September 29, 1943
The 3d Platoon of B Company moved slowly through the Italian countryside. They knew the enemy was nearby. Two days earlier one of the battalion's squad leaders, Sergeant Conrad Tsukayama had been wounded by an enemy mine. He was the first casualty of the 100th Infantry Battalion since their arrival in North Africa on September 2nd. Unfortunately, he would not be the last.
Initially the 1,432-man unit had been detailed the relatively safe task of guarding supply trains in North Africa, but Colonel Turner knew his young Nisei had come to Europe to fight. In training they had proved to be among the best, despite their slight stature (the average Japanese-American soldier was only 5'4" tall and weighed a diminutive 125 pounds.) Colonel Turner was determined to allow them the chance to prove their mettle in combat as well. The 100th arrived in Salerno, Italy on September 19th.
Now, ten days after their arrival in Italy, the 100th was to lead the advance into Monte Milleto. Sergeant Shigeo "Joe" Takata's platoon was the point element, leading the rest of the battalion along a portion of road bordered by a gully on one side and an olive grove on the other. The advance element had just rounded an "S" curve at 9:15 A.M. when the ground began to rumble with the sudden force of explosions. Enemy mortars and artillery began to rain from the heavens, driving the untested soldiers of the 100th to the ground. From a clearing in front of them came the sound of enemy machineguns. Sergeant Takata rose and began to advance towards the enemy gun, deliberately exposing himself to draw fire and locate the enemy position. The other young soldiers watched in horror as an enemy round struck him in the head, driving him to the ground. Then, slowly, the sergeant began to rise back up, blood masking his face. He was waving...pointing...directing them to the position of the enemy gun. The Nisei from 3rd platoon went on the offensive, moving and shooting as the wounded Sergeant directed them, until the enemy position was destroyed. Glancing back for new orders, the soldiers no longer saw their Sergeant. Slumping back to the ground, the last drops of his Nisei blood had stained the soil of Italy. The 100th Infantry Battalion had is first Distinguished Service Cross recipient, and its soldiers had lost their first brother.
Before the day ended, there would be a second. In the drive to Monte Milleto the 100th tasted first blood. In two days they covered 7 miles and captured two towns. They proved their courage and set the stage for a legacy unmatched in military history. Along the way, during their first week of battle, they buried 3 of their brothers and sent 23 wounded comrades back for medical attention.
THE FIRST CAMPAIGN
Despite Italy's surrender to the Allies the day before Lieutenant General Mark Clark's Allied 5th Army landed at Salerno on September 9, 1944, the battle for Italy would be a long and bitter campaign. German Field Marshal Kesselring sent six divisions of Axis troops to fend off the invading force. When the 100th landed at Salerno ten days behind the initial invading force, the untested Nisei would face battle hardened, crack German troops.
The ultimate goal of the Allied Fifth Army was to push northwest from Salerno to Naples, then on to liberate Rome, a distance of some 200 miles. The task would take 9 months. Along the way the soldiers would have to cross the Rapido River(1), fight past the monastery at Monte Cassino(2), make the landing at Anzio(3), survive a live volcano, and endure the harsh Italian winter. And all of this in the rugged terrain of the Apennine Mountain Range.
The Apennines run the full length of Italy, rugged and heavily forested valleys, ridges, and mountains reaching 6,000 feet. It was a text-book infantry battleground that tested the endurance, training and discipline of every platoon, battalion and regiment. The nine-month ordeal would result in two Campaign Battle Stars for the "Purple Heart Battalion" and their first Presidential Unit Citation. The awards would be purchased with Nisei blood.
That first week of battle was the prelude for things to come. The 100th continued north throughout the month of October, crossing the Volturno River no less than six times and driving slowly towards Naples. The Germans mounted counter-attacks in force, as well as ambushing the advancing Nisei from hidden positions in stone farmhouses, high ridges, and thick timber. German Messerchmidts rained death on the infantrymen from the skies. In one three day October action, 21 members of the 100th were killed and 67 wounded.
