Go For Broke

My wife gave me for my birthday on Saturday a compilation collection of 15 World War II films.  I immediately noticed one of the titles:  Go For Broke (1951).  It had been over thirty years since I last viewed that film and I watched it last night and greatly enjoyed it.

Go For Broke, tells the story of the 442nd regimental combat team during World War II.  Made up of first generation Japanese-Americans, Nisei, the 442nd, along with the 100th Infantry battalion, made up of Nisei from Hawaii and which became associated with the 442nd, fought in Italy, France and Germany.   Many of the Japanese-American actors in the film were combat veterans of the 442nd which lends the film a very realistic, almost documentary feel, especially in the combat sequences.

The film opens in 1943 at Camp Shelby, Mississippi where the men of the 442nd are being trained.  Van Johnson, portraying Lieutenant Michael Grayson, is a “90 day wonder”, an enlisted man commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant after completing a 90 days officer’s candidate school.  Prior to officer’s candidate school he had been a member of the 36th National Guard Division, one of several National Guard units from Texas that fought in World War II, sometimes waggishly refered to as the Texan Army.   Grayson was hoping that he would be reassigned to the 36th and is dismayed to find that he will be leading Japanese-American troops, sharing to the full the prejudice that most Americans felt against everything Japanese following Pearl Harbor.  He immediately asks Colonel Charles W. Pence, portrayed by Warner Anderson, for a transfer to the 36th.  Pence quickly realizes, despite the denials of Grayson, that he is prejudiced against the Japanese-Americans, and informs him in no uncertain terms that his men are loyal Americans, that there will no be transfer, and that he is to take up his duties as a platoon commander, a 40 man unit, immediately.  The scene shifts to the platoon, where the men are relaxing in the barracks.  Other than their ancestry, and different slang, viewers quickly realize that they are like other American soldiers, griping about the Army, wondering what is going on back home, playing craps, etc.  Grayson and his men are a poor fit initially, but he does his job and helps turn them into soldiers. 

He learns that the men are from Hawaii, calling themselves Buta-heads, or Buddha-heads, and the mainland of the US.  The mainland Japanese-Americans are designated by the Japanese-Americans from Hawaii Katonks, a reference by the Japanese-Americans from Hawaii to the empty sound they claimed to hear when they thumped the heads of the mainland Japanese-Americans!  All of this is explained in the film with wry good humor by the Japanese-Americans.  We learn that the Japanese-Americans from Hawaii have imbibed a lot of the Hawaiian culture and like singing Hawaiian songs off-duty. 

We also learn that some of the mainland Japanese-Americans from the west coast have relatives in internment camps set up after Pearl Harbor during the invasion scare.  Several thousand Italian-Americans and eleven thousand German Americans were also interned during the war, but these were individuals who were picked up because investigations indicated that they could be a domestic threat.  The west coast  Japanese were simply scooped up with no individual investigations.  J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, opposed the internment of the Japanese, regarding it as completely unneccessary, but his views sadly were ignored.  About 120,000 Japanese -Americans were interned during the war, the vast majority loyal Americans.  The Supreme Court ruled the internment of loyal Americans unconstitutional in December of 1944 in the case of Ex Parte Endo.  After the decision Japanese-Americans were free to leave the internment camps, although about a quarter of the internees had already left to live and work in areas of the country other than the west coast zones excluded to them, or by volunteering for military service.  An excellent article on the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war is here.

The film deals forthrightly with the issue of racial prejudice.  Some of the men of the 442nd express understandable bitterness that they are fighting for a country that is imprisoning their relatives.  However, they are also all volunteers.  They believe that by fighting for the US they will show that they and their families are loyal Americans.  Many express a desire to fight against the Japanese in the Pacific, especially one young soldier whose parents were killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor.  As the war goes on the men of the 442nd learn in letters that their friends and relatives on the home front have taken great pride in the accomplishments on the battlefield of the 442nd.  Lieutenant Grayson by the end of the film will also take great pride in his men, but it is a slow and realistic transition from bigot to friend and it is handled well in the film.

The 442nd was a regimental combat team.  What this means is that it was a self-sufficient fighting unit.  It had three infantry battalions, each about 600-800 men, an artillery battalion, an engineering company, an anti-tank company, a cannon company, a service company and even an army band.  This gave the unit flexibility as as a fighting force and allowed the Army to use it in emergency situations when fast action was needed.

