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KPBS Midday Edition

San Diego Author Recounts Japanese-American WWII Unit Given 'Impossible' Missions

The book cover of "Honor Before Glory" by Scott McGaugh.
Da Capo Press
The book cover of "Honor Before Glory" by Scott McGaugh.
San Diego Author Recounts Japanese-American WWII Unit Given 'Impossible' Missions
San Diego Author Recounts Japanese-American WWII Unit Given "Impossible" Missions GUEST:Scott McGaugh, author, "Honor Before Glory"

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The living memory of World War II is fading as fewer veterans survive. Telling some of the lesser-known stories takes on a sense of urgency. That importance is is increased when more knowledge might help us from making similar mistakes. New book reveals the heroism made up of men, Japanese-Americans. Joining me is Scott McGaugh, marketing director of the USS Midway Museum and author of "Honor Before Glory" . Your story is about the 442nd Infantry Regiment whose members were made up of Japanese-Americans who had been sent to internment camps. What motivated them to volunteer from within? I believe it was a sense of obligation. Even though many of them had been treated so horribly, 102,000 Japanese Americans had been interned, a population the size of Billings, Montana being sent to desolate areas of the country. In talking to them and listening to their histories, they remained loyal and love their country. They felt an obligation to defend America in Europe and the Pacific. To a certain extent, to prove to the rest of them that both volunteers from the internment camps and the young men of Japanese-American dissent who were drafted were worthy of being American citizens. Besides the focus of your book which is the rescue of the lost Battalion, what other missions were assigned to the 4/42? Some of the most brutal even over objections, it was created by FDR and it was assigned to some tough missions. Literally within days of landing in Italy they were earning medals of honor, there were national headlines in the US about them being kind at some of the most horrific casualty inducing missions and always achieving objectives. We believe that's why General Dahlquist asked the 442nd to rescue the lost Battalion. Tell us why this Battalion got that frightening in. The nickname is appropriate. 275 men in a Battalion led by only four lieutenants were allowed by the Germans to advance along the ridge in eastern France within almost side of the German border. Six miles out in front of supporting troops, very mountainous and brutal terrain at the edge of winter. The Germans closed in behind them and these 275 men were suddenly surrounded with literally one day supply of food ammunition and medical supplies. They had casualties, when they were first surrounded and within 36 hours they were almost starving. Other platoons, other groups of soldiers tried to rescue them. Yes. In the first day or two, other Caucasian units were assigned the mission, the Germans had dug in across these mountains. They knew the Americans were coming, it was a set up. When the other units failed and turned back. General Dahlquist turn to the 442nd , even though they had lost 500 men just before. How did they succeed, when the other units failed? Heroism, extraordinary courage, dedication to duty, willingness to sacrifice for the greater cause. These are phrases you see in different ways in their oral histories, 65 or 70 years later all of the time. Never breaking dishonor to the family, a lot of it was born from family culture in the Japanese-American heritage. They were willing to face and indoor unbelievable casualty rates, in order to reach the lost Battalion. One company, 186 men eight walked out five days later. They did not think the generals believed their reports and they sent them into battle without regard. Here's 442nd medic Harry Abbé speaking. General Dahlquist, who was the one that ordered a sin -- us in. After the war, the 442 officers refused to salute him when they met him. They were that strong in their opinion against him. That feeling of bitterness, increased over the years as these soldiers and survivors got older. Absolutely. General Dahlquist was a man that was new to comment. He it almost been fired twice in the first eight weeks leading up to this mission for incompetence. He was not qualified. He was a micromanager, he was impulsive. He tended to panic because of his lack of experience. As a result, over the decades that followed the Japanese-American soldiers believed that he considered the 442nd little more than cannon fodder. In listening to their oral histories and interviewing them. It's remarkable and understandable, how deep and how painful that scar tissue remains to this day. You travel to France, what did you find there? Hundreds of foxholes from that battle. I was amazed to see just how mountainous terrain was and how steep it was, at a time when rain was bordering on snow. The intimacy of the battlefield, the fact that I would see German foxholes, which are shaped different than American foxholes literally 30 feet apart and to think that these men were digging trenches at night, just to get their shoulders below ground level in during artillery fire all night long in one foxhole we found American machine gun shells and German machine gun shells. Dugouts underneath trees, in the mud where young men were being treated for horrific winds, German shrapnel still all over. Seeing it brought such a personal level of understanding and appreciation for what these men endured. It was one of the most moving parts of my life. Why did you feel compelled to write this book at this moment? This book has its genesis on the flight deck of the USS Midway. When I learned of the anonymous courageous feats of the sailors, it led me on a path I did not expect. It led to a couple of Midway books and another about Civil War medicine and another about military medicine. In the course of the research I discovered the 442nd . I discovered one hero after another. They were usually 21 years old and they were just a hero during combat, they came him quietly and anonymously rebuilding family and life. Going on to become a good citizen. Today, we could pass someone in the grocery store and we have no idea what he or she may have endured and sacrificed for our country. I find that remarkable from envy generation and we should not only preserve that. I've been speaking with Scott McGaugh author of "Honor Before Glory" the epic world where Stewart -- of --

The 442nd Infantry Regiment in World War II was made up almost entirely of men suspected of being enemies to the U.S. Most soldiers in the unit were Japanese-American and many volunteered from within internment camps. But despite those doubting their patriotism, the soldiers became some of the most decorated in the war, helping rescue a lost unit behind Nazi lines in eastern France.

Scott McGaugh, marketing director of the USS Midway Museum, has written about that mission in his new book, "Honor Before Glory: The Epic World War II Story of the Japanese American GIs Who Rescued The Lost Battalion." He relied on recent oral histories from the surviving members of the unit.

"This book focuses on one specific rescue mission, but they were typically assigned some of the most impossible missions, typically after Caucasians had failed to achieve the same missions," McGaugh said. "The depth to which the Japanese Americans felt hatred for their commanders, almost insubordination, was remarkable. They were fighting not just the enemy in foxholes, but bias at home and in the higher ranks."

In one of those oral histories, medic Harry Abe described how deep that hatred was.

"General (John) Dahlquist, who was the one who ordered us in without regard to the cost, after the war the 442 officers from the top down refused to salute him when they met him," Abe said. "They were that strong in their feeling against him.”

McGaugh joins KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday with more on the 442nd's bravery and what he learned visiting the site of their French rescue mission last year.

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