More feared than the hidden snipers or Messerschmidts were the German rockets that rained death on the soldiers from a distance. The wheel mounted launchers held 6 large tubes that could propel the rockets in rapid succession, streaking with a piercing cry through the air to land among the Americans. The soldiers began to call them "Screaming Meemies".
The 100th continued their move north through Benevento, crossing the winding Volturno river the first time in early-October, then doubling back to cross it a second time on October 18th. Waiting for them at a road junction near San Angelo d'Alife was Field Marshal Kesselring's crack 29th Grenadier Regiment. From October 20 to 22 the men of the 100th, along with the 3rd Battalion of the 133d Regiment fought a bitter contest with these troops. Despite the German's well hidden and carefully reinforced machinegun positions, the constant rain of "screeming meemies", and deadly minefields, the Americans prevailed. During the battle Private Masao Awakuni became the second member of the 100th in less than 30 days to earn the Distinguished Service Cross. The battles continued, from one hill to the next, an almost daily struggle to stay alive amid enemy fire. On the last day of October, 12 more members of the "Purple Heart" battalion were wounded when Company A and Company C were attacked by German fighter planes near Ciorlano.
Lieutenant Young Oak Kim
Lieutenant Young Oak Kim came to the 100th Infantry Battalion during the advanced combat readiness phase at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The 24 year old soldier was the kind of officer every enlisted man has seen far too many of, and wished to avoid. Fresh out of OCS (Officer Candidate School) at Fort Benning, Georgia, he was "gung-ho". To make matters worse, he was not Japanese but Korean. Kim pushed the men of the 100th, endured disdain from the enlisted men and the dislike of his fellow officers (initially most of the officers of the 100th were Caucasian), but gradually earned their respect. Upon landing with the unit in Italy, his cool leadership in combat and concern for the welfare of his troops quickly earned praise. His tenacity and courage on the battlefields won their admiration as well.
On November 3, 1943 the 100th was ordered to make an early morning third crossing of the Volturno River near Ciorlano. After the area had been pounded by a heavy midnight artillery barrage, the 100th and the second battalion of the 133d Infantry set out. At about 4 in the morning B Company of the 100th began crossing the cold, swift waters of the Volturno. The Nisei scrambled up the far bank cold and wet and breathing with exertion, only to find themselves in a minefield. A sudden barrage of mis-placed friendly artillery, followed by an immediate response by German artillery, caught the soldiers in mid crossing. More than 30 Nisei fell to the death that rained down from the skies. Stumbling up from the river banks, the soldiers quickly assembled to move towards their destination on Route 85, four miles away. In the darkness, confusion arose as to which direction the company should travel. The lead platoon walked into a minefield, adding seven more men to the casualty list.
Lieutenant Kim's platoon moved to the point, backtracking and then setting out in the direction Kim led until a road came into view. The fearless lieutenant moved ahead alone in the darkness to scout it. Even in the darkness it was not hard to follow the brave lieutenant who always wore a knit cap in lieu of a steel helmet. (Lieutenant Kim always said he couldn't think straight with something heavy on his head.)
Reaching the top of a stone wall, Kim stood and waved the men forward. Suddenly German bullets tore through the air and Kim fell to the ground. In the midst of the furious exchange, Staff Sergeant Robert Ozaki was enraged at the sudden death or capture of the brave lieutenant. Almost reflexively he shouted over the din of battle, "Fix Bayonets". With yells of "Banzai" the entire front line of Nisei rose and advanced on the German guns. The first bayonet charge in Italy of World War II, coupled with the tenacious "Banzai" attack, stunned the Germans. As the line broke over the wall, they found their lieutenant...alive and throwing grenades at the enemy machinegun nests.
