Local man received Congressional honor for service in WWII
In early October, President Obama signed a bill that awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to two combat divisions for their service in World War II. They were the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, two heavily decorated groups mostly made of Americans of Japanese descent.
As a member of the 442nd, Paul Shimizu of Hastings is one of the men on whom the honor falls. He was in his early 20s when he served.
Shimizu was still in college in Oakland, Calif., and working part time at a Japanese grocery store when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. He remembers working at the store that Sunday, and watching as friends from across the street came into the store and pulled all the vegetables down onto the floor.
"War hysteria... changes a lot of people," he said.
He tried to get into the Air Force and the Navy, but neither would take him, he said. In February of 1942, he was drafted into the Army.
He started out on special duty, working in the kitchens and such. Then the Army asked for volunteers to form the 442nd, and he decided to sign up.
"When you're 22, I guess you're gung-ho to go fight," Shimizu said. "You don't know what you're getting into."
In 1944, the 442nd was sent to Europe to fight German and Italian enemies in France and Italy.
Shimizu was a supply sergeant, and was responsible for getting munitions and supplies from the safety behind the troops to the front lines.
He recalled what would become one of the 442nd's most famous campaigns, the rescue of "the lost battalion."
"That was our hardest campaign," Shimizu said.
They were in Eastern France with the 36th Division. One battalion had been sent ahead of the rest and became surrounded by German troops, trapped in the mountains.
It was the 442nd that was sent in to rescue them, fighting uphill to reach the trapped battalion. It took six days to reach the soldiers, and the cost was staggering.
"The tree bursts are the ones that hurt the most of them," Shimizu said.
Tree bursts, he explained, were what happened when the Germans fired their artillery shells at them. With nothing in the way, the shells would simply hit the ground. But since they were fighting in a dense forest, the shells would hit the trees, sending shrapnel down on the soldiers below.
Ninety percent of the men were either dead or injured, Shimizu said. Some companies that started the campaign with more than 200 men came back with just 15.
Danger didn't just come from enemy fire. The weather affected many of the soldiers.
"So many of the boys got trench feet," Shimizu said.
In the cold weather, their feet would freeze, and sometimes turn gangrenous.
After the battle for the lost battalion, the 442nd was sent back to southern France for most of the winter.
"We called it the Champaign Campaign," Shizimu said, since the assignment was so much nicer than previous ones.
They still lost a few men, however, while defending the French border from still-occupied northern Italy.
After the winter, they shifted back to Italy to help break the well-entrenched Gothic Line at Carrara. The Germans had held out all winter, keeping Allied forces at bay. Shimizu remembers the attack. They began at 6 a.m., he said, and by 9 a.m. had broken the line and were on their way to a successful push to the northeast.
"When we broke the line at Carrara, that seemed to end the war," Shimizu said.
After pushing through the Gothic Line, the 442nd fought for about two more weeks before their enemies surrendered. Just two weeks later, Germany surrendered the war.
"I think we were used as a spear," Shimizu said, looking back on his service.
The 442nd was sent wherever they were needed - often the more difficult campaigns.
They suffered heavily. Shimizu estimated about 3,000 Purple Heart medals - given to soldiers who are wounded or killed during their service - were given to soldiers in the 442nd.
"That's just about the whole regiment," he said.
Shimizu was one of the lucky ones. He survived the war without taking any injuries.
He came home later that year and was discharged from the service in December of 1945.
"I'm very proud of having served in the service," he said, and he's honored to see the 442nd awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
"I think the boys well deserved it," he said.
Not only were they successful on the battlefield overseas, but they also played a role in fighting prejudice at home and pushing the civil rights movement forward.
"It did a lot to help all minorities," he said.
There aren't many men left from the 442nd. To learn more about them, go to www.goforbroke.org.