WINCHESTER – When the United States entered World War II and a pall of mistrust and suspicion fell over “enemy aliens,” Japanese Americans were essentially unknown in Winchester. Yet before the war was over, one native son had formed a link with Japanese Americans and learned to know them as true blue American soldiers.
Ralph Ambrose (1914-1983) grew up on Vine Street with three older brothers (one being the Howard Ambrose for whom the school is named) and two sisters. He attended St. Mary’s and graduated with WHS Class of 1931.
He was popular. President of his junior class, he played varsity football, baseball, basketball, and track and was also a member of the chorus, senior prom committee and class play committee. In college he enjoyed playing ice hockey.
He graduated from Boston College in 1935 and spent another year there earning a master’s degree.
“His geniality and fidelity to principles make him the ideal classmate and friend,” his BC yearbook summed up his character. “In his calm, determined way he set about his daily tasks with a quiet, unruffled energy.”
Between college and the war he worked as an assistant buyer of boy’s clothing for Filene’s in Cambridge, while living in Winchester with his mother, widowed in 1938. He joined the Knights of Columbus.
When war was declared, Ralph and his brother Harold both joined up, going in quite different directions. Harold went into the Adjutant General’s Office and worked in the Army Postal System supervising the delivery and collection of mail for the armed services all over the world.
Ralph went into combat.
From the time he registered for the draft, readers of The Winchester Star were kept informed of his early progress. He was originally scheduled to leave with other draftees on Nov. 30, 1942, but was temporarily deferred after the horrific Cocoanut Grove fire claimed the life of his sister Marion.
At the end of January 1943, Ambrose reported to Ft. Devens and was sent to Virginia and then Camp Davis in North Carolina, an antiaircraft artillery training facility. On Oct. 21, 1943, he was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant and entered into active duty. At this point, the Star went temporarily silent on his activities.
During all this time, Ambrose may never have known any Japanese. None lived in his hometown. But the army would have introduced Ambrose to men of many nationalities, including Japanese Americans, especially, 75 years ago in May 1944, when he became an instructor in the Infantry Replacement Training Center at Fort McClellan, Ala., where many Nisei (children of Japanese immigrants born in the U.S.) were trained.
That fall, orders came for him to join a Japanese-American battalion engaged in the war in Italy.
When the war began, many of the thousands of Japanese Americans living along the West Coast and in Hawaii were in the services or National Guard.
After Pearl Harbor, Japanese American men were initially categorized as 4C (enemy alien), and, early in 1942, the War Department called for the removal of all soldiers of Japanese ancestry from active service.
However, when some dismissed members of the Hawaii National Guard petitioned to be allowed to assist in the war effort, they were formed into a civilian sapper unit, the Varsity Victory Volunteers. In June 1942, other guardsmen designated as the 100th Infantry Battalion were sent to the mainland for training. Overcoming suspicion and mistrust, they paved the way for other Japanese Americans to serve.
The 100th was sent to North Africa on Aug. 23, 1943, and saw heavy action in Italy. Enduring heavy casualties and winning many honors, it became known as the "Purple Heart Battalion."
Later, both it and the VVV would become part of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. All 442nd cadre men had to be “American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resided in the United States since birth.” Activated on Feb. 1, 1943, the 442nd left for Italy on May 1, 1944.
Field grade officers had to be “white American citizens.” That October, Lt. Ambrose sailed to Italy to serve as a platoon leader within the 2nd Battalion of the 442nd.
Coincidentally, in October 1944, Winchester residents had the opportunity to see a “new colored sound movie” depicting the problems of relocated Japanese Americans, followed by a speaker relating her own relocation experiences. They may have been unaware then that many with whom Ambrose was serving came out of internment camps, leaving families there.
But, in March, 1945, Star readers learned that Ambrose was in Italy with the 442nd. In October, the Star amended that to “the famed Japanese American 442nd Combat Team.”
