Honor before Glory: The Epic World War II Story of the
Japanese-American GIs Who Rescued the Lost Battalion, by Scott McGaugh.
Boston: Da Capo, 2016. 304 pages. $25.99.
What is as stirring as a tale of a “lost battalion”? The
story elements are simple. A hard-fighting group of American soldiers
gets out in front of advancing troops and eventually is surrounded by
the enemy. A prolonged fight ensues as the battalion fights for its
life, while other U.S. and allied forces mount repeated attempts to find
and then rescue the lost battalion.
Perhaps the most famous of all U.S. lost battalions was a force of
slightly more than 550 men, primarily from the 308th Battalion of the
77th Division, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive of October 1918. Low
on food, water, and other supplies, the battalion withstood repeated
German attacks for six days. When finally “rescued,” the
battalion had only 194 men. On relief of the 308th, the battalion’s
commander, a bespectacled major from Wisconsin named Charles Whittlesey,
was promoted immediately and soon after received the Congressional Medal
In World War II, the title of “the lost battalion” was
worn by the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment of the Army’s
36th Infantry Division. The 141st was a Texas National Guard outfit and,
like the 308th twenty-six years earlier, it had its brush with fame
during a wet and cold October in France. On October 23, 1944, the 141st
was ordered to advance into the Vosges Mountains. Members of the 141st
were assured that a “strong force” would follow them. The
terrain was steep and heavily forested, with but a single logging road.
The Germans, with their usual tenacity and competent generalship,
conducted a tenacious defense over ground they knew well.
The battalion made good progress on the 23rd, advancing four miles
along the logging road, and the advance continued the next day; the
battalion reached its objective after covering six more miles. Shortly
afterward the Germans conducted a heavy artillery bombardment. An effort
was made to reinforce the battalion with light tanks and artillery, but
it failed owing to the dense forest. By dusk, the 1st Battalion was
surrounded–cut off from resupply, medical aid, and reinforcements. If
not relieved, destruction by or surrender to the Germans appeared
Major General John Dahlquist, commanding the 36th Division, set
about organizing a relief. He chose the 442nd Regimental Combat Team to
serve as his primary assault force. Although the 442nd troops had just
been taken off the line for some well-deserved rest and resupply, their
reputation as highly competent assault troops was a major factor in
Colonel Charles Pence, commanding the 442nd, was not surprised by
the selection. Word of the 1st Battalion’s difficulty had spread
quickly, and Pence already had ordered planning to begin.
The men of the 442nd, although annoyed at having to leave their
rest areas almost as soon as they arrived, got the job done. During five
days of intense fighting the unit advanced, through terrible terrain and
against good defenses. The Mist’s situation remained precarious,
with only intermittently successful airdrops and propaganda-leaflet
shells used to resupply the troops. Senior leaders grew increasingly
frustrated and personality clashes more frequent, especially when
General Dahlquist, fearing he would be relieved for failure in command,
became more and more micromanagerial in directing the rescue effort. On
October 30, lead elements of the 442nd made contact with the surviving
members of the 141st. According to one scholar, the 442nd lost
fifty-four men killed in action and 156 wounded in reaching the lost
battalion; 211 soldiers of the 1/141 were rescued.
If this were all there was to the story, it still would be worth
the telling; however, there is more. The 442nd was a nisei outfit. Its
ranks were filled with Japanese Americans from Hawaii and elsewhere in
the United States. Many of the latter had left internment camps to fight
for the country that had forced their families from their homes and
placed them under armed guard and behind barbed wire. Yet the 442nd was
the most decorated unit of its size in the U.S. Army. (Sadly, McGaugh
reminds the reader, superior service would not be enough to protect at
least some members of the 442nd from unyielding race prejudice even
after the war.)
McGaugh–a former newsman, the author of more than half a dozen
books, and the current marketing director of the Midway Museum–knows a
good war story when he sees one. Honor before Glory is a battle study, a
tale of shared hardship and forged bonds similar to Stephen
Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. The work also may be read as a broader
story of nisei soldiers, who were subjected to pernicious racism,
institutional bias, and belated attempts to right past wrongs.
