Spiritual Leadership on the Battlefield
Chaplains in the armed forces are "representatives of the holy," spiritual leaders often called upon to serve in some of the most dangerous places on earth, especially in times of war. They go wherever soldiers are called to duty to provide religious services and perform all tasks related to ministry at the battalion level. Although they are trained as non-combatants, chaplains are valiant and respected individuals who care for the soldiers’ spiritual well-being as pastor, mentor and friend. For many Army chaplains, their religious calling is deeply connected to a desire to serve their country.
In 1943, after the formation of the all-Nisei combat unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Army assigned three Protestant ministers to accompany them. Chaplain Israel Yost joined the 100th Infantry in Salerno. Two Nisei ministers, Chaplain Hiro Higuchi of the Second Battalion and Chaplain Masao Yamada of the Third Battalion, joined the Japanese American soldiers at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and were deployed to Europe with their respective units. The following year, Chaplain George Aki was the last Nisei minister to join the 442nd RCT. He stayed behind at Camp Shelby and eventually met up with the regiment in Italy during the final phases of the war in Europe. The chaplains faced severe adversity as they worked with the Medical Detachment on the front lines to support the soldiers in combat, comfort the wounded and administer last rites.
The Army upheld their commitment to provide spiritual support for all soldiers during World War II even though they included only Western religions. Buddhism was not recognized, even though most of the Nisei men were presumably raised in Buddhist households. Only 13 percent of those surveyed at Camp Shelby declared Buddhism as their religious preference and nearly half of the men declared no religion at all. But many of those soldiers converted to Christianity, declaring their faith in a higher power and participating in the fellowship that the organized religion provided. In part, it may have also been the personal charisma and profound caring nature of the chaplains assigned to the 442nd that drew the men toward God. As the horrors of war progressed, however, worship became nondenominational and the heartfelt ministry provided by these men of God overrode any religious differences.
Reverend Masao Yamada
The men of the Third Battalion were assigned a popular 33-year-old Hawaii native born in Makawele, Kauai. Reverend Masao Yamada was a graduate of the University of Hawaii and had spent considerable time on the mainland studying at a Congregational seminary and traveling around the country. He returned to the islands to minister at various churches, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor he worked for the Emergency Service Committee on Kauai. In this position, he served as liaison between military and community leaders as well as the local Japanese people. Reverend Yamada was instrumental in the effort to get government approval for Americans of Japanese ancestry to be inducted in the U.S. Army. He felt strongly that the Japanese Americans should have the chance to prove that they were as loyal as any other American. As a result, he decided to join the war effort himself.
As the first Nisei chaplain to serve in the U.S. Army, Reverend Yamada had the ability to reach all the men of the 442nd no matter where they came from. He believed that as a Japanese American himself, he was closer to the cultural nuances and needs of this group. Tensions between the Japanese Americans from Hawaii and those from the mainland were ongoing from the initial training days at Camp Shelby, and conflicts resulting in physical fights were regular occurrences. Perhaps because of his experience on both sides of the Pacific and his straightforward manner, Yamada was able to communicate effectively and thus gain the trust of men on all sides.
On the warfront, Chaplain Yamada’s dedication to his men and his country showed no bounds. The men endured long periods crouched in foxholes, and the chaplain was known to go around from hole to hole to reassure and encourage them. He also traveled for many miles, visiting up to ten hospitals in a day. One soldier exclaimed, "We had a chaplain in the 3d Battalion that walked with God hand in hand." Putting himself in harm’s way on numerous occasions, Chaplain Yamada was wounded several times, narrowly avoiding death in at least two of those incidences. During the battle for Arno, the chaplain was riding in a jeep to pick up the bodies of dead soldiers. They hit a mine that blew the jeep thirty feet into the air. The driver, Lt Clarence E. Lang*, was killed immediately and an officer that accompanied them died several days later, but Chaplain Yamada eventually recovered from his injuries. In another incident in Italy, the Germans bombed an abandoned house in which he was hiding, but the shell landed in the house without exploding. Again, he escaped with minor injuries from falling debris.
Boosting the morale of the soldiers who were dealing with death and despair on a daily basis was a large part of the chaplain’s job, but it wasn’t until the mission to rescue the Lost Battalion, the 141st Infantry from Texas, that Chaplain Yamada reached a spiritual low himself. On October 30, 1944, he wrote, "My heart weeps with our men, especially those who gave all. Never has any combat affected me so deeply as has this emergency mission." During the heroic rescue, the Third Battalion was decimated, and Yamada lamented that they had been given an unfair share of responsibilities. But when the unit successfully broke through later that day, he reported: "When those who pushed met the once-trapped troops, their efforts seemed all worthwhile."
The heroism of Captain Masao Yamada prevailed in the face of danger. He received the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Italian Croce al Valor Militare.
*[Note: "Lt Lang was a devout Catholic and graduate of the University of Michigan who assisted Chaplain Yamada in his sad duties retrieving casualties. A German-American, Lt Lang could well have been fighting his own relatives." - Information provided by Ms Rebecca D. Steel, Lt Lang's niece 03/06/2010]