’s aid if he called for help.8
In combat, aid men were attached to line companies so that they would be readily available to help their team. Within the 442nd, each platoon had one medic, thus each line company had a total of three medics. Since each battalion had four companies, there were a total of 12 aid men within each battalion. Litter bearers were also part of the medical section. The remaining men were assigned to headquarters companies and reassigned to the line companies as was necessary.9
In late June 1944 near Sassetta, Italy, Technician Fifth Grade Tadasu Eddie Onaka worked the aid station during the first few days of combat for the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd RCT. The men came in shivering, likely from the shock of their first experiences seeing death and the wounded. Onaka recalled:
We tried to keep them warm with blankets but it didn’t help much. We found out later that they were suffering from ‘battle fatigue.’ The [medical] training we had at Camp Shelby helped in coping with the situation we encountered. As the war progressed, I felt more confident carrying out my duties.10
Yet the medics persevered, and they often put themselves in harm’s way to help their team. On January 10, 1944, Sergeant Kiyoshi “Jimmie” Shiramizu of the 100th medical team was hit in the abdomen during the approach to Monte Cassino. Despite the severity of his own condition, he insisted that the other wounded soldiers be evacuated before him. He told Chaplain Israel Yost and the battalion surgeon, “Since I’m a medic, I want to be the last of the litter cases to be carried down the hill. I can take it. Let the others get back first.” The last to be evacuated, Shiramizu “waved a cheery goodbye” to them as the litter bearers led him away. He died four days later at an Army hospital in Italy, less than one month before his 25th birthday.12
Despite the Geneva Convention rules that dictated that non-combat medics had special protection and were identified by the universal emblem of a red cross, the medics were often targeted, whether deliberately or by accident.11 At all times they were in danger simply because they were the enemy. The Red Cross insignia which appeared on their helmets, armbands, or both often did not protect them from being fired upon, and may have even made them easier targets. Further, as medical personnel, they were not allowed to carry weapons.
The first 442nd medic to be killed was Technician Fourth Grade George Sawada in an occupied area near Molino a Ventoabbato on July 5, 1944.13 Sawada was hit by a sniper as he walked in line behind a fellow medic bearing a Red Cross flag on a staff.14 Just ten days later, another medic, Private First Class Henry Hayashida, was shot in the abdomen by another sniper.15
In fact, in the first 220 days of combat for the 100th/442nd in Europe, ten 442nd medics and five 100th infantry medics died. Others were declared MIA by headquarters and were either captured as POWs or killed in action and found later.16
On January 11, 2001, in a speech given at the Hawaii Army Museum’s Hall of Heroes Induction Ceremony, Senator Daniel Inouye aptly summed up the medics’ contribution of the to the Nisei soldiers:
For those of us who were privileged to serve in the infantry, we have always considered that some of the bravest men in our units were the medics. After all, when you are wounded, you don’t call for your mother. You call out, ‘Medic!’ And the medic never stops. He never pauses. He rushes forward in a hail of fire.17
However, perhaps the greater disappointment than the denial of the $10 bonus was the lack of recognition for their efforts. They were instead awarded with the Combat Medical Badge, a decoration that came with no stipend.20 The War Department rationalized that the medics needed to retain their non-combatant status under the Geneva Convention.
James K. Okubo. Courtesy of the United States Department of Defense.
Other awards would be earned by the medics, however, including several Silver Stars. Technician Fifth Grade James K. Okubo would become the only Nisei medic to receive the Medal of Honor, more than 50 years after it was recommended by his commander, for his valor from October – November 1944, near Biffontaine, France.21
On September 29, 1945, the 100th/442nd Medical Detachment was awarded the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque (later redesignated as the Meritorious Unit Service Commendation for its “invaluable service” in Italy and France from May 1944 to May 1945.22
Advanced aid station operated by medics of the 442nd RCT, near Belmont, France. October 29, 1944. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
- 1“Medical Team: ‘Medic! Medic!’ The 100th Infantry Battalion’s Medical Team,” 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Education Center, accessed on February 20, 2015.
- 2Dorothy Matsuo, Silent Valor: The Story of the 442nd Medics (Honolulu, HI: Honolulu Chapter of the 442nd Medics, 2002), p. 12.
- 3Ibid, p. viii.
- 4Dorothy Matsuo, From Boyhood to War: History and Anecdotes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (Honolulu, HI: Mutual Publishing, 1992), p. 146.
- 5Matsuo, Silent Valor, p. 12.
- 6Ibid, p. 21.
- 7“Medical Team.”
- 8Ibid, pp. 37-38.
- 9Ibid, p. 11.
- 10Ibid, p. 28.
- 11Matsuo, From Boyhood to War, p. 148.
- 12Israel A.S. Yost, as quoted in Rebecca Salter, Combat Chaplain: The Personal Story of the World War II Chaplain of the Japanese American 100th Battalion (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2006), pp. 107-108.
- 13A letter written by Sawada to his father has become iconic for the sense of filial obligation and national loyalty representative of the Nisei soldiers during World War II. See “Recognition: Saluting Heroes, George Sawada (442), A son’s unforgettable war letter to his father,” National Veterans’ Network, accessed on February 16, 2015.
- 14Matsuo, Silent Valor, pp. 32, 35.
- 15Ibid, p. 28.
- 16Ibid, p. 36.
- 17Ibid, p. xiv.
- 18Terry Shima, 2014, 442nd Combat Medic Kelly Kuwayama Has Passed Away: Saved Senator Inouye’s Life In Po Valley Campaign, accessed on February 15, 2015.
- 19The stipend was later rescinded in 1948. See “Awards and Decorations Branch – Combat Infantry Badge,” US Army Human Resources Command Branch, accessed on February 16, 2015.
- 20Matsuo, Silent Valor, p. 51.
- 21Ibid, p. 80.
- 22Ibid, p. 104.