In the film after training the 442nd is shipped out for Italy.  We see Grayson reading an Army pamphlet about Italy warning Americans that the Mussolini government has told the Italians that Americans look down on the Italians and that the troops must avoid any racial prejudice against Italians.  At the words racial prejudice Grayson glances at his own men and looks uneasy for a moment.  The troops land in Italy and begin interacting with the local population and having their first combat experiences.  The film accurately depicts the generosity shown by most American troops during the war to civilians, especially kids.  Although it sounds somewhat silly, for me one of the more poignant moments in the film is when one of the soldiers, who acquires a pet pig during combat in Italy, he calls the pig “Paisan”, sacrifices the pig in France to feed a family where the kids  are going hungry.  We realize that the pig means a lot to the soldier after all they have been through, and the scene is heart-rending, at least it was for me.

The combat sequences are very realistic.  No fake Hollywood heroics.  The actors, most of whom were combat veterans, use actual tactics from the real war.  Men die, and no objective is gained without cost.  Through out it all, the men gripe about the Army, as I can attest most soldiers on active service do, and have sad and humorous interludes.  One of the humorous interludes is when Grayson’s platoon overruns a German position.  A surrendering German officer stares at Grayson’s men and asks Grayson if the troops are Chinese.  Grayson replies, to the smiles of his men, that Hitler must not have told the officer that Japan had surrendered and that the Japanese were fighting against Germany now!

The video that begins this post occurs at the end of the film when the 442nd, now attached to Grayson’s old outfit, the 36th Division, rescued the 1st battalion, 141st infantry in the Vosges Mountains on October 24, 1944.  The 442nd sustained 400 casualties in pulling off this very difficult operation.  During the operation Japanese-American radio operators spoke Japanese to throw off Germans attempting to listen in. 

In one sequence depicted in the video at the beginning of the post a Catholic chaplain is talking to one of the soldiers who is wounded and on a stretcher.  He notices beads in the man’s hand and wonders why he hasn’t seen him at any of the services.  The soldier says respectfully, “Different type of rosary.  I’m Buddhist, Father”  The priest smiles, pats him on the shoulder and tells him that if he needs him to just call him.

The 442nd in its fighting in Germany was among the first of the units to liberate the Dauchau Concentration camp, an experience that the members of the 442nd never forgot.

For its size and time in service the 442nd was the most highly decorated unit in American military history.  The unit received an incredible 9,846 Purple Hearts for wounds,  4000 Bronze Stars, 15 Soldier’s Medals, 22 Legion of Merit medals, 560 Silver Stars, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 21 Medals of Honor.  The recipients of the Medals of Honor are:

At the end of the film we see the 442nd returning home and receiving a Presidential Unit Citation from Harry Truman.  It was the eighth Presidential Unit Citation for the 442nd, which is more than any other unit has received.

The title of the movie, Go For Broke, was the motto of the 442nd.  It was Japanese-Hawaiian pidgin English slang for betting everything on a wager, giving everything you got.  The men of the 442nd often shouted it on the battlefield as they attacked.  They lived up to their motto.  Under conditions which would have caused any man to question fighting for the US, they gave valorous service to America.  They were a credit to their country and to their race, the human race.

20 Responses to Go For Broke

  1. Tito Edwards says:


    Excellent analysis!

    I remember first watching the film many years ago and I understood the slang (pidgin English brah!) immediately. Especially “Katonk!”

    We still used that term while I was growing up in Hawaii as well as “Go for broke”.

    A little inside information, in Hawaii the word “katonk” also has the double meaning of brown on the outside, white on the inside. This was in reference to the coconut itself, which has a brown husk and a white interior when you crack it open. It described Japanese-Americans from the mainland as looking Japanese, but acting “haole” or white.

    Which some of us back in Hawaii refer to our Dear Leader today.

    As for buddha-head, in high school we used that term for anyone who was bald! Good times 🙂 .

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Fascinating Tito! I’ve never been to Hawaii, so this is all news to me.

  3. Rick Lugari says:

    I never saw that movie, going to have to make an effort to find it. I can’t believe the decorations. In about a year and a half of combat a unit of 2000 (which you know had to be operating with far fewer than that most of the time) racked up 21 MoH, 52 DSC, and 560 Silver stars. Incredible! Anyone of those counts would be super impressive, but the three counts together boggles the mind.

  4. Rick Lugari says:

    ugh …not Anyone, but Any one. Doh!

  5. Tito Edwards says:

    Donald can correct, but I ‘think’ they are the most decorated unit during WWII.

    I can’t find the quote, but General Patton was very fond of the 442nd.

  6. Donald R. McClarey says:

    You are correct Tito. For size and length of service the 442nd is the most highly decorated military unit in American military history.

