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This Day in History: Barney F. Hajiro and the rescue of the “Lost Battalion”

On this day in 2011, a Medal of Honor recipient passes away. Barney F. Hajiro was the son of Japanese immigrants. He was also living in Hawaii Territory when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

How many emotions did Japanese-Americans go through in those days? They knew their fellow citizens had become fearful of them. Yet it felt unfair. They were just as angry as everyone else was.

“I didn’t bomb Pearl Harbor,” Mr. Hajiro said during a 1999 interview. “Why did they blame us?”

Finally, in 1943, a special Army unit was created. Japanese-Americans could serve in their own unit: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The motto of that unit? “Go for broke!”

The Nisei soldiers lived up to that name. Their unit would become one of America’s most decorated, given its size and length of service. Hajiro’s Medal was just one of these decorations. He placed his life on the line—not once, but three times.

On October 19, 1944, Private Hajiro was in France acting as a sentry when he saw American troops under attack. He ran into danger, exposing himself to fire—but he also took out two enemy snipers. Three days later, he and another soldier ambushed a group of 18 Germans! They killed two, wounded one, and took the rest prisoner.

Yet Hajiro is best remembered for what came next. On October 24, the Germans trapped a Texas National Guard battalion in the Vosges Mountains. Multiple attempts were made to free the “Lost Battalion.” Finally, the Nisei were called in.

It was basically a suicide mission. Three days later, nearly half the Nisei would be dead or wounded—and the Lost Battalion was still trapped.

“Then, something happened in the 442nd,” Army historians describe. “By ones and twos, almost spontaneously and without orders, the men got to their feet and, with a kind of universal anger, moved toward the enemy position. Bitter hand-to-hand combat ensued as the Americans fought from one fortified position to the next. Finally, the enemy broke in disorder.”

One critical act was performed by Hajiro.

His friend had just been shot and killed. Hajiro, one historian writes, “could contain the torment of his soul no longer. With abandon he assaulted ‘suicide hill,’ yards ahead of the rest of his platoon, spewing the rounds his dead comrade had loaded in the BAR just moments earlier.”

His Medal citation credits him with taking out two enemy machine gun nests and killing two snipers. Soon the 442nd was in charge of Suicide Hill.

Hajiro initially received a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. It was later upgraded to a Medal of Honor after Congress ordered a review to ensure that veterans of Asian ancestry had not been discriminated against.

“Barney was a good man,” Senator Daniel Inouye, another Nisei veteran, would tell reporters after Hajiro’s death. “He didn’t go around blowing his own horn. He would just say he was doing something he was supposed to do.”

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