This Day in History: Joe Hayashi and “the Purple Heart Battalion”
On this day in 1945, a U.S. Army private participates in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Joe Hayashi’s mom and stepdad had been sent to an American internment camp. Would you believe that he was still serving as a U.S. soldier?
Those were the days when the U.S. Government wasn’t sure if anyone of Japanese heritage could be trusted. Hayashi, a Japanese-American, was determined to prove his loyalty to the United States.
In the end, Hayashi would become one of the nearly two dozen Japanese-Americans to earn the Medal of Honor during World War II. Despite the bravery of these men, most of these medals were not awarded until decades after the war was over. A special June 2000 White House ceremony recognized these overlooked heroes.
Most of Hayashi’s life wasn’t really defined by this conflict. He was an athletic boy who loved the outdoors, as his family later recorded. He went fishing and hunting. He was a Boy Scout. He was a mechanic who built his own boat.
When he enlisted in the U.S. Army, the bombing of Pearl Harbor had not yet happened.
Afterwards, even Hayashi’s comrades in the Army sometimes seemed uncertain about his loyalty to America.
For a time after the bombing, Hayashi had a relatively safe job training soldiers, but then he decided that he didn’t want to do that anymore. He wanted to serve in Europe, although he seemed to think that the chances were pretty low that he’d come back alive. He was attached to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit with a high casualty rate. It would even be dubbed “the Purple Heart Battalion.”
Hayashi visited his mom and stepdad one last time in their internment center, then he left for Europe. Reportedly, he left a girlfriend behind. Was she his fiancé? Maybe. Maybe not. His parents were in an internment camp. His stepdad would die of cancer before he got out. The family was never quite sure about some of the details.
Either way, Hayashi would never return home to America again.
On April 20, 1945, Hayashi was in Italy. His unit had been ordered to attack a well-fortified hill near the village of Tendola. After the first approach, some of Hayashi’s comrades were wounded. He dragged them to safety, but then still returned to make sure that “mortar fire against hostile emplacements” would continue. In the end, those mortars would neutralize three machine guns and kill 27 of the enemy that day.
Hayashi had risked his life to keep those mortars firing on April 20, but that didn’t stop him from risking his life again on April 22.
He wouldn’t be so lucky the second time around.
On that day, Hayashi’s unit was still near Tendola, attacking an enemy position on a hill. “Crawling under intense fire to a hostile machine gun position,” his citation relates, “he threw a grenade, killing one enemy soldier and forcing the other members of the gun crew to surrender.” Hayashi wasn’t done, though. He’d soon maneuvered himself close to another machine gun nest, lobbing a grenade into it and destroying it. He then went after ANOTHER machine gun nest and disabled that one, too! In the last nest, he killed four soldiers and sent the others running.
His problem came when he attempted to pursue the fleeing enemy. During the chase, he was mortally wounded by machine pistol fire. His family says that he might have been saved with immediate medical attention, but he refused to allow others to risk their lives just to save him.
How many people would give their lives for a country that had detained his family?
Hayashi did. A true hero.
David Stout, 21 Asian-Americans Receive Medal of Honor (May 14, 2000)
Discover Nikkei: Joe Hayashi (KIA 04/23/1945) (Japanese American National Museum)
Jacqueline Newmyer, A Tardy Honor for Asian WWII Heroes (L.A. Times, June 22, 2000)
Medal of Honor citation (Joe Hayashi; WWII)
Medal of Honor recipients: 1979-2008 (CRS Report for Congress; updated June 4, 2008)
Rudi Williams, 21 Asian American World War II Vets to Get Medal of Honor (American Force Press Service)