With so many potential avenues to explore, it should not be a
surprise that Honor before Glory sprawls. Although all the
aforementioned elements are touched on, none are developed as fully as
they might be. To some degree, there was nothing McGaugh could do about
this. The problem with writing the next Band of Brothers is that there
are not that many “brothers” left. Ambrose’s book was
published in 1992, McGaugh’s in 2016; in the intervening
twenty-four years, the survivors of the Second World War have continued
to dwindle in numbers, and neither the 442nd nor the 141st has been
spared in this regard. For a group memoir to be successful, there needs
to be some undefined, yet real, critical mass of memories. The remaining
voices of the 442nd continue to tell an exceptional story, but there
were only fifty or so oral interviews from the men of the 442nd, and
considerably fewer from their counterparts in the 141st. To his credit,
McGaugh tried to find German voices to add to the story, but time has
taken a toll on former enemies as well.
Honor before Glory also could use some improvement as a battle
study, beginning with more and higher-quality maps and illustrations.
For all its difficulty, the relief of the 1/141 was a small battle.
Although McGaugh provides a glossary of names and an order of
battle, more is needed, including a detailed time line. McGaugh also
would have been well served by including more information on German
movements and actions. Of course, it may have been that the men of the
716th Volksgrenadier Division and other German units did not feel the
same sense of urgency to capture the battalion as U.S. commanders felt
to save it, and simply did less than U.S. forces. More information
regarding the quality of German troops and the types of equipment each
side carried would be welcome. However, again to be fair to McGaugh,
given the passage of time, the loss of records, and the inherent
difficulty of identifying exact locations on a seventy-year-old
battleground, answering these challenges is not easy.
The story of the nisei is too big for this book, even when the
focus is narrowed to only the nisei in the 442nd, but McGaugh makes the
most of the opportunity. He reminds the reader that the nisei went
through basic training in Louisiana and other southern locales where
race prejudice was palpable. In discussions of the 442nd’s
exemplary combat record, a frequently encountered explanation is that
the men of the 442nd felt they had something to prove–they wanted to
lay down irrefutable evidence that they were as good as or better than
any other U.S. soldiers.
McGaugh offers two alternate or supplementary explanations to this
more common one. The first–and more disturbing–is that the 442nd
gained more combat decorations and awards for heroism because it
deliberately was used in dangerous situations and missions–and this was
because the men, being nisei, were seen as expendable. Some of the
survivors of the 442nd voice this theory with conviction, but similar
claims are likely to issue from any unit that had fought hard, then was
pulled out of a rest area to fight some more. Having allowed this notion
to see the light of day, McGaugh just leaves it, without refutation,
confirmation, or even a personal opinion, requiring readers to make up
their own minds. The other possible explanation is more intriguing.
McGaugh suggests that the nisei may have fought so well because they
were nisei. Concepts of honor and duty were part of their identity. Many
owned and some wore the senninbari, the “belt of 1,000
stitches” that female relatives made to protect their loved ones
from harm. Perhaps the men of the 442nd fought so well because they had
been brought up amid a blend of powerful social/civic expectations and
community values that owed as much to Japan as to the United States.
Unfortunately, having brought up this possible explanation for the
demonstrated valor of the nisei, McGaugh again simply leaves the reader
to individual speculation.
In the final portion of the book, McGaugh illuminates yet another
way in which the nisei were undervalued by the nation they served.
Dozens of nisei soldiers were nominated for the Medal of Honor during
the war; only two of the awards were approved. In 1997, the Army
reviewed the original nominations, and the review board subsequently
recommended that twenty-two of the nisei soldiers be awarded the Medal
of Honor, as their immediate commanders had intended. McGaugh provides
descriptions of the combat actions of three of these men, and those
accounts leave little doubt that in these three cases, at the very
least, the upgraded award was justified.
Being identified as “the lost battalion” rankled
survivors of the 141st, who claimed they were neither lost nor rescued.
The first claim is true: the battalion’s location was known from
beginning to end. The second claim is harder to adjudicate. As the five
days wore on, food, ammunition, medical supplies, and other necessities
dwindled to dangerous levels, and the battalion was judged unable to
effect its own extraction. McGaugh makes a compelling case that this was
indeed a rescue.
At the end of the day, despite minor flaws, Honor before Glory is a
book worth reading. The story of the nation’s nisei families and
their soldier sons’ battle experiences remains well worth telling
as an example of extraordinary patriotism and courage in the face of
reprehensible actions taken out of pain, prejudice, and fear.
Richard J. Norton is a professor of national security affairs at
the Naval War College. He is a retired naval officer and holds a PhD
from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
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