“Four Forty-Second Infantry/We’re the boys from Hawaii nei/We’ll fight for you and the red, white and blue/We’ll go to the front, and back to Honolulu-lulu/Fighting for dear old Uncle Sam/Go For Broke! Hooh! We don’t give a damn!/We’ll run off the Huns at the point of our guns/And victory will be ours…”
– From the fight song of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army
On June 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded the military’s highest commendation—the Medal of Honor—to 22 members of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. Reserved for soldiers who display “gallantry and intrepidity” and, famously, risk their lives while performing “above and beyond the call of duty,” the medal has been given to less than 3,500 servicemen in its 150-year history. Of the 22 men, only seven were alive to accept the award. One of them was Hawaii Senator Dan Inouye.
Like his fellow honorees, Inouye—seventy-five years old at the time and serving his seventh term in the Senate—hadn’t seen combat action in a half-century. His heroics in the European Theater of World War II had been relegated to history, forgotten by those too young to grasp their significance.
“I am deeply grateful to my nation for this extraordinary award,” Inouye said in a prepared statement. “If I did well, much of the credit should go to my parents, grandparents and the gallant men of my platoon. This is their medal. I will receive it on their behalf.”
Behind that humility, however, is an astounding story of courage and bloodshed that illustrates the complex nature of war and heroism. Sixty-five years later, it’s a story worth retelling.
On April 21, 1945, the war was almost over, and 20-year-old Second Lieutenant Daniel K. Inouye knew it. The Germans were preparing to surrender, his company commander told him, but until then the fighting wouldn’t stop. If anything, it would intensify. “That’s a horrible thing—knowing that the war is going to end and you have to keep urging your men to go forward,” Inouye said 30 years later while being interviewed for the PBS documentary The War.
Urge them Inouye did, up the Colle Musatello ridge in the Apennine Mountains, a part of Italy known as the Gothic Line that served as one of Germany’s last strongholds. As his platoon advanced, Inouye remembers feeling a pain like someone was “punching [him] on the side.” It wasn’t until a fellow soldier told him he was bleeding that he noticed a bullet hole in his abdomen, less than an inch from his spine. He pressed on, ignoring the injury, even as bullets rained down from two German machine-gun nests. Ordering his men to take cover, Inouye advanced with a bag of grenades. He tossed two into the first nest and, in his words, “silenced” it.
As he moved toward the second nest, arm cocked and ready to throw another grenade, a German soldier fired from ten yards away, striking Inouye on the elbow and nearly severing his right arm. Inouye remembers searching the ground for the grenade before realizing it was still clutched in his hand. Using his good arm, he pried the explosive from his lifeless fingers and hurled it at the German. Then, he recalls, “everything went blank.”
After that, Inouye knows only what others have told him. Taking up his Thompson sub-machine gun, Inouye, in the words of his company commander, “went berserk,” spraying bullets at the second nest as blood spurted from his arm. He was shot again, this time in the leg, and the third wound sent him careening to the bottom of the hill. As he regained consciousness, his platoon-mates rushed to his aid. But Inouye, according to an account posted on his official Web site, waved them off, shouting, “Nobody called off the war!”
It’s a story almost too incredible to believe—replace Inouye with John Wayne, add a swelling soundtrack and you’ve got an epic war film. According to the Medal of Honor citation, “In the attack, 25 enemy soldiers were killed and eight others captured. By his gallant, aggressive tactics and by his indomitable leadership, Second Lieutenant Inouye enabled his platoon to advance through formidable resistance, and was instrumental in the capture of the ridge. Second Lieutenant Inouye’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.”
Yet to hear Inouye tell it, the incident was little more than a big, chaotic accident. “The enemy shoots at you, you try to avoid it,” he said in a video interview posted last year at vimeo.com. “And if you happen to be in the wrong place, you get hit.” Then, addressing the Medal of Honor specifically: “I’ve suggested maybe it was temporary insanity. I look at the citation and I [say], ‘No, no—I couldn’t have done that. That’s a crazy man, facing bullets coming in. That couldn’t have been me.’”
War heroism is a tricky thing. As the cases of Corporal Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and Private Jessica Lynch in Iraq have lately demonstrated, battlefield incidents are frequently subject to factual manipulation, presented as pure, uncomplicated acts of bravery and patriotism. To be sure, courage and love of country are often involved—but there is almost always more to the story.
In Inouye’s case, it took 55 years for the United States government to acknowledge the full significance of his sacrifice, and that of the other 21 men. Why? One possible answer: all 22 were Asian-American.
Prejudice against Asian citizens, particularly those of Japanese descent, ran deep during WWII. Scan the headlines of the 1940s Honolulu Advertiser (or any other paper) and see how often the word “Jap” leaps off the page, accompanied by grossly stereotypical caricatures of the “slant-eyed menace.” And, of course, there were the internment camps. Even as Japanese-American soldiers risked their lives overseas, back home many of their families were being rounded up and sequestered, treated like potential traitors.
In a tacit acknowledgement of this bigotry, in 1996 Congress ordered the Army to “review the records relating to each award of the Distinguished-Service Cross… that was awarded to an Asian-American or a Native American Pacific Islander with respect to service as a member of the Armed Forces during World War II… to determine whether any such award should be upgraded to the Medal of Honor.” Four years later, seven soldiers—and the families of 15 others—gathered on the South Lawn of the White House for a long-overdue moment of recognition.
None of the men expressed bitterness or said whether they believed race was a factor in the five-decade delay. But honoree George Sakato—whose citation is as filled with valor and gore as Inouye’s—did tell CNN the 442nd was “used like cannon fodder.” The predominantly Japanese-American unit withstood heavy casualties overseas and faced discrimination upon their return, as anti-Japanese sentiment festered long after the war ended.
Today, things have changed. The 442nd is remembered for its grit and mettle and is the most decorated unit in American history. But to truly understand what Inouye and countless others fought for and endured, it’s important to paint the whole picture—even the messy, tragic bits. “In the face of painful prejudice, they helped to define America at its best,” said president Clinton at the 2000 ceremony. “It is long past time to break the silence about their courage…and to honor it by name.”