WWII is always a fascinating touchstone of history because it has some many intricate facets extending from the Pacific to the European Theater to the American Home Front and so on, each bringing with it unique stories of everyday individuals doing extraordinary things. One of the best-kept secrets is the 442nd Infantry Division later joined with the 100th and effectively making the first all Japanese-American fighting unit which served over in Italy and France.
But perhaps the most striking thing about this band of men was the inherent hypocrisy they unwittingly pointed out within America’s own society. As their loved ones sat enclosed in tar paper barracks and barbed wire fences within internment camps, these courageous lads went off to prove their allegiance to their country. Reflecting the very freedoms and liberty that America was founded on, in spite of the injustices that were thrown their way.
But really instead of simply reflecting the bad, Go for Broke! is a far more empowering story and Robert Pirosh’s film does a stellar job at showcasing these men with a great deal of respect. He had previously shown an aptitude for realistic war films like Battleground, and joining forces with Van Johnson once more, he delivers another authentic picture.
Going so far to fill out the rank and file of the film with real 442nd veterans, Go for Broke! begins with a newly promoted officer born and bred in Texas. At first, he shows a slight distaste in being called upon to lead a unit of Japanese, partly due to the fact that he was torn away from his buddies, the other simply a result of his own narrow-mindedness.
After all, he becomes the stand-in for the prototypical viewer and as his character slowly begins to evolve as they go through boot camp, then Italy, then France, the impact on the viewer is duly noted. Thus, although he proves to be an important figure, it should not be forgotten that in many ways the 442nd is front and center.
Among the men we get to know are the level-headed Sam (Lane Nakano) who has a girl waiting for him back in the states while his family remains interned as public aliens. Tommy is the runt of the group, a funny sort of fellow, who makes the ultimate sacrifice when he gives his beloved pig to a starving family. There’s the bespectacled college boy who was in the process of becoming an architect and the defiant Chick (George Miki), ready to fight with whoever crosses him. Far from being stiff, these men lend a certain realism to the film that elevates it to that of a fascinating historical artifact.
There are some wonderfully humorous moments that diffuse the conflict of cultural identity. The recruits of the 442nd walk up the gangplank as the soldier in charge struggles to read off their family names and as each man passes by he responds with a very basic anglicized name. George W. and Thomas H. In another moment an angry Van Johnson looks over at his second in command Oharra during a patrol to inquire what a Japanese word means. Without skipping a beat the man quickly apologizes, “Sorry sir, I don’t speak Japanese.” Only later as these soldiers become his loyal comrades does he learn what “Backatare” means. It becomes a film where soldiers from California and Texas can poke fun at each other, but that’s only because mutual respect builds between the 36th and 442nd.
Lt. Grayson reveals his final transformation when he enters into an altercation with his old pal Cully who has a heavy dose of bigotry. By the end of the film, the man’s still not exactly a saint, but his eyes are opened at least a little bit. And in the end, the 442nd comes to the aid of their brethren. The film concludes with one of their greatest triumphs, rescuing the lost battalion pinned down by the enemy on all sides. The casualty tolls were high, but in such moments the Japanese-Americans proved their grit and determination right alongside all the other fighting men. This is the film they deserved and the type of recognition that they deserve even today. It’s a shame that more stories like Go For Broke! have not been told, but it makes this one all the more important.