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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, October 3, 2004

'Go For Broke' battalion swells with pride as it readies for war

 •  Cheers, tears as crowd bids farewell

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — The Samoan folk song came from the heart, with a resonance that practically echoed off the historic 1914 walls of this Army base's B Quad housing as the soldiers marched by.

Capt. Doug Hill's tattoo combines the name of his unit with a pattern evoking the Pacific island ancestry of many of its soldiers.

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"Water received from heaven," sang Staff Sgt. Edwin Seui, a village chief in American Samoa, his desert camouflage uniform covering traditional tattoos from knees to waist.

"It's like a drop we need to survive," boomed the soldiers of Charlie Company in Samoan.

"A stream that flows strong from the mountains," continued Seui, followed by the reply: "With the abundance of raindrops from heaven."

The Army reserve soldiers of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment, are going off to war, and it was a Pacific version of a fight song.

The gathering last week was only for group photos.

But as the departure for a year in Iraq draws nearer, pride in a long U.S. military history in Hawai'i, American Samoa, Guam and Saipan — and the chance to write the next combat chapter of the fabled "Go For Broke" battalion — already is swelling inside.

100th Battalion's D Company marches in formation at Schofield Barracks. Pfc Vaughn Haniola leads the way, carrying the unit's guidon, which includes the unit's 442nd Regimental Combat Team lineage.

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"I love this unit so much," said Staff Sgt. Rick Leonguerrero, 39, from Guam. "I think a lot of it is the history — the most decorated unit in the military for its size, and then the heritage we strive to live up to."

Japanese-American soldiers with the 100th Battalion — many drawn from the Hawai'i National Guard — earned the nickname "Purple Heart Battalion" in 1944 as the result of heavy casualties at Monte Cassino and Anzio.

Hawai'i Nisei soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, meanwhile, fought in eight major World War II campaigns and earned more than 18,000 individual decorations, including at least 20 Medals of Honor.

Soldiers with the 100th of the 442nd, now drawn from far-flung Pacific islands, bring different traditions to the battalion, but share a common goal: Do right by family, friends and heritage. For some, going to Iraq is a chance to make a mark in the equivalent of a small town.

In the Chamorro culture, "everyone's a brother. It's family," said Leonguerrero, a high school teacher when he's not with E Company.

Lt. Col. Alan Ostermiller, commander of the 100th Battalion, wears the unit's patch, first worn by the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

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"It's more than just a military unit," he added about the 100th, 442nd. "Most of these guys from Saipan and Guam, they know each other's families."

Just under 100 of the reservists are from Saipan, and 60 are from Guam. Another 300 hail from American Samoa. About 150 are from Hawai'i, and 100 were "cross-leveled" in from the Mainland to fill jobs.

Part of the lure of service in the battalion — the only remaining infantry unit in the Army Reserves — has to do with tradition.

The islands have had a long and continuing history with the U.S. military, much of it relating to World War II. The invasion of Saipan in 1944 to drive out Japanese forces led to American losses double those suffered on Guadalcanal.

The campaign for Guam saw record naval bombardment. The island 3,300 miles west of Hawai'i was the command post for U.S. Western Pacific operations until the war ended in 1945. American Samoa meanwhile, 2,300 miles to the southwest of Hawai'i, was an important staging area for Marines.

Lt. Col Alan Ostermiller, commander of the 100th Battalion, holds battle streamers attached to the battalion's flag. The streamers were earned in combat in WWII and Vietnam.

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All remain U.S. protectorates, Guam and American Samoa as territories, and the Northern Mariana Islands — which include Saipan — as a commonwealth. Guam has Andersen Air Force Base in the north, and Naval Base Guam in the south.

"We probably have one of the highest ratios of men and women join the armed services," Leonguerrero said of Guam. "Recruiters get awards."

Out of a population of 58,000 in American Samoa, some 1,300 are military retirees.

Within all of the island groups — Hawai'i included — the 100th, 442nd units come from close-knit communities and have common bonds.

The reserve unit was activated on Aug. 16 and mobilized at Schofield Barracks as part of the call-up of the Hawai'i Army National Guard's 29th Separate Infantry Brigade.

The soldiers already have started leaving for several months of training at Fort Bliss in Texas, to be followed by combat certification at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. in January, and deployment to the Balad area north of Baghdad in Iraq in February or March.

"Every day, I see like five new faces (of people I know)," said Pfc. Isaac Nunies, 20, from Kalihi. "Some guys in the 100th, when I was a baby they used to babysit me."

Capt Doug Hill, who commands Charlie Company, said 75 percent of his company is Samoan. There are three sets of brothers, and a lot of cousins. The age range is 18 to 57.

"Tenaciously loyal" is how he describes his soldiers. "They have a real strong family culture in Samoa, and I think that's part of what plays into the loyalty and camaraderie of the unit," he said.

Spc. Adam Hirata's grandfather saw combat with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II. His father was in the Vietnam War. The 19-year- old with Charlie Company, born and raised in American Samoa to a father of Japanese descent and mother who is Samoan, joined the 100th, 442nd out of tradition.

"My grandfather was in the military, my father was in the military, my older brother — he's in the military, too," Hirata said. "I kind of figured, keep it in the family."

All he knows is that his grandfather, who lives in Wahiawa, was in combat in World War II.

"All my father told me is he was in Italy and in the 442nd. He said my grandfather doesn't like to talk about it much," said Hirata, a student at American Samoa Community College.

Hirata said he's mostly excited about going to Iraq. "I guess there's that fear — I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't scared," he said.

There's also a pride in being a Samoan that he'll carry to the fight.

"Samoans, they like to bring the Samoan way, and when they join the military, they strive for the best," he said. "They just don't want to disgrace their Samoan heritage."

Seui, even though he's a village chief in American Samoa, likes to think of himself — for the moment — as a servant of the U.S. Army.

Cultural differences sometimes have brought unique approaches within the unit, however.

Bravo Company was paired with the Indian Army at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island in July for training. The Indians didn't speak English or Samoan, and the largely Samoan company didn't speak Indian.

So Bravo Company broke out in a Samoan welcome song — which was returned by the Indians in kind.

"The brigade commander said they overcame the challenges of language and culture through sharing and song," said Lt. Col. Howard Sugai, a Reserves spokesman. "By the afternoon of the first day, they were in tight. Amazing, huh?"

Leonguerrero, a self-described "Army brat" whose father served in Vietnam, said the level of pride in the 100th, 442nd is "enormous." A fight the battalion waged and already won was the right to wear its own six-sided patch with a hand holding a torch — instead of the 29th Brigade patch.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Murphy, 42, an E Company soldier from Saipan, said he's wondering what he'll face in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq.

"Basically, the level of active combat. Will it be daily? Hourly? Every other day?" said the computer teacher at Marianas High School and father of six children. "We've had briefings. We know it's going to be quite regular."

Murphy said the closeness of the soldiers in the 100th, 442nd amplifies emotions, and when something good happens, everyone gets excited. The converse also will be true.

"If somebody gets hurt, it's not just the unit that feels it," Leonguerrero said. "The rest of the families at home will feel that pain."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.