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Private First Class George Okazaki

Rifleman

G Company, 2nd Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team

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George Okazaki was like many Nisei who called America’s western coast home. His parents, both born in Osaka, met in San Francisco after immigrating at the turn of the century and married in 1917. George was born two years later after the family had moved to its long-term home of Brentwood, California. Brentwood, a small but vibrant rural farming community, found George and his whopping eight siblings away from the bustle of growing California urban life and instead embraced by miles of California farmland. One of the only Japanese families in the town, the Okazaki's nonetheless grew up in a diverse community alongside other farm laborers hailing from places as far away as Mexico, Italy, and Portugal. In high school George truly began to excel as an athlete, turning his small 5’4, 135 lbs frame into a football halfback for the autumn and a point guard for basketball in the winter. Although a notably successful athlete, George pursued his father’s footsteps and upon graduation went to join him in the vast fields surrounding his hometown.

It wasn’t long after his introduction into agricultural work that George watched the U.S. plunged into war following the deadly raid on Pearl Harbor. Although his father hailed from the land of America’s new enemies, George and his siblings likely felt no fear. It was the rolling fields of central California that they called home, not this distant and foreign empire that attacked their country. The attack left the United States scrambling for soldiers and in its wake, George received the telegram notifying he had been drafted. Part of the first wave of Nisei to be drafted after the attack, he shipped off in February of 1942 and passed basic with high qualifying marks for the M1 Garand and the Thompson submachine gun. Although not much is known about his life in the army after basic training, he likely bounced around many midwestern camps and bases like the many other Nisei the army could not decide what to do with. Only a few months after he completed basic, however, George did learn that the rest of his family had been removed from their country home and forcefully interned by the U.S. government at the Gila River prison camp sitting in the middle of the hot Arizona desert. Although not experiencing internment himself, the shock and irony to have his family imprisoned by the government he was serving purely for their race likely affected him as strongly as it did the thousands of other Nisei in the same position.

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Sometime between its creation in the spring of 1943 and the journey to Italy, George joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team as it trained for battle in the European theater. Raised to full strength following well-received reports of the 100th Battalion’s success under the 34th Infantry Division, the segregated 442nd quickly came to full power as Japanese-Americans like George traveled to swell its ranks. Assigned as a rifleman to G Company in the 2nd Battalion, he and the regiment left for Nazi-occupied Europe in May of 1944. First seeing combat in Tuscany when finally joined with the 100th Battalion, George and the united 442nd began making their way alongside the 5th Army as it pushed out of Rome. The fighting was tough and the 442nd suffered severe casualties throughout that first summer in Italy. In doing so, however, George and the 442nd began making a name for themselves as gallant fighters and before long were reassigned to yet another front, this time in Central France.

Now fighting under the 36th “Texas” Infantry Division, George, a seasoned combat veteran, found himself trading the mountainous passes of Italy for the forested foothills of the Vosges. Part of a crucial 7th Army advance to push U.S. forces through the German border, the 442nd supplemented a weak and undermanned 36th Division to meet the division’s primary objective in taking the town of Bruyeres. Like the rest of the Vosges, Bruyeres had been turned into a fortress-town bolstered with a strong German garrison using several heavily-fortified outposts dotting the landscape. For the assault, occurring in mid-October, George and his battalion were assigned the dangerous task of taking out Hill 503, a forested mound embellished with concrete bunkers resting at the northern entrance to the city. Even with its many obstacles, the battalion performed exceptionally. Beginning their attack the morning of October 19th, George and G Company performed a skillful flanking maneuver to pincher the German forces on the opposite side of the hill while two other companies assaulted from the front. The attack threw the Germans off their balance and within a couple of days had entirely demolished the defending force. The battalion earned its first Presidential Unit Citation for the action and set the stage for the successful capture of Bruyeres and the victory at Biffontaine when it defeated a flanking force of German bicycle troops trying to surround the 100th Battalion.

By October 25th the 442nd had met both of the division’s objectives and the 2nd Battalion sat by enjoying a day of rest following the week of fierce combat it had just completed. Word came to their commanding officer that unfortunately, the rest would have to wait as an entire battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment was now at high risk of being cut off and lost entirely. The Nisei, never backing down from a job, grabbed their bags and began the hike back to the front. In the early morning hours, the 2nd Battalion successfully replaced a battalion of the 141st at the front of the 36th Division line and began making preparations for a potential rescue operation.

2nd Battalion men moving to the Vosges
2nd Battalion men moving to the Vosges

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Okazaki in his class picture
Okazaki in his class picture

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The Okazaki family on the camp registry
The Okazaki family on the camp registry

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2nd Battalion men moving to the Vosges
2nd Battalion men moving to the Vosges

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While battalion commanders debated the stratagem for the upcoming advance, George and G Company found themselves at the forward position for the battalion overlooking a series of forested ridges covered by darkness. Patrols from G Company investigating the area around 1130 hours, however, made contact with a large German force and before long a massive firefight broke out between George’s company and roughly 100 entrenched Germans on high ground. Raking their line with five machine-gun emplacements, two 120mm mortars, and several self-propelled guns, the hidden German position battered the weary Nisei ruthlessly. Holding a crucial spot on the left flank of the entire division, however, there was nowhere to retreat. In the midst of the chaos George felt a sharp pain before falling to the ground on the damp forest floor as a German 8mm rifle round penetrated his thigh, fracturing part of his femur. Medics arrived at the scene quickly and evacuated George along with several other comrades who had been wounded in the hail of fire.

Unbeknownst to George, his thigh wound saved him from the brutal combat which his battalion endured over the next four days as they battled their way to the cut-off Texas infantrymen. Although missing the major advance of the assault, his wound still numbered amongst the 1,360 casualties endured by the 442nd RCT in the “rescue” of the lost battalion. The tremendous sacrifice made by George and the Nisei in the battle catapulted them into national stardom, but for George, the war was not over yet. Recovering from his wounds in December, he rejoined the 442nd in the French maritime alps before journeying back to Italy to fight against Kesselring’s army along the Gothic Line. George’s war ended on May 2nd, 1945 when the German forces in northern Italy capitulated, followed by the rest of the Fatherland a few days later. After spending several months doing occupation duty in Italy he was allowed to finally return home with 5 shiny overseas stripes adorning his dress uniform. He made his way back to California to find his family finally free of their imprisonment and able to return to the agricultural life they had always known. George married in 1957 and settled down in Santa Clara, California before passing away in 2010.

Marching from Bruyeres
Marching from Bruyeres

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A Gila River newspaper announcing George's wound
A Gila River newspaper announcing George's wound

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George in the division roster
George in the division roster

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Marching from Bruyeres
Marching from Bruyeres

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