Today, our nation honors the heroism, sacrifice, and service of all brave men and women who offer their lives in the defense of our country. As we have done in the past, the Coalition focuses on stories of that service, either unexplored or forgotten over the course of time, to shine a light on the different people and acts of selflessness that have contributed to the safeguarding of our nation. Today, we highlight examples of Italian and Japanese American heroism during World War II and the backdrop against which that heroism took place.
On an October night in 1942, battle raged on Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands. A regiment of 3000 Japanese soldiers relentlessly rained down grenades and mortar fire on two Marine .30-caliber machine gun crews defending land at the Tenaru River. When one crew was disabled, the crews’ leader, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, carried heavy munitions and weapons 200 yards between gun locations, relaying back and forth between those locations to keep them supplied and defending himself with nothing but a Colt .45 in hand. He and his Marines spent the evening repulsing an onslaught of Japanese soldiers. For his part, Basilone’s hands and arms were burned as he painfully exchanged hot machine guns barrels in the repeated barrages of gunfire. As enemy bodies piled up and impeded fire, he exited cover, again putting his life at risk, to clear those bodies away. So effective were the efforts of Basilone and his fellow Marines that the Japanese were impeded, but at a great cost. When reinforcements arrived, they found only Basilone and two other Marines. After the battle on Guadalcanal, for which, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor, Basilone was killed on Iwo Jima, and for his sacrifice, he received the Purple Heart and the Navy Cross.
That same year, segregated units for Nisei (Japanese Americans) were created: the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Sadao Munemori, having enlisted in 1941, served in the Military Intelligence Language School, and achieved the rank of Technical Sergeant, transferred to the 100th Infantry Battalion (later merged with the 442nd), even though it required him to drop down in rank to Private First Class. The move afforded Munemori the opportunity to demonstrate his allegiance and avoid battle in the Pacific. He saw combat in Italy and participated in the famous, heroic rescue of the Lost Battalion in France, an operation where the 442nd Japanese Americans suffered significant casualties. In the spring of 1945, his unit participated in a mission to break through German defenses in the mountains of Northern Italy. They moved at night, and by morning, they encountered significant defensive resistance, during which, on his own, Munemori took out enemy machine guns. While undertaking a strategic withdrawal, an enemy grenade landed in a ditch where two of his men were positioned. Instantly, Munemori jumped on the grenade, dying to protect his fellow soldiers. For his actions, he was the first Nisei to receive the Medal of Honor.
As a nation, we are blessed with many such stories of valor demonstrated by those called to defend our homeland. What makes these stories of courage so noteworthy, however, is the fact that they involve representatives of communities that encountered, certainly by today’s standards, significant discrimination before the war and, more directly, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which served as the basis for removing 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent from their homes to internment camps. Likewise, it caused the relocation of 10,000 Italian Americans. Under President Roosevelt’s Presidential Proclamations 2525, 2526, and 2527, Japanese, German, and Italian individuals, that is, “natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being of the age of fourteen years and upward, who shall be within the United States and not actually naturalized” were “liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies.” Hundreds of thousands had their movements restricted. Yet, in the face of the foregoing, after our nation was attacked and the call to service arose, representatives of these groups, along with representatives from other backgrounds, stepped up without hesitation to defend our country. Indeed, Italian Americans alone made-up ten percent of the nation’s fighting force in World War II, and the Nisei 442nd was an exemplar of heroism, becoming “one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history.”
Perhaps it was their embrace of the exceptional freedoms embodied in our Constitution. Perhaps it was a spirit of pride, a desire to defend the honor of their heritage by manifesting allegiance to their new homeland. We leave it for scholars to study and discuss such motivations. For our part, we are thankful for their courage and willingness to embrace their new homeland and defend it with their lives. Their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of their brothers and sisters in arms, represent the best of American character, for which, we should be ever grateful.
The following served as sources for the foregoing: