On this day in 1944, two soldiers engage in an action that would earn each a Medal of Honor. William K. Nakamura and Frank H. Ono were members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II.
That regiment, as you may know, was composed entirely of “Nisei.” They were Japanese-Americans who’d volunteered to fight for their country. They believed in America, even when some Americans weren’t sure if they could believe in their fellow citizens who just happened to be Japanese-Americans.
Indeed, the 442nd worked so hard and so bravely during the war that they would come to be known as the Purple Heart Battalion.
“[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.”
In short, they were relentless.
On July 4, 1944, Nakamura and Ono would display exactly this drive during an action near Castellina, Italy.
On one side of the conflict, Nakamura’s platoon became pinned down by enemy firing from a concealed position. But Nakamura swung into action, working his way toward the hidden machine gun nest. The only thing standing between him and enemy fire, Captain William Aull later described, was a handful of “scattered shrubs.”
Nevertheless, Nakamura was able to get within 15 yards of the enemy. He threw four hand grenades, taking out the nest.
“His aim was good,” Aull smiled.
Nakamura’s platoon continued its advance up the hill, but was soon ordered back again. They’d clear the way so artillery could batter the hilltop where German snipers were still hiding. Yet as the platoon retreated, German machine-gunners at a nearby farmhouse opened fire.
Nakamura again leapt into action, defending his platoon as it continued to safety. Nakamura did enough to protect his platoon, but he was unable to save himself. He was later found with a fatal bullet wound to the head.
Meanwhile, PFC Ono was nearby as his squad moved forward against a heavily defended hill. Suddenly, Americans came under attack, as a barrage of fire exploded all around.
Just as Nakamura had, Ono advanced, taking out one machine gun almost instantly. Soon, he’d taken out another sniper, too. His actions were enough to gain his squad leader precious time to reorganize.
Unsurprisingly, Ono was taking the brunt of the attack in the meantime. The enemy turned its attention to the lone gunman causing them so much trouble. A round of fire wrenched Ono’s weapon out of his hand, but Ono was undeterred. He started throwing hand grenades until his platoon began moving forward again.
He soon saw his platoon leader and another rifleman go down. Ono “boldly ran through withering automatic, small arms, and mortar fire to render first aid,” his citation describes. Soon, the platoon was ordered to withdraw, but Ono volunteered to cover the retreating forces. He was in a virtually unprotected position, exchanging fire with enemy snipers.
Would you believe he made it? Once his platoon reached safety, Ono began working his way back down the hill, too.
Both men would be awarded Medals of Honor for their actions, but neither man would ever know it. When Ono passed away in 1980, he’d received a Distinguished Service Cross. In the 1990s, however, a review concluded that both men’s Crosses should have been Medals.
Of course, being members of the Greatest Generation, I suspect each man would simply shrug off the honor and say he was “just doing my job.” Don't you?
Alex Tizon, Medal of honor, 56 years later (Seattle Times; May 28, 2000)
Colonel Hiroaki Morita, The Nation’s Most Decorated Military Unit: The 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team (USAWC Military Studies Program Paper; 1992)
Medal of Honor citation (William K. Nakamura; WWII)
Medal of Honor citation (Frank H. Ono; WWII)