Military and Defense

Medal of Honor Monday: Army Sgt. Joe Hayashi

Army Sgt. Joe Hayashi was days away from seeing the Germans surrender in Italy when he was killed. His actions in taking out enemy positions before that were integral to his unit’s success in driving the enemy back. Hayashi initially earned a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery, but that was eventually upgraded to the Medal of Honor.  

Hayashi was born Aug. 14, 1920, in Salinas, California. His parents, Chiukichi and Toyo Hayashi, had emigrated from Japan nearly two decades earlier. Hayashi had two sisters, Chiye and Kiyo.  

When Hayashi was 4, his father was killed in a work-related accident. His mother then moved the family to Pasadena, California, remarried and had three more children.  

Hayashi grew up as a typical American child. He played football and baseball, was a member of the Boy Scouts and loved to play outside. A slight man — Hayashi was recorded as being 5’3″, 125 pounds — he was also adept at car mechanics, which is what he chose to do for work after high school.  

In October 1940, Hayashi registered for the draft. Seven months later, he enlisted in the Army. He was initially stationed in California, but after the Pearl Harbor attacks, which led to a deep distrust of Japanese Americans, he was transferred to Fort Sheridan, Illinois. Due to that same distrust, Hayashi’s mother, stepfather and half-siblings were all forced to live at an internment camp in Wyoming until the war’s end.  

Hayashi was already in the military, but when the war started, other Japanese Americans — known as Nisei — were barred from service. They still wanted to serve, though, and were eventually able to in a few units, including the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was activated in February 1943 and was composed of all Nisei men. Hayashi was reassigned as a drill sergeant in the unit as part of the 3rd Battalion’s Company K.  

The 442nd trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, before deploying to Italy in June 1944. Hayashi stayed behind with a cadre to continue training soldiers. Soon after, however, he volunteered to join the fight and was shipped to France in November 1944.  

In March 1945, the 442nd joined in on the Po Valley Campaign. Their mission was to be a diversion for enemy troops to break them up and weaken their defensive line, known as the Gothic Line. The 442nd ended up being incredibly successful in this endeavor; not only did they force enemy troops from that area, but they pushed them far behind the Gothic Line.  

By mid-April, nearly all of Germany’s forces in the area were trying to retreat. The 442nd followed them and had moved to within 10 miles of a strategically located rail center, where the Germans were preparing to make a last stand.  

At this stage of his career, Hayashi held the rank of staff sergeant; however, at some point while overseas, he was demoted to private after apparently defending fellow soldiers who had left their unit during heavy fighting, according to a June 2000 article in the Billings Gazette out of Billings, Montana. That’s why, in his Medal of Honor citation, he’s listed as a private. 

On April 20, 1945, Hayashi’s unit was ordered to find enemy machine gun nests along a strongly defended hill near the small village of Tendola, Italy. Hayashi led his men to within 75 yards of enemy positions before they were seen and fired upon.  

Hayashi dragged some of his wounded comrades to safety before returning to danger and exposing himself to small-arms fire so he could direct deadly mortar fire onto the hostile positions. With the remaining men in his squad, Hayashi then attacked the hill and took over the enemy position. There, they discovered that the mortars Hayashi helped direct had destroyed three enemy machine guns, killed 27 enemy soldiers and wounded several more.  

Meanwhile, the town of Tendola was still being held by about 50 Germans. So, two days later, Hayashi’s unit attacked in a firefight that lasted into the night with house-to-house combat. Hayashi eventually maneuvered his squad up a steep, terraced hill to get within about 100 yards of another enemy machine gun nest. Under intense fire, Hayashi crawled toward it and threw a grenade, which killed one enemy soldier and forced the other members of the gun’s crew to surrender.  

From there, Hayashi noticed four more enemy machine gun nests taking aim at members of his platoon. He threw another grenade that destroyed one of them, then crawled to the right flank of a second and killed four enemy soldiers there.  

Hayashi tried to follow the remaining members of the crew who were running away. Sadly, he was hit by gunfire and killed.  

Hayashi’s courage and leadership were integral to his company’s success. They took control of that enemy position a day later, and within a few days, Germans had begun surrendering en masse since their retreat route was cut off. By May 2 — 10 days after Hayashi died — fighting in Italy ended as German forces formally surrendered.  

The 442nd went on to become one of the most decorated military units in American history. Because of its success, the draft was reinstated in internment camps back in the U.S. Many of the men who served in the 442nd went on to have distinguished careers in science, higher education and government.  

Hayashi posthumously earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his self-sacrificing actions. It wasn’t until about a half-century later that a Congressional inquiry revealed that many Nisei service members like Hayashi had been passed up for the nation’s highest honor for valor due to racial bias.  

That wrong was finally remedied on June 21, 2000 — 55 years after Hayashi’s death — when his medal was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, and he was promoted to sergeant. President Bill Clinton presented the medal to Hayashi’s remaining family during a White House ceremony that also honored 21 other Asian-American military heroes whose medals were being upgraded. Sadly, only seven of the recipients were still alive. Eleven had died in combat, and the rest had passed in the years after the war.  

For their heroic actions in combat and steadfast loyalty in the face of ethnic discrimination, members of the 442nd and their families — including Hayashi’s — were also honored in 2011 with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award for service given out by the U.S. 


Hayashi was initially buried at a U.S. military cemetery in Italy, but his family requested he be brought home in 1948. He was reinterred with full military honors in March 1949 in Evergreen Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.  


At the Nishi Hongwanji Temple in L.A., a bronze plaque bears Hayashi’s name, along with the names of 15 other L.A.-area Nisei service members who were killed in the war.  

This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

Source: Department of Defense

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Katie Lange

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Katie Lange

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