The True Story of the “Purple Heart Battalion”

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May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The following story kicks off our month-long focus on Asian American and Pacific Islander veterans.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the United States’ military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, marking the beginning of World War II for the U.S. 

While it was a “day that will live in infamy” for all Americans, Japanese-Americans and those of Japanese descent (known as “Nisei”) in particular faced prejudice at home. Three days after the attack, members of the 298th and 299th Hawaii National Guard had their rifles stripped from them because of their ethnicity.

Three days after the attack, members of the 298th and 299th Hawaii National Guard had their rifles stripped from them because of their ethnicity.

And yet, just a few months later, as the critical Battle of Midway was underway, 1,432 Nisei members of the Hawaii National Guard boarded the U.S. Army transport USAT Maui under the cover of night without saying goodbye to their family or loved ones. Under the title “Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion,” the week-long journey took them to a port in Oakland, Calif., where they were designated the 100th Infantry Battalion.

It would eventually gain the unofficial nickname of the “Purple Heart Battalion” and — along with another Japanese-American combat unit, the 442nd Infantry Regiment — would go on to fight in Europe earning themselves the titles of the most decorated American units of World War II.

Initially, the 100th was an “orphaned battalion,” meaning it was not assigned to any larger unit. The unit was known to its members as “One Puka Puka.” The word “puka” is Hawaiian for the term “hole,” referring to the zeros in the number.

The 442nd Infantry Regiment would go on to fight in Europe earning themselves the titles of the most decorated American units of World War II.

In May 1943, the 100th participated in training maneuvers in Louisiana. That August, the 100th deployed across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, where they took part in the Italian campaign. The men selected the motto “Remember Pearl Harbor” to reflect their anger at the attack on their country.

In September 1943, the 100th engaged in combat in southern Italy near Salerno. The fighting in Italy was tough, and the men of the 100th were a driving force during the campaign. In January 1944, they fought at Cassino and later accompanied the 34th Infantry Division to Anzio. In May and June of that year, the battalion took part in the breakout from Anzio and successfully pushed the Germans north of Rome.

Following the Italian campaign, on Aug. 10, 1944, the 100th was officially integrated into the 442nd Infantry Regiment and participated in the invasion of Southern France. In total, the men of the 100th spent 20 months in Europe and fought in six campaigns across Italy and France. 

The battalion was awarded six Distinguished Service Crosses during the first eight weeks of combat and earned three Presidential Unit Citations. Along with the 442nd, the 100th Infantry Battalion is recognized as the most decorated American unit for its size and length of service.