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Nisei: A knife at your throat and a hand on your dog tags

Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi

My best friend Martin and I were both in the Army during World War II – he was in the European Theater and I got sent to the South Pacific, stationed in both Papua New Guinea and later in the Philippines. Martin was in Italy, Germany and Southern France. While he was there, he encountered members of the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team, which was known as the "Go For Broke" regiment. The officers were primarily Caucasian, but all of the enlisted men in the 442nd were Nisei, which is the Japanese term for the children of parents who had emigrated from Japan to another country, in this case the U.S., where all the Nisei in the 442nd had been born – most of them were from Hawaii.

They felt that they had a lot to prove because Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, and most of these Nisei soldiers had family who were confined in internment camps, because their loyalty was in question – at the time, people thought they might be willing to secretly aid the Emperor of Japan. That was not the case, but there was a lot of paranoia at the time. So the Nisei were some of the most fearless soldiers we had, because they felt that their honor and loyalty were suspect.

Martin often had to spend nights in foxholes not far from the German front lines. The American and German positions were so close, it could get confusing. He was in Italy when a battalion of the 442nd moved through under cover of darkness and fog. He knew what to do when this happened to him, for he had already been warned of what to expect: in the night as you sat or slept in your foxhole. There would suddenly be a knife against your throat and an arm reaching down your shirt to feel the shape of your dog tags – if they were rectangular, it meant that you were an American and the hand and knife would disappear into the darkness. If the Nisei felt the round dog tags used by the German army, well, that person didn't get a chance to surrender.

My friend later had a below-the-knee amputation of one leg when he stepped on a land mine near Anzio, Italy in 1944. The Nisei proved themselves beyond question in Europe. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated unit, for its size and length of service, in the entire history of the U.S. Military. A total of about 14,000 men served, ultimately earning more than 9,000 Purple Hearts and 21 of its members were awarded Medals of Honor. The Nisei were intense.

– Will Hammond