  7. Elaine Krewer says:

    Suppose there were a military unit comprised entirely of loyal U.S. citizens of the Muslim persuasion, who would fight just as valiantly in the War on Terror? Since military units can’t be segregated by race, nationality, or religion this could not happen today, I presume.

    Also the situation wouldn’t be the same — the WWII Nisei soldiers were not sent to the Pacific theater for obvious reasons, whereas an all-Muslim unit would have no other theater in which to fight at this time. (Unless it ends up being a future war on the Korean peninsula.)

    Still, it’s interesting to speculate.

  8. Don the Kiwi says:

    Interesting post Don.

    The excellent series on WW2 “Band of Brothers” has recommenced on our TV1 for the third time. I watched part 4 last night – an excellent series. This will be followed in a couple of monthe with Spielberg’s “new” series, “Pacific”.

    My mum passed away last weekend, and as I and a sister were going through her stuff, we found dad’s brief diary (dad died 4 years ago) he kept during WW2. We are up to the stage where he was on a troop ship of 2000 troops (packed in like sardines, he says) from Wellington NZ to Fremantle, West Australia in April 1944. The passage took eight days of high winds and rough sees across the Tasman and the Great Austr. Bight to WA (that’s Western Australia 😉 )

    He recounts a very sad event in Perth. Some NZ and Aussie soldiers got into a fight (probably at a pub) with some American soldiers there on R & R. Two NZ Maori boys were killed (knifed) and another injured. All leave was cancelled till they re-emberked for Egypt. Dad’s disgust was obvious when he wrote “A few idiots ruin things for thousands.”

    One of the many of sad incidents you speak of.

  9. Donald R. McClarey says:

    My deepest sympathies over the loss of your mother Don. Bar room brawls have been a traditional feature of military service, but murder is beyond belief. I can just imagine how the parents of the two New Zealand soldiers felt when they learned about it.

  10. Don the Kiwi says:

    Thank you Don, for your king wishes re mum. We all know that she is now enjoying the presence of her Lord, for whom she had an immense love. She attended Mass and communion for most days of the past 40 years.

    I can very easily imagine, with a bunch of young gung ho men, exchanging what probably started as friendly banter – one smart alec makes a derogatory comment which is taken as an insult, and its all on, fuelled by several pints of good ale.
    I’m sure this was not the only incident in a time of world wide stress and disfunction.

  11. Patrick Duffy says:

    My father-in-law was one of those Silver Stars. He climbed a mountain in Italy in the middle of the night, very quietly. Germans on top of the mountain. We have his uniform in the closet at home.

    He claimed he got flat feet from all that marching, but the rest of the family has flat feet too! Jin was in the Army before the war started. He thought they would kick him out and send him to a relocation camp. No such luck.

    Your list of Medal of Honor winners includes Daniel K. Inouye. He lost his arm in the war and was later elected US Senator from Hawaii.

  12. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Your father-in-law sounds like he had a good sense of humor Patrick as well as a lot of courage.

  13. Templar says:

    Some one mentioned Gung-Ho, which has it’s origins in the motto of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives of the late 1930s. A New Zealander (Rewi Alley) associated with them who later worked with Colonel Evans Carlson forming the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, was fond of the term which means “work together”, and Carlson adopted it as a training philosophy for the Raiders. It caught on, and became the motto of the 2nd Raiders in WW2, and eventually a common slang term through the Marine Corps and American society in general.

    A movie called Gung-Ho! which tells the story of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion was released in 1943 during the war. It’s a good film but not nearly as good as Go For Broke!

  14. Don the Kiwi says:


    Interesting story.
    Rewi is actually a Maori name – so Rewi Alley was probably maori.
    Thanks for that.

  15. Outstanding post, Don. I’ll have to look the film up.

  16. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thank you Darwin. It is not only one of the best of the World War II films, but I would place it in the top ten war films I have seen.

  17. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Templar, Gung Ho is one of the films in the compilation that my wife gave me. I think it is one of the better war films released during World War II, but I agree it is not in the class of Go For Broke.

  18. RL says:

    Yay! I have that collection too. I picked it up a few months ago and haven’t had time to watch any of them yet. It’s actually a rather obscure list of movies so my expectations weren’t that high, but I really like WWII movies so I knew it was a safe bet. Happy to hear that at least two of these are really good.

    I’ll be sure to share with Darwin too. 😉

  19. I put it on NetFlix and kicked it up to the next in queue.

  20. […] Mountains in France in October 1944.  I touched upon this battle in my recent post on the 442nd, Go For Broke.  In writing the Lost Battalion Tucci had assistance from a veteran of the lost battalion and a […]

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