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442nd: Rescue of the Lost Battalion

By Burt Takeuchi
10-31-02


IN LATE OCTOBER 1944, a battalion (141st Infantry Regiment) from the 36th Texas Division was surrounded by the German army. Battles were fought in the densely wooded Vosges mountains located in Northern France near the German border. The Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team (about 3000 men) was ordered to rescue the Lost Battalion by General Clayton Dahlquist (commander of the 36th Division). The German army had orders from Adolf Hitler to defend the Vosges at all costs. It was believed by some high ranking American officers that there were few German soldiers defending the hills; there were over 8000. The rescue mission would be one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the US Army.
Picture above shows Lt. Robert Foote receives a Bronze Star from Maj. Gen. Charles L. Bolte of the U.S. Army 34th Infantry Division in Livorno, Italy in August, 1945.

Born in Gilead, Conn., in 1922, Robert H. Foote was reared on a farm, attended a one-room school and appeared headed for a career in dairy farming. But two days after graduating from the University of Connecticut with a degree in animal husbandry, Foote was in basic training. After attending officer training school at Fort Benning, Ga., he joined the 442nd in early 1944.

1ST LT. ROBERT FOOTE led an infantry platoon in K Company 442nd. Generally all officers attached to the 442nd were white but the NCO's were all Nisei's (2nd Generation Japanese American). "I always felt safe as long as I had one live Nisei soldier left in my company. They would take care of me" said Foote. He "was taken out of action early" in the battle when his platoon attempted to race across some railroad tracks outside the town of Bruyeres. Foote was "blown into the air by a German mortar shell" that literally "landed in his hip pocket". Foote was severely wounded and had to be evacuated to a hospital. "Into the valley of death....." commented Foote.

Lt. Marty Higgins, a former "horse soldier" (cavalry), was in command of the Lost Battalion. Higgins formed a strong defensive position on a hill and dug in. Some 50 volunteers attempted to fight their way back to the American lines. They were ambushed and only 5 men returned. Higgins initially wanted to to fight his way out of the trap but ruled against it because they didn't want to leave their wounded behind. Although surrounded, morale was high. Meanwhile food, medicine, ammunition and time was running out.

Lt. Susumu Ito was a forward observer with the 442nd's field artillery battalion (522nd FAB). Ito duties were to direct artillery fire from the batteries of 105 mm howitzers to support the 442nd infantry assaults up the rolling hills. Prior to the battle, Ito received a battlefield commission to Lieutenant. (It was rare for Nisei to be promoted to officer status during WW2.) for his role in the Italian Campaign.

Sgt. Wally Nunotani had volunteered for the 442nd from Hawaii. Sgt.Nunotani was a section chief in the Cannon Company. The battery's fired short barreled 105 mm guns used for fire support at close ranges. The small company was very close to the fighting. Sometimes"we didn't want to shoot. We could hit our own guys." Nunotani saw an Me109 German fighter plane "hedge hopping over the lines".

During the cold rainy nights, the Nisei soldiers slept in foxholes. It was "cold especially for Nisei who came from warm places" "Water would accumulate in foxholes" so "guys would make roofs" over them. The roofs would also protect the soldiers from "tree bursts" where artillery shells would hit the trees showering the ground with thousands of splinters and shrapnel. These roofs would "protect us from this type of attack".

Shig Doi from I Company was heavily involved in the fighting to rescue the Lost Battalion. The Germans had machine gun nests in camouflaged positions so "they had to be pinpointed first". "You had to work yourself forward" ,toward them, " then use a hand grenade" to knock them out. If you fired your weapon "you can expose yourself" to enemy fire. (A muzzle flash and smoke from gunfire) If you fired too soon "Its like saying here I am". When fighting in a dense forest "everybody looks for (spare or extra) Tommy Guns". (Thompson sub machine gun) A "handy ,close fighting weapon" with" lots of knockout power" from its heavy 45 caliber slugs.

The fighting was from tree to tree and ridge to ridge. The 442nd fought for yards at a time through dense woods shrouded with fog and rain.

On October 30th, 1944 the 442nd broke through the German lines rescuing the Lost Battalion after storming up "Banzai HIll"

"We took a lot of losses." said Doi. A German sniper shot a Nisei soldier right in front of him. His friend moving near him was struck in the head and seriously wounded. The sniper "could have picked me off at the same place".Sometimes I wonder "How come I survived " commented Doi.

After the attack Companies K, L, and I were down to less than 20 men standing each out of 200 at full strength. Only a handful of Nisei's ,that were still able to walk, made contact with the Lost Battalion.

"I did not witness the first contact that was made by our riflemen but I did see several of the 36th Division fellows crawling out of their deep foxholes and with their bearded, bewildered look greet us with delight and relief", noted Ito commented Higgins

At the end of the battle, General Dahlquist asked the 442nd to pass in review. He asked where are all the men? "Sorry sir... this is all we have left" replied a teary eyed officer.

After days of near constant fighting the 442nd had suffered roughly 1000 casualties. 200 soldiers were killed in action (or missing) with over 800 seriously wounded .

Nunotani was not clear on why the 442nd was sent in to rescue the Lost Battalion. "There were other regiments that could have been used. It's like being on a football team. You go with the best and hope for the best" stated Nunotani.

The 442nd for its heroic action in the Vosges received 5 Presidential Unit Citations.

When asked about the possibility of a US invasion of Iraq? Some of the vets commented that they were against such an invasion since they are unclear about the objectives by the Bush administration.

Wally Nunotani
Shig Doi
Susumu Ito

This is a " commented Nunotani. If the Bush administration, "goes in to get Hussein they will have to fight the whole country". Sometimes the US is "like a bully in world" trying to "impose it own way of life onto other cultures"

"I went through it "(war) being "bombed and shelled". These "politicians glorify war but they are not the ones (that are) going." "War should be a last resort". Doi feared that "lots of civilians, innocent people" would be killed in Iraq.

WW2 veterans are passing on at an alarming rate. Many are in their early 80's. Pretty soon there will be very few Nisei vets to tell the story of their heroic days fighting in the hills of Italy and France. As the 442nd passes into legend their story of courage will always be remembered despite the fact their own country had discriminated against them.

Interviewees: Special Thanks References
Shig Doi 442nd RCT George Oiye 522ndFAB, 442nd RCT "And I Shall Never Forget "Thelma Chang
Robert Foote 442nd RCT Rudy Tokiwa 442nd RCT "Honor by Fire" Lyn Crost
Marty Higgins 141st Inf. Reg., 36th Div. Natl. Japanese American Hist. Society "Unlikely Liberators" Masayo Umezawa Duus
Susumu Ito 522nd FAB, 442nd RCT Japanese American Resource Center "Beyond Barbed Wire" video doc. Rosen
Wally Nunotani Cannon Co. 442nd RCT Andy Ono 442nd Historian "Honor Bound"
    "Most Decorated" video documentary History Channel (Cable TV)

 

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