The film dramatizes the real-life story of the 442nd, which was composed of Nisei (second-generation Americans born of Japanese parents). Fighting in the European theater during World War II, this unit became the most heavily decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the United States Army, as well as one of the units with the highest casualty rates. This film is a Hollywood rarity which features Asian-Americans in a positive light and even more rare in highlighting the irony of Japanese-Americans who fought bravely for their country while that same country interned their families in camps.
As with his earlier film script Battleground, in which Van Johnson also starred, writer-director Robert Pirosh focuses on the average squad member, mixing humor with pathos, while accurately detailing equipment and tactics used by American infantry in World War II. The contrast of reality versus public relations, the hardships of field life on the line, and the reality of high casualty rates are accurately portrayed with a minimum of heroics.
He (and the audience) learn that "go for broke" is a pidgin phrase (used in Hawaii) meaning to gamble everything – one will be broke, bankrupt if he loses. Eventually, Grayson also learns the meaning of the frequently-repeated expletive Baka tare, which, loosely translated, means "very stupid."
There is only brief mention of the internment camps from which most of the men have come, but throughout the film, there are references to the camps. There are also a few brief references to the distinctions between the Nisei from Hawaii ("Buta-heads") and those from the mainland ("Katonks"). While Buta-heads (the phrase later devolved to "Buddha-Heads") were a key part of the Hawaiian economy and society, Katonks were largely distrusted and disliked by their neighbors.
Arriving in Italy, the unit is joined by the 100th Battalion, the Nisei unit formed in Hawaii before the 442nd was created on the mainland. The troops of the 100th are seasoned veterans and the new arrivals look to them for advice. On the march to he front lines, Grayson inadvertantly gets left behind while fraternizing with a signorina, but when he catches up, finds that his platoon has covered for him during an inspection of their positions by the colonel.
Through fighting in Italy and France, Grayson eventually comes to respect the Nisei, and his bigotry fades. Eventually, he is transferred back to his old unit, the 36th as a liaison -- over his objections -- when the 442nd is attached to the larger unit.
As he has misjudged the Nisei, they have misjudged Grayson. They eventually learn that he has defended them against bigotry, even getting into a fistfight with an old friend of his from the 36th who had insulted them.
The climax of the movie comes with the "Buddha-heads'" famous rescue of the "Lost Battalion," after the 36th is surrounded by the German army. Then comes their return home, and the award of the Presidential Unit Citation.
* actual veterans of the 442nd