By Kerry O’Connell, Montana Historian Magazine
Some of the most fascinating examples of human gallantry and sacrifice are ones that we may never know about. In January of 2020, a friend of mine who happens to be an Asian American, invited me to Three Forks for a memorial dedication. My friend, David Chung, is a Vietnam Veteran and had been invited to speak at the dedication due to his involvement with the Department of Montana Military Order of the Purple Heart (find them on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/MontanaPurpleHeart/).
“Have you heard of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team?” David asked.
Not being the historian in the family, of course I hadn’t heard of them.
“They were the most decorated regiment in US history,” David informed me. “And people in the Three Forks area who were members of the regiment fought in World War II.”
The dedication was only a few days away, on February 1st, and I was so very privileged to be able to attend.
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A Regimental Unit Created Despite Fear
The creation of the 442nd is a story of fear and racism which began when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Hawaii was a US territory at the time. About 150,000 people of Japanese descent lived in Hawaii, comprising almost 40 percent of the population. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, it took about a month for the fear to spur action, and on January 5, 1942, the Army designated people of Japanese heritage as “4-C” or enemy aliens. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which was the document needed to intern the Japanese for the benefit of National Security.
Lieutenant General Delos Emmons arrived to take over as Military Governor of Hawaii ten days after Pearl Harbor. He didn’t trust the Japanese who lived in Hawaii but also carefully considered what it would take to implement Roosevelt’s executive order. With too many other military missions competing for priority, Emmons deemed the internment of 40 percent of the population as a task that would require more personnel than he had available. As a compromise, of sorts, any Japanese on the islands who were already under investigation by the FBI were interned. This was a much smaller percentage of the population, but those interned still numbered in the low thousands. Even today, Emmons is sometimes considered a hero of the Japanese Americans who lived on Hawaii in 1941-1942, but in my estimation, he was an accidental hero. His decisions smacked of common sense and sound strategy. He is credited, for example, with ordering all US currency on the islands be stamped with the word HAWAII. This would allow any currency that was in direct danger of falling into enemy hands, as being declared void if necessary. This could have been an important distinction particularly at a time when the Japanese were threatening Midway Island. Midway sat a scant 1,000 miles from Pearl Harbor.
Nisei is a Japanese term referring to second generation Japanese Americans. In 1942, the Nisei, whose parents were born and raised in Japan, were already working to protect the Hawaiian Islands they called home. These were the same people who had shown their loyalty by helping their neighbors following the attack on Pearl Harbor. They helped with clean up and with finding and burying the dead. Some Nisei were already members of the Hawaii Territorial Guard. On January 19, 1942, the Army, who was in charge of the Guard and commanded by Lt Gen Emmons, disbanded them. The next day they reformed the Guard without the Nisei. All Japanese Americans of draft age were also classified as 4-C, enemy aliens, and were prevented from enlisting.
In Hawaii, Nisei students with the support of their community leaders, formed the Varsity Victory Volunteers, or the Triple V. Many of the students in the Triple V were enrolled in ROTC, thus already showing serious interest in military careers. They offered themselves up as support for the Army with whatever they needed. Soon working with the Army Corps of Engineers, they were building barracks, helping to build roads, and doing any kind of labor the Corps requested. Hard work they could do.
On the mainland, Nisei and/or their families were being interned at an alarming rate. The closest camp to Montana was the Heart Mountain Relocation Center located between Cody and Powell, Wyoming. But it didn’t seem to matter where the camps were, Nisei on the mainland were either placed in camps or had relatives who were. But it was the dedication and resiliency of the Triple V in Hawaii that finally got the attention of military officials.
Eventually, The War Department, with the support and recommendation of Lt Gen Emmons, announced on January 28, 1943 that they were forming a unit comprised of only Nisei. It had taken a full year, but the Nisei had proven their loyalty and The War Department was finally going to give them their chance. An estimated 10,000 Nisei from Hawaii volunteered, another 1,200 from the mainland. On February 1, 1943, President Roosevelt activated them as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. And when they started training, several Nisei arrived from Montana.
George Oiye and Yokichi Ito were there. George was an engineering student at Montana State College, now Montana State University in Bozeman. Both George and Yokichi had attended Three Forks High School and played together on the high school football team where George was quarterback and Yokichi was a half back. Three members of the Satake family were there as well: Frank, King, and John. Their sister, Irene, also served in the military during the war and eventually retired as a Colonel.
What would the Nisei have experienced during training? They may have had some difficulties within the unit when the group first began training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. At least two thirds of the recruits were from Hawaii and they came with very different attitudes and influences than did the recruits from the mainland.
