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WWII soldiers reunite, thank heroes

November 11, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
On this Veterans Day, we take you back 65 years to a World War II battle so fierce that the U.S. Army places it among its top ten in history. Soldiers involved in that battle recently held a reunion.It's a remarkable story of tremendous sacrifice from a group of heroes who could have turned their backs on this country but instead used their mistreatment as resolve to prove their loyalty.

We know them today as the Japanese Americans of the 442nd Infantry who bravely rescued the lost battalion.

Their story begins exactly 65 years ago. In the dense forest of the Vosges Mountains in France, the 200 soldiers of the 141st Texas regiment found themselves surrounded by the Nazis, outnumbered and outgunned.

They were trapped by 6,000 fresh German troops under direct orders from Hilter to hold their ground.

The press dubbed them as "The Lost Battalion."

They dug into the mud and fought off one German attack after another.

Bruce Estes was 19 years old at the time and says the fighting was only part of the problem.

"We went five days without food. I could stick my finger through my navel and rub my backbone," recalls Estes.

In a desperate effort to get the Texans food, Army officials ordered artillery shells to be stuffed with chocolate. They then fired them over the thick trees, landing right on top of the Americans.

"The first thing they did, they tried to shoot some chocolate bars into us and right away they got on the radio and said stop that, because we took some casualties from that hard chocolate. It sounds crazy but it happened," said Jack Wilson as he described what it was like being part of the "Lost Battalion."

Two separate fighting units were deployed to try to reach the "Lost Battalion," but were viciously fought back.

The U.S. Army had one hope left in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit made up entirely of Japanese Americans, many of whom spent the early part of the war imprisoned in internment camps.

The U.S. labeled them "enemy aliens" even though they were born and raised in the United States.

The prejudice they endured is one of the darkest chapters in American history, yet these young men were desperate to fight for their country and prove their loyalty. They got their chance with the 442nd team.

In a matter of months, they became the most decorated unit in American military history.

Now it was their job to rescue the "Lost Battalion."

"Honor, duty, and as our parents would say, don't bring shame to the family," said Lawson Sakai, a graduate of Montebello High School.

There's a famous quote that reads, "The tragedy of war is that it uses man's best to do man's worst."

Sakai lived that quote. He vividly recalls fighting his way towards the "Lost Battalion."

It was his 21st birthday and almost his last.

"Machine guns are firing at us, and all of the sudden this German popped up in front of me and shot me point blank," recalled Sakai. He described how the German soldier had missed, and they struggled in a violent fist fight. Sakai recalls that when the soldier's helmet fell off, he realized that he was just a 14- or 15-year-old boy. He died in Sakai's arms.

Days of brutal fighting followed. Each tree in the forest had to be earned, and the violence was beyond description.

"Artillery shells screaming at you coming in, exploding. It's the noisiest thing you can imagine, and it's hard to describe, and then bodies flying apart. People being killed in front of you. You can't describe it," said Sakai.

"It's hard to tell young people what it was like when the whole world was at war," explained Sakai.

It took five days, but they made it.

Jack Wilson remembers when the first member of the 442nd unit appeared. They almost shot him thinking it was a German trick.

"I raised that rifle up again and was just about ready to shoot, and all at once this guy raised up his hand and said, 'Hey you guys need any cigarettes?'" Wilson recalled.

Newsreel cameras captured the "Lost Battalion" coming out of the forest, owing their lives to the Japanese American unit who sacrificed dearly to reach them.

The 442nd suffered more than 800 casualties. The K Company, which started with 186 men, had 17 left. The I company, which started with 185 men, had eight men left.

The Texans promised to never forget the 442nd team, and they certainly kept that promise. They held a reunion in Houston, Texas, 65 years later, still saying thank you.

"I think they are the finest bunch of boys there ever was. They had something to prove and as far as I'm concerned, they more than proved it," said Wilson.

Former President Bill Clinton once said, "Rarely has a nation been so well served by a people so ill-treated."

The 442nd earned 21 medals of honor during World War II.


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