And it was famed. Its performance during the fierce fighting of the Italian Campaigns and the Vosges Mountains in France proved it to be an exemplary unit. After the war, a film titled with the 442nd’s motto, “Go for Broke,” dramatized the story of the 442nd, including six members of the unit in the cast. From the training camp to the battlefield, the movie showed how the Nisei overcame prejudice and demonstrated their loyalty to the United States.
The 442nd became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. Military, earning more than 18,000 awards in less than two years, including 9,486 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Star Medals, 21 Medals of Honor, and eight Presidential Unit Citations.
And there were 560 Silver Stars, one given to Ambrose.
While Ambrose was attached to Company G, the 442 traveled to Leghorn, Italy, on 23 March 1945. It was then placed, as a War Department press release put it, in “the vanguard of the Fifth Army’s great offensive which has smashed the German Army in northern Italy.”
For months the Fifth Army had been at a standstill at the enemy’s Gothic Line, constructed along the top of the Apennines. The 442nd took one objective after another.
“Their forward movement enabled other elements of the Fifth Army to forge ahead.”
On April 14, the enemy front line was at Fort Bastione, Mt. Grugola, and Mt. Pizzacuto (near Carrera). It was there that Ambrose was cited “for gallantry in action.”
“First Lieutenant Ambrose was in command of two platoons which were ordered to clear enemy forces from Mt. Pizzacuto. A few minutes after the attack was launched the foe opened fire. Skillfully appraising the situation, First Lieutenant Ambrose ordered one platoon to secure the left flank and personally led the other platoon up the enemy’s forward slope. The foe, caught off balance by the boldness and speed of the right squad’s maneuvers yielded four killed and nine captured, together with three machine guns, one 81mm mortar and much ammunition.
“Quickly reorganizing on the crest of the hill, he then led the other platoon down the reverse slope and outflanked the enemy, killing seven and capturing seven, together with two 20mm cannons, one bazooka, and two machine guns. First Lieutenant Ambrose then attacked the next hill but the advance was held up by two machine guns. Leaving his men under cover, he proceeded alone for 50 yards under hostile fire to locate the enemy weapons. Returning for his bazooka team, he then silenced the guns and bottled up the remaining enemy on the hill, killing 10 and capturing 23 and thus enabling our troops to hold the commanding ground above the heavily fortified enemy-occupied Fort Bastione. His outstanding combat leadership exemplifies the highest gallantry of the United States Army.”
Ambrose was also awarded the Distinguished Unit Badge with oak leaf cluster for his part in three battles with the 2nd battalion of the 442nd, one on the 5th Army front in Italy and two in France.
He also won the respect of his men.
“Lt. Ambrose is about the best liked officer in this outfit and the boys in G Company really hated to see him leave our company – he’s C.O. for E Co. now,” Pvt. Charles Kaiwi wrote to Ambrose’s mother. “Since entering the army 18 months ago I never came across a better officer that was so tolerant and patient with the men under him.”
After Germany surrendered, Ambrose saw “a bit of France and more than just a bit of the ruins of war,” he wrote his mother. “It was quite a sight to see [civilians] line the sidewalks and cheer loudly, and also to see the little kids hold up their hands with a V - for Victory salute.”
He remained with the 442nd until July 1946 and was discharged in October with the rank of Captain.
After the war
Back home, Ambrose turned to the teaching profession and joined the faculty of Wilmington High School, later becoming principal of Wilmington’s Wildwood School.
In 1951, he attended the first Boston showing of “Go for Broke.” His son Tom recalled that “Future Senator Daniel Inouye who was also in the 442nd was in a reception line at the theater. My Dad enjoyed the film and recognized a number of the actors who had been GIs in the unit.”
Ambrose’s military career was not over. Beginning in 1947, he served in the Army Reserve, attached to the 1132nd Infantry Training Battalion at the Boston Army Base, until 1965. Major Ambrose was reactivated for two years during the Korean Conflict, but since he had a family, he was not sent again into combat.
He retired as a school principal in 1977, but not before becoming the second recipient of Wilmington’s Good Guy award in 1970.
In Winchester, Ambrose retains the distinction of being the town’s only native son to have fought with Japanese-American brothers in arms during World War II.