Many of the Nisei who resided on the mainland had been the target of suspicion and racism since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Most of them had relatives who were interned. George Oiye of Three Forks had a sister who was interned, for example. Because of this, many of them had a tendency to be more reserved and quiet, not wanting to even talk about their families. They often sent their military pay to their family members in the camps.
The Nisei from Hawaii were more open and outgoing bordering on being crude. They had no reason to send money home because their families were still employed. Instead they often gambled and spent money easily.
These differences set them up for confrontation which resulted in multiple brawls. They even came up with names for their two different Nisei groups. “Buddhaheads” were from Hawaii, and “Kotanks” were from the mainland. The origin of these nicknames is a bit hazy, as you’d expect. Buddaheads may have come from the Japanese word for pig which is “buta.” Kotank requires even more conjecture. The best guess is that the word is a reference to the sound that their heads would make when they hit the ground. Wouldn’t this be typical?
At one point, the fist fights between the Buddhaheads and the Kotanks became so frequent that the 442nd was in danger of being disbanded. Military officials feared the two groups would be unable to overcome their differences to form a cohesive fighting unit. In a last ditch effort to bridge the gap, military trainers drove a group of Buddhaheads to a couple of internment camps in Arkansas. The sight of the barbed wire compounds with the guard towers pointing guns toward the inside of the camp as if it were a prison yard, had a profound effect on the group of Nisei from Hawaii. It was a much needed turning point for the 442nd that evolved into the needed glue to bind them together. By the time their training was complete, they even had a signature motto: “Go For Broke!” As their motto suggested, they were ready to lay everything on the line for their mission.
Combat and Three Forks Legacy
The Nesei from Three Forks all served in the European Theatre of Operations, specifically France and Italy. If Army officers had lingering doubts about any of them being enemy aliens, Europe would be the safest place for them to start. As a group, the 442nd became the most decorated unit in military history considering its size of 18,000 total men having served.
George Oiye of Three Forks was decorated with a Bronze Star. A total of 4,000 men of the 442nd were decorated with Bronze Stars. The list of other service decorations is a long one. These include 9,486 Purple Hearts, 560 Silver Stars, 15 Soldier’s Medals, 22 Legion of Merit Medals, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 52 Distinguished Service Cross, 8 Presidential Unit Citations, and 21 Medals Of Honor (one of which was awarded to Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii). Our Nisei from Three Forks were in good company.
I can’t do justice to these men from Three Forks who fought for our freedoms in Europe during World War II. More detail about their lives and contributions will be published in the next Montana Historian Magazine, slated for early 2021.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team Memorial is located in Three Forks Veterans Park near the Sacajawea Inn parking lot. Some of the information on the memorial about the Nisei from the Three Forks area includes:
After the war, George Oiye “worked in the aerospace industry as a specialist in optical engineering and designed technology used on the International Space Station.”
Yokichi Itoh was seriously wounded but returned to Livingston “where he was a general practitioner from 1956-1985. He was respected for his clinical competence and appreciated for his gentle and caring manner.”
The Satake family continued their legacy of military service when “Brother Jim was too young to serve in the war but joined the military later.”
Three Forks Memorial Dedication
I was fortunate enough to be in Three Forks on February 1, 2020 for the unveiling and dedication of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Memorial. But the plaque that was added that day had its own journey to completion.
The late Bud Lilly was a legend in the fly fishing world. Bud had grown up in the area and had continued to reside in Manhattan and Three Forks with and his wife, Esther. It wasn’t until Bud was 90 years old that he took on the effort to plan and build a memorial. Many members of the community were active in the planning, and Esther Lilly eventually took over for her husband after he passed away. Esther, grinning widely on the day of the dedication, showed her obvious pride that so many had joined in the mission which was so dear to her husband during his last days. Yet she also knew that the memorial isn’t about her or Bud.
It is about the Nisei. Many of the men who are depicted on the memorial grew up at the same time as Bud Lilly. He knew them by name having played against them in football and basketball. He knew that a memorial dedicated to their memory, to their actions during their military service, and dedicated to their post-military accomplishments was the right thing to do.
When you next stop in Three Forks, I encourage you to wander around Veterans Park in the center of town. The park is dedicated to all veterans of the Headwaters area, each one contributing with sacrifice and honor. But it somehow seems fitting that the Nisei who served in World War II are recognized for the challenges they overcame before they ever enlisted. That “4-C, Enemy Alien” was not a classification that applied to them.
Go For Broke National Education Center http://www.goforbroke.org/
100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Education Center: https://www.100thbattalion.org/history/battalion-history/war-is-declared/
Information on medals awarded to the 442nd came from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/442nd_Infantry_Regiment_(United_States)#Service_decorations_and_legacy