"Go For Broke!" in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9:00 p.m., KCET brings you the 1951 film "Go For Broke!," a World War II drama starring Van Johnson as the reluctant lieutenant tasked with training Japanese-American soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received the original "Go For Broke!" back on May 24, 1951.

"Go For Broke!" was a "message-picture," dramatizing the real-life tale of the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team -- a segregated squad of Japanese-American soldiers who fought for their country at the same time it held many of their families in internment camps. The 442nd fought in Italy, France and Germany between 1944 and 1946, suffered enormous casualties, rescued the "lost battalion" in one of the war's most famed ground battles and became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. The phrase "Go For Broke!" was the men's motto and means "risk everything" in Hawaiian pidgin. Many of the soldiers in "Go For Broke!" were played by real-life veterans of the 442nd. Check out some of the photos of the men training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi in 1943.

Caucasian officers of the 442nd Japanese-American combat team, watch two Nisei soldiers go through a highly specialized bayonet routine. Camp Shelby, Mississippi. 1943. (Photo: Charles E. Mace, via UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)
Members of the 442nd combat team drape themselves on a jeep to dress after a cool swim in the Leaf River near Camp Shelby. 1943. (Photo: Charles E. Mace, via UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)
A jeep crew keeps abreast of the war news while waiting in a concealed position for orders to move up. 1943. (Photo: Charles E. Mace, via UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)
The Shelby Hawaiians, eight of the Japanese Americans who have been in training with the 442nd Infantry at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, visit Walter Reed Hospital to give informal concerts of Hawaiian music and dancing in the wards. 1943. (Photo: Charles E. Mace, via UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)
Most of the men who fought were nisei -- second-generation Japanese immigrants born in America. And the majority of Japanese-American volunteers came from Hawaii, where Japanese-Americans were never placed in internment camps. Still, more than 2,000 enlisted from the mainland U.S., leaving their families in internment camps to head to war. For many, enlisting was a way to prove loyalty to the U.S. at a time when most Americans didn't trust those of Japanese descent. Listen to some Japanese-American veterans explain their decision to enlist in this video from the Go For Broke National Education Center.

Writer-director Robert Pirosh was best known for his war films. He'd earned an Academy Award for best screenplay for 1949's "Battleground," based on a World War II battle he'd fought in himself. With "Go For Broke!," Pirosh created the first of only a few postwar films to represent the plight of Japanese-Americans. The others (according to author Elena Tajima Creef) are 1954's "Bad Day at Black Rock" and 1960's "Hell to Eternity." The hundreds of other World War II films produced in Hollywood recognized neither the contributions of Japanese-Americans to the war effort nor their internment experience, and reinforced negative stereotypes of Japanese culture.

Van Johnson had become a box office sensation for MGM throughout World War II, when many other leading men were in uniform. Johnson was exempted from military service after a near-fatal car accident left him with scars and a metal plate on the side of his head, according to his 2008 L.A. Times obituary. Instead, Johnson donned a uniform on the silver screen, starring in films like "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" and "Two Girls and a Sailor."

Take a Closer Look Back

Japanese-Americans did earn some respect in the U.S. as a result of the soldiers' accomplishments. In 1946, President Truman honored the 442nd in Washington, D.C. "You fought not only the enemy," Truman told the men. "But you fought prejudice and you've won." Check out this newsreel footage of the ceremony:

However, there was residual anti-Japanese sentiment in postwar California, even at the time "Go For Broke!" was released in 1951. Japanese-American veterans were welcomed home with signs that read: "No Japs Allowed," were denied service in shops and restaurants and their homes were often vandalized or set on fire. Still, there were some important advances stirring at the time of the film's release -- three years after President Truman signed the Japanese-American Claims Act (which authorized the settlement of property loss claims made by those displaced by internment) and one year before first generation Japanese-Americans got the right to become naturalized U.S. citizens under the McCarran-Walter Act.

Take a look at these photos of Japanese-American life in Los Angeles around the time "Go For Broke!" was released.

Nisei Festival Queen garden party, Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo: Los Angeles Times, via the Los Angeles Times archive)
George J. Fukumoto and Kikuto Kitajima, first postwar "picture bride" in Los Angeles, Calif., 1948. (Photo: Los Angeles Times, via the Los Angeles Times archive)
Mayor Fletcher Bowron with five contestants for Nisei Week Queen in Los Angeles, Calif., 1950. (Photo: Los Angeles Times, via the Los Angeles Times archive)

In the week "Go For Broke!" was released, Los Angeles Times readers were learning about the allies' emerging peace treaty with Japan -- it would be signed four months later -- as well as purported Russian attempts to stall the treaty. They also read about a federal judge's ruling that American-born Japanese who served in Japan's army would lose American citizenship. Most other news focused on the Korean War.

A day after the film hit theaters, the U.S. tested its first boosted fission weapon in the Pacific Ocean with "Operation Greenhouse." You can see footage of that test here:

The Nisei silently embraced the American way of life, and it took many years for their wartime roles to be fully recognized. Awards that were initially stymied due to their Japanese descent have been awarded in recent years. In 2010, President Obama gave the 442nd veterans the Congressional Gold Medal. (Check out this KCET post to view a photography student's take on Japanese-American veterans.

And in Los Angeles, this legacy of soldierly skill is on full display at the Go For Broke National Monument in Little Tokyo, next to the Japanese American National Museum.

Go For Broke National Monument, Little Tokyo (Photo: Wikipedia, via Creative Commons)

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Sounds great. I'll be watching.