I was looking at a list of honorary Texans recently. It is quite a long list. Only about a tenth of them would be known to most Texans. John Wayne – no surprise there. The only surprise is that it took until 2015 to make him one. Chuck Norris, born in Oklahoma, was made an honorary Texan a few months ago.
Gov. Rick Perry made many of his favorite political allies honorary Texans: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck, for example. George W. Bush made Bob Dylan an honorary Texan. Ann Richards chose Don McLean, Bob Hope, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among many others. Alan Shivers made General Douglas MacArthur an honorary Texan.
The one case that stands out to me as the most astounding in this honoring business – and to my mind, the most deserving – is when Gov. John Connally, in 1962, awarded honorary Texan status to thousands of men simultaneously. He made the entire 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion, C divisions of the U.S. Army for World War II, honorary Texans. As this year’s Veteran’s Day is fast approaching, I thought I would tell you how this came to be.
We must begin our story with the 1st Battalion of the 141st Regiment comprised of the Texas National Guard. Their nickname was the “Alamo Regiment.” In 1944, they were at the lead of a push to drive the Germans out of France. The battalion had a large supporting force during their campaign but they pushed ahead so fast in the Vosges Mountains that they found themselves cut off and surrounded behind enemy lines.
They became known in World War II lore as “The Lost Battalion.” The only good thing for the Texans is that they were on top of a mountain and so they had the classic advantage of high ground and line of sight. But they were still pounded by German artillery. It was foggy, rainy and very cold. They quickly dug fighting positions in the wet, muddy soil and covered themselves with tree limbs, rock and dirt. They did everything they could to provide cover from the splinters of tree bursts and shrapnel from exploding shells. They were also out of food and water. Exceptionally courageous pilots were able to fly through the rain and fog and airdrop small supplies of water purification pills, c-rations and ammunition to sustain them.
Even Hitler became aware of the Texans’ situation and he issued orders that they were not to slip away. They were to be killed or captured at all costs.
The Army redirected its push to the Rhine to focus on first, saving the 1st Battalion from the Germans. American forces pounded the German lines with their artillery, but the forest was so thick they weren’t having much effect. So they had two different infantry battalions try to break through the German lines and each was repelled by horrific hailstorms of bullets from the German machine guns called “Hitler’s buzz saws.”
This is when the 442nd and the 100th Infantry combat regiments were called in. Battle-hardened, they had a reputation for succeeding in just these situations. Their motto was “Go for broke.” It took them five days of brutal, close-quarters combat on muddy terrain in bone-chilling weather to reach the Texans. They fought tree to tree and yard by yard to reach the top of the mountain. The 442nd started out with 3,000 men and took 1,000 casualties. 800 wounded and 200 killed in action.
By the time they reached the Texans, they, too, had been fairly decimated. The Texans had lost over 20 percent of their force – they had been killed, wounded and captured. It is said that the first soldier of the 442nd to reach them merely walked up to their commander, Lt. Marty Higgins, and nonchalantly pulled out his Lucky Strikes and said, “Cigarette?” Higgins gratefully accepted. After almost a week, they were freed from the German onslaught.
What makes this an even more surprising story is not just the ferocity with which the 442nd fought, or the casualties they took to save their brothers in arms. The real surprise is that the 442nd was a Nisei regiment, comprised of second-generation Japanese-Americans. Most of them, along with their families, had been put into internment camps at the beginning of the war. These men, however, asked if they could fight, rather than sit out the war.
And they were extraordinary fighters. The 442nd was called the Purple Heart Regiment because they received more purple hearts than any other unit their size in WWII. Over the course of the war the 442nd was awarded 5,200 Bronze Star medals, 588 Silver Stars, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, seven Distinguished Unit Citations, and 21 Congressional Medals of Honor. The late Sen. Daniel Inouye was one of the Nisei who fought to rescue the Texans, and later earned his Medal of Honor when he lost his arm taking out a German machine gun nest in Italy.
When the 442nd returned from Europe, President Harry Truman said, “You have fought not only the enemy, but you have fought prejudice – and you have won. Keep up that fight, and we will continue to win – to make this great Republic stand for just what the Constitution says it stands for: the welfare of all the people all the time.”
Many years after the war, President Bill Clinton upgraded a good number of the military awards for the 442nd. Some of the Nisei had not received their due because, sadly, they were Nisei. Clinton said, “Rarely has a nation been so well served by a people so ill treated.”
And that is why Gov. Connally, too, paid tribute to the 442nd and 100th Battalion by making them all honorary Texans. It was his way of demonstrating to the these soldiers, and their descendants, the solemn gratitude of the Great State of Texas. We will always be grateful for the supreme sacrifice they made in saving our men.
Much of the background for this commentary was provided by Scott McGaugh’s book, “Honor Before Glory.”