This Day in History: Joe Nishimoto, the “one-man Army”
On this day in 1944, a Japanese-American soldier puts his life on the line. More than 50 years later, Joe M. Nishimoto would finally be awarded the Medal of Honor for his daring and bravery on this day so long ago.
Nishimoto was a “Nisei”—a second-generation Japanese-American. He was fighting for a country that had already interned him once. He’d been sent to a Japanese relocation center back home in America.
When he was finally able to leave the center, he did the unimaginable: He volunteered to serve the country that had just interned him. He joined the U.S. Army.
So many Japanese-Americans were distrusted by their fellow citizens because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And yet they loved their country and fought for her, believing that American ideals of freedom, liberty, and inclusiveness would eventually win the day.
Or maybe some of them just wanted to prove that they were not a part of the evil that took so many lives on that day in December 1941.
In the end, the 442d Regimental Combat Team, an infantry regiment composed almost entirely of Japanese-Americans, would become one of the most decorated regiments in World War II. Twenty-one of its members would earn the Medal of Honor, including Nishimoto.
In mid-October 1944, the 442nd was dispatched to rescue the “Lost Texas Battalion” near the Vosges Mountains in France. It may have been a small miracle that they succeeded, but they did it! Unfortunately, they lost 800 men in their attempt to rescue just over 200 soldiers.
More sacrifices made for a country that was ready to intern them.
In the days following the rescue of the Lost Battalion, the 442nd was tasked with securing even more of the area. Historian C. Douglas Sterner describes the Nisei unit as “pushed beyond any reasonable limits.” For days, they made advances “past the bodies of dead and dying comrades. Each soldier knew it was probably just a matter of time before they met a similar fate.”
Finally, on November 7, Nishimoto had had enough. “The slightly built, mild mannered young infantryman from California,” Sterner describes, “turned into a one-man army.” His actions would break the stalemate that had developed.
First, Nishimoto crawled through a “heavily mined and booby-trapped area,” as his Medal citation describes. Once on the other side, he destroyed an enemy machine gun nest with a grenade. But he wasn’t done yet.
He found a second enemy position and circled it so that he was able to approach it from behind. He attacked it with his submachine gun, killing one enemy combatant and wounding another. When others fled, he pursued them. He killed some and chased others into the forest.
As if that were not enough, he soon found a third machine gun crew and drove them into retreat as well.
Nishimoto survived his one-man battle, but he was killed a week later. He never received the Distinguished Service Cross that he was awarded for these actions. And he never knew that the Cross would be upgraded to a Medal of Honor more than 50 years later.
Franz Steidl, Lost Battalions: Going for Broke in the Vosges, Autumn 1944 (1997)
Kathryn Shenkle, Historian, Arlington National Cemetery, Patriots Under Fire: Japanese Americans in World War II
Medal of Honor citation (Joe M. Nishimoto, 6-21-2000)