Historians at the Army Center for Military History in Washington struggled for words to describe what happened. It was October 30, 1944. Members of the segregated Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, "cold, wet, weary and battle-scarred," rescued 211 Texas National Guardsmen who were surrounded by German forces in the foggy, wooded Vosges Mountains near Bruyeres, France. The First Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment had been cut off from food, ammunition, communications and hope for a week. The 442nd, comprised of Nisei (a person born in America of parents who emigrated from Japan) from Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States was ordered in when two other battalions of the 141st had been repelled repeatedly by the enemy. After three days of devastating battle, nearly half the Japanese-American troops were dead or wounded and the "Lost Battalion" was still trapped.
"Then, something happened in the 442nd," according to the military historians. "By ones and twos, almost spontaneously and without orders, the men got to their feet and, with a kind of universal anger, moved toward the enemy position. Bitter hand-to-hand combat ensued as the Americans fought from one fortified position to the next. Finally, the enemy broke in disorder." It is this story that is at the heart of "Only the Brave," Writer/Director Lane Nishikawa's very personal film of uncommon courage, misguided prejudice and family love now playing at the Hawaii International Film Festival. It is Nishikawa's final film in a trilogy ("Sound of a Voice," 2003; "Forgotten Valor," 2001) dealing with the experience of Japanese-Americans in the Second World War. The multi-talented auteur, who has performed in a number of films but is best known as a stage actor and director, had four uncles and other extended family members who served in the 442nd or the earlier 100th Infantry Battalion (formed as the Hawaiian Provisional Battalion).
Instead of taking the wide-angle battle scene approach of a Wolfgang Peterson ("Troy"), Ridley Scott ("Kingdom of Heaven"), Oliver Stone ("Alexander') or even Steven Spielberg ("Saving Private Ryan"), Nishikawa has narrowed his focus to the points of view of his own small "band of brothers." Included in that number are Sergeant Jimmy Takata, played with grace and wisdom by the director, Glenn "Tak" Takase (Jason Scott Lee), Richard "Doc" Naganuma (Ken Narasaki), Steve "Zaki" Senzaki (Mark Dacascos), Yukio "Yuk" Nakajo (Yugi Okumoto) and Richard "Hilo" Imamura (Garett Sato). These are men who cannot see beyond their own 30mm eyes, the trees, darkness and fog that surround them, and the flares of machine guns and bursts of grenades that pound relentlessly. "Up close and personal" sounds a little trite, but that's what we get. Nishikawa shows us war just the way a soldier sees war.
He also shows us, through flashbacks, the personal side of the war on the home front. "Doc" Naganuma's wife and baby awaiting his return in an internment camp where 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry (70,000 of whom were native-born United States citizens) sat out the war in conditions not much better than POWs. Mary Takata's (Tamlyn Tomita) struggle to reach her shell-shock husband after the peace. The mothers and fathers, wives and children whose one consolation was that their soldier-loved ones were among friends. (The dialogue is realistically grounded in the Pidgin English common to Hawaii-born people, and the banter between the soldiers sounds like something you would hear among a group of guys having a beer after work in a Wahiawa, Hawaii tavern.) The film is not without its flaws, some of them a function of the production's limited budget. It is in desperate need of a stronger score, powerfully executed with a more dynamic sound design. I saw a digital projection that needed sophisticated color correction; that can come when film prints are ultimately struck. I wish Nishikawa could re-shoot some of his early battle scenes. They are stiff and dated in their appearance as opposed to his footage later in the film when he had a stronger sense of self-confidence in getting the camera off its tripod and moving with it in a more documentary style. Watching your own dailies can be a major growing experience.
But it is a powerful and sensitive piece of work that should be seen by far more than just the California school kids who use the director's earlier films as part of their history curriculum.
Those of us who live in Hawaii understand the context of this film. Our neighbors include survivors of the 100th/442 RCB, their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. In Hawaii, where the war began for America, these men are revered. School kids can tell you of their exploits. Senator Daniel K. Inouye is recognized as much for his Congressional Medal of Honor as for his 46 years in the Congress. Sergeant Inouye was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions in the "Lost Battalion" campaign, lost ten pounds and gained a battlefield commission. Later, back in Italy, his heroism earned him one of 20 Medals of Honor conferred on 100/442 soldiers.
There should be no more respected a group of senior citizens in America than the veterans of the "Purple Heart Battalion." In eight major campaigns, they were also awarded seven Presidential Unit Citations and 18,143 individual decorations (no, that is not a typographical error; 18,143 individual medals), including 52 Distinguished Service Crosses. In that number, of course, were 9,486 Purple Hearts, for that was the total of the injuries they suffered in combat.
This is not the first film focused on the 100th/442 RCB. Van Johnson starred in 1951's "Go For Broke," a filmed titled after the motto of the battalion. In it he played Lt. Mike Grayson, who trained a Nisei platoon. The black and white film was heavily focused on Grayson, who loses his prejudices when he sees how the Japanese Americans fight in combat.
Only the Brave
Drama / War
Only the Brave
Drama / War
In 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, there were 5,000 Japanese Americans serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Overnight, these second-generation citizens were stripped of their official duties - simply because they looked like the enemy. On the mainland, 120,000 innocent men, women and children were rounded up and swept into remote internment camps, where they would remain behind barbed wire for the duration of the war. Determined to prove their loyalty, the discharged Hawaiian Territorial Guardsmen of Japanese descent successfully petitioned the U.S. government to allow them to serve. These 1400 Hawaiian Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) became the 100th Infantry Battalion. In July 1943, after rigorous training, they were sent to North Africa, then Italy. Fiercely courageous, they suffered so many casualties the 100th was soon dubbed the "Purple Heart Battalion." In June 1944, they were joined by the 442nd - comprised of Nisei volunteers from the internment camps and Hawaii - and proceeded to liberate five towns in Northern Italy. That September, they were shipped to Southern France and freed three more towns, before being recruited for what would become one of the top ten most important battles of World War II - the impossibly-dangerous rescue of the Texas "Lost Battalion." Two hundred and seventy-five men of the Texas' 36th Division had been trapped for more than a week on a high plateau in France's Vosges Mountains, surrounded by 7000 experienced German soldiers. Allied planes tried dropping them food and ammo, but the supplies kept rolling out of reach down the ridge. When attempts by much larger regular-Army units failed to break through, the 100th/442nd was ordered to finish the job. Though their ranks were already decimated and the Nisei were unimaginably exhausted, they spent four days and nights in brutal uphill hand-to-hand combat - while suffering frostbite and trench foot so severe they could hardly walk. The Nisei saved 211 out of the 275 Texans, but suffered more than 800 casualties of their own. During two years of combat, their extraordinary valor resulted in an unparalleled 21 Medals of Honor, 9486 Purple Hearts, eight Presidential Citations, 53 Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 Silver Stars and 5200 Bronze Star Medals - making them the most decorated unit of their size and length of service in American military history. The 100th/442nd as seen through the eyes of the men who lived it.
October 07, 2022 at 10:52 PM