This Day in History: The Purple Heart Battalion of World War II

Today is Purple Heart Day! On this day in 1782, General George Washington creates a military award that would be the predecessor for the Purple Heart.

Do you know the story of the “Purple Heart Battalion” that served with the United States Army? Perhaps today is a good day to remember and celebrate the bravery of these men.

Their story begins with the attack on Pearl Harbor. You already know that the Japanese-American population suffered in the months that followed that event: Distrust, suspicion, and fear ran rampant. Many were sent to internment centers, but it was harder to relocate the Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) in Hawaii. There were simply too many of them.

What a blessing. Those Nisei were bound and determined to prove their loyalty to the United States.

Not that it would be easy. The Nisei had been kicked out of the Hawaii Territorial Guard and had even been designated “enemy aliens.” They could not enlist in the U.S. Army. Eventually, they were allowed to do menial work to help the soldiers—but they were trusted no further than that.

In the meantime, the Army had to figure out what to do with those Nisei who were already members of Hawaii’s National Guard. They were kind of at a loss, but finally had those Nisei shipped to the mainland. The newly formed 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) spent the next year in rigorous military training. They worked hard and proved their mettle. By August 1943, they’d been deployed to the Mediterranean.

The 100th Battalion served in Italy—and it was amazing! The troops were suffering from high casualty rates, but they were also living up to their motto to “Remember Pearl Harbor!” Indeed, their performance had long since convinced Army brass that more Japanese-Americans should be recruited.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was created to fit the bill. That volunteer force of Nisei from all over the country would soon adopt a rather hard-core motto of their own: “Go for broke!”

The soldiers trained hard, and the 442nd RCT was deployed in May 1944. Later that summer, the 100th Battalion and the 442nd formally joined forces. Together, the two fought in both France and Italy, helping to free Europe from Nazi Germany’s grip.

“[T]hey had the fire, the courage and the will to press forward that make crack infantry of the line,” one soldier described. “They would, and often did, drive until they fell from wounds or exhaustion; they were never driven to a backward step in many months of battle.”

They were, quite simply, relentless.

In the end, roughly 14,000 soldiers served with the 100th/442nd. Of these, 9,486 received Purple Hearts. More than 20 soldiers received Medals of Honor. Nearly 30 received Distinguished Service Crosses. Hundreds of soldiers received Silver Stars and thousands received Bronze Stars. The 442nd would receive seven Presidential Unit Citations.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team remains the most decorated unit in American military history, given its size and length of service.

President Harry Truman said it best during a 1946 White House ceremony. “You fought not only the enemy,” he told the Nisei soldiers, “you fought prejudice, and you have won.”

Perhaps George Washington would also be happy to hear that a downtrodden group bears the distinction of being the “Purple Heart Battalion”? “The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country,” he stated on this day so long ago, “is thus open to all.

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