Before the Volturno River action ended, Lieutenant Kim was wounded yet again. He returned to fight with his men all the way through the campaign to rescue the "Lost Battalion" a year later in France. Promoted to Captain, he earned two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, and became the only Korean-American of World War II to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
A Much Needed But all too Brief Rest
From that first taste of Combat on September 29th through the first week of November, the men of the 100th Infantry Battalion saw almost daily combat as they slugged their way through the Italian mountain range. On November 6th three forward observers from D Company earned Silver Star Medals. None of them would ever wear the award, they died in their moment of valor. On November 11th units of the 45th Division relieved a badly decimated but valiant 100th. In their first six weeks of combat they had suffered nearly 25% casualties:
* 3 Officers Killed In Action
* 75 Enlisted Men Killed In Action
* 239 Wounded
The day before Thanksgiving, after a much needed two week rest, the "Purple Heart Battalion" was called back into action. Among the many battles in their quest to push the Germans out the the hills was the November 28-29 battle near Cerasuolo. Staff Sergeant Allan Ohata (left) along with his squad leader and 3 men, was ordered to protect the platoon's flanks. Ohata positioned his small force carefully. Suddenly, 40 enemy soldiers attacked his position with rifle and machinegun fire. Sergeant Ohata fought back furiously until he heard the rifleman to his left call for help. Private Mikio Hasemoto had faced down two German machinegunners, firing four clips before his own gun was shot and damaged. More enemy were advancing, and Sergeant Ohata rushed 15 yards, fully exposed to the enemy's fusillade, to shore up the position while Hasemoto dashed back to the rear to get another automatic rifle.
Together, Ohata and Hasemoto repulsed the attack, killing 20 enemy. When Hasemoto's second rifle jammed, he again dashed through the hail of enemy fire to find a working M-1 rifle. Together the two Americans killed 37 of the enemy. As the surviving Germans attempted to flee, the intrepid soldiers attacked, killing one, wounding another, and capturing the third. Later, when a second force of 14 Germans attacked, Ohata and his fearless rifleman again stood their ground, killing four, wounding three, and causing the remaining enemy to retreat. The following day both men continued to battle the advancing enemy. They held their ground, repulsed every assault, but in the end Private Hasemoto (right) was killed in action.
For his repeated heroic stands at Cerasuolo, Private Hasemoto was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Staff Sergeant Ohata also received the DSC, and continued with the 100th Infantry Battalion, eventually being promoted to Captain. Fifty-seven years later, the DSCs awarded to Hasemoto and Ohata were upgraded to Medals of Honor. Staff Sergeant Ohata was unable to personally receive his upgraded award, he had died 23 years earlier.
On that same day Alpha Company was making a flanking assault on a high hill held by the enemy when the unit was pinned down by grenades, rifle and machinegun fire. Private Shizuya Hayashi rose to his feet, his machinegun firing from the hip while suspended from a shoulder sling, to make a lone assault on the enemy. His courage and superb marksmanship enabled him to kill all the enemy soldiers and take the enemy position. The unit moved forward 200 yards and was pinned down a second time, this time by an enemy anti-aircraft position. Again Private Hayashi went on the offensive, knocking out the new enemy threat. Through both actions of single-handedly destroying two enemy positions, he killed 20 enemy soldiers and captured 4 more. Like Ohata and Hasemoto, Private Hayashi was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Fifty-seven years later he was the only DSC recipient of the battle at Cerasuolo to survive to wear his upgraded Medal of Honor. Staff Sergeant Ohata was unable to personally receive his upgraded award, he had died 23 years earlier.
As President William Clinton hung our Nation's highest award around his neck, Shizuya "Cesar" Hayashi called to remembrance the heroism of his comrades, accepting his award on behalf of those who didn't survive to see the historic White House ceremony.
(Photos courtesy of the "Honolulu Star-Bulletin")
The blizzards of December in the high Apennine Mountain Range made fighting difficult and life unbearable. Still the 100th took hill after hill in the push towards Naples. Along the way the unit continued to suffer tremendous casualties. By January the 1,400 man battalion that had arrived in Europe just four months earlier was down to only 800 men. They were indeed, the "Purple Heart Battalion", winding up their first campaign and preparing for a second...the long awaited assault on Monte Cassino and the march into Rome. Slowly replacements were filtering in, but not fast enough to bring the battalion to strength. Back home, more Nisei were training, most of them Hawaiian boys who had adopted their own slogan.....
"Go For Broke"