On "Hill 140" northeast of Cecina, Italy, on July 7, 1944, a young soldier from Torrance, California [a suburb of Los Angeles] single-handedly wiped out six German machine-gun nests that had pinned down his unit for two days.
He was wounded, but recovered to fight in another battle. Wounded again, this time fatally, he shouted encouragement to his men as he was carried away on a stretcher. "Go for broke!" he cried -- invoking the battalion's motto.
The soldier's heroism was all the more remarkable considering that, from the time he began training until the time he died, his family was locked in an internment camp by the same government he was fighting for.
Tech. Sgt. Ted Tanouye was a member of the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which, together with the 100th Infantry Battalion, became the most decorated combat unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history. That's in part because the soldiers had something to prove to the country that had incarcerated many of their families.
Nobody ever questioned Tanouye's courage under fire, His feat in July 1944 earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the military's second-highest honor.
But, like at least a score of Japanese American soldiers, he did not receive the Medal of Honor, probably because of wartime prejudice. That was rectified four years ago, when Tanouye and 19 other Japanese Americans received the medal, many of them posthumously.
Now Tanouye will be honored by his alma mater, Torrance High School, from which he graduated in 1938. A memorial in his honor will be unveiled Wednesday across the street from the school, and four vintage U.S. Army Bird Dog aircraft will roar overhead in the "missing man" formation.
Until Tanouye came along, Torrance High's most famous graduate was an acquaintance of his, future Olympian Lou Zamperini, who ran the 5,000 meters in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Zamperini became a war hero after his plane crashed in 1943, stranding him on a raft at sea until he was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese.
A stadium and an airfield were named for Zamperini, who earned the Purple Heart, among other medals. But the honors didn't rest easy. "I always felt bad because Tanouye was the real hero and wasn't honored," Zamperini said in an interview.
Tanouye, a second-generation Japanese American, was born in Torrance in 1919, the eldest of six children. While his parents worked on their truck farm, he spent weekends and a few years after graduation working the produce section at the Ideal Ranch Market in Torrance.
He was working on Dec. 7, 1941, when news of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor came over the radio. Friends said he cried.
He enlisted in the Army in February, 1942, two days after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order to intern about 120,000 Japanese Americans for the duration of the war.
Tanouye and his best friend, Akira Shimatsu, were inducted at Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro while, a few miles away, their families were being put aboard an internment train, bound for an Arkansas camp. The best friends also wound up in Arkansas, for infantry training. That proved fortuitous; both visited their families before shipping out to Italy.
Independence Day 1944 found Tanouye on the front lines near Cecina. He led his platoon to attack and captured, with precious little cover, a "strategically important hill," as his medal citation called it.
What he did, according to his citation, was this: For two days, his platoon had been pinned down by machine-gun fire. Tanouye crawled forward alone and machine-gunned all the Germans in the first nest. A second machine-gun nest opened fire. He fired back, silencing it. His left arm injured by a grenade, he refused first aid. He crawled and dashed from cover to cover as he sprayed an enemy trench with bullets.
At last, out of ammunition, he crawled 20 yards to a comrade to reload. He then slithered forward to a fourth machine-gun installation and hurled a grenade. Under fire as he lay on the hillside, he managed to take out two more machine-gun nests.
"His courageous decision to go ahead in the face of suicidal odds, his skillful deployment of his men to keep losses at a minimum, his consideration for them, and his devotion to duty exemplify and reflect the highest traditions of the Armed Forces of the United States," wrote his platoon leader, Lt. Samuel R. Gay.
When Tanouye recovered, he returned to his comrades farther north in Italy. He was sitting in a foxhole on Aug. 27, 1944, when he wrote what may have been his last letter to his parents, who were still in Arkansas. He was busy, he said, "dodging artillery fire and bullets," but asked them not to worry. "I'm OK, yet -- only miss Akira." His best friend had been killed five weeks before while carrying wounded soldiers to safety. Akira Shimatsu received the Bronze Star posthumously.
A few days later, on Sept. 1, Tanouye was crouching to inspect a German land mine along the Arno River when another soldier accidentally tripped the wire. Tanouye took most of the blast, shielding Sgt. Hideo Kuniyoshi. "If it weren't for Ted, I wouldn't be alive," Kuniyoshi said in a video tribute to Tanouye. Kuniyoshi is flying here from Hawaii for the unveiling of the memorial to the man who died in his stead.
As Tanouye was carried away on a stretcher, Kuniyoshi remembered, he called to his men, "Go for broke!," the motto of the 442nd. Tanouye died five days later.
Seven months later, his mother was temporarily released from the internment camp and taken by military escort to a ceremony in Little Rock where she received her son's Distinguished Service Cross. Medal in hand, she was returned to the camp.
In 2000, Tanouye's cross was upgraded to a Medal of Honor. "Rarely has a nation been so well served by a people it had so ill treated," President Clinton said at a White House ceremony honoring Tanouye, 19 other Japanese Americans, a Filipino American and a Chinese American.
A short video about Tanouye's life will be shown at Wednesday's ceremony, which follows last year's renaming of the Torrance National Guard armory after him. Documentarians Craig Yahata and Robert Horsting pieced together photos and interviews with family members, classmates, military friends and current Torrance High students.
"He wasn't like the other sergeants," Pvt. Rudy Tokiwa says in the video. "He had patience and tried to explain things to his men, not just give us orders."
Horsting said that Tanouye, 24, was "one of the oldest in his platoon and he felt he had to protect his men, who were mostly only 18 years old."
Tanouye and Shimatsu were buried in Italy. In 1948 they were exhumed and returned to Los Angeles. Their funerals were held simultaneously at the Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo, and they were buried side by side at Evergreen Cemetery.
Seven years after Tanouye died, his youngest brother, Yukiwo, serving in the Army, was killed in the Korean War. He was buried on the other side of his brother.