October 19, 1944
Hill D was one of four rugged hillsides overlooking the French town of Bruyeres. It was about to be re-named!
On October 15th the 442d had begun the two-and-a-half mile offensive through the densely wooded Vosges Mountains under orders to liberate Bruyeres. With the 3d Battalion in reserve, the 100th began its assault on Hill A, directly west of the town while the 2d Battalion moved in the direction of Hill B to the north. In the first day the Nisei advanced only 500 yards, losing one man killed and 20 wounded. The following morning the two battalions moved into the valley between their respective hills, fighting off a vicious early morning counter-attack by the enemy. On the morning of the October 17th Companies E and F managed to beat back the Germans before a second counter-attack was launched. Quickly the 100th moved in to shore up the defenses of its comrades in the 2d Battalion. On the morning of the 18th, five artillery battalions laid a 30 minute barrage on the enemy. Four hours of bitter fighting followed, finally allowing the 100th to take control of Hill A. After a similar 7-hour battle, the 2d Battalion took Hill B.
With Hills A and B under American control, the 3d Battalion joined the 36th Infantry's 142d Regiment in the sweep into the city. The battle to take Bruyeres had taken three days, and it wasn't over yet. Despite 3 days of continuous combat, Hills C and D provided the enemy high ground from which to rain death down on the city. On the 19th the 2d Battalion took Hill C, then moved forward with the 3rd Battalion towards La Broquaine. Soon after, word reached the soldiers that the enemy had counter-attacked, retaking Hill C. Companies F and H were sent back to retake the hill. The fighting was close and heated. Technical Sergeant Abraham Ohama watched as one of his soldiers fell wounded in the open. The sergeant ran forward to render aid, when he too was hit.
During a lull in the firing, the medics moved forward to treat the two wounded. They placed Sergeant Ohama on the stretcher to carry him to safety. As they did, a burst of enemy fire streaked through the mist, shattering the helpless body of the wounded sergeant being carried to safety. As the sergeant died, the full impact of what the other soldiers had just witnessed hit them with a fury. Up to the moments the enemy bullets had struck Sergeant Ohama, the effort to retake Hill D had been a stalemate, a see-saw struggle between the Nisei and the Germans to take and hold each yard. The senseless slaughter of the wounded sergeant sent a ripple of unchecked fury through his men. No order was given for the assault, it was a spontaneous response to what had just happened. To a man the men of Company F rose to their feet with a cry of anger and rushed boldly into the foray, heedless of the danger. The adrenaline charged onslaught quickly turned the stalemate into a rout. Fifty Germans were killed, seven captured, and Hill D once again secured. But for the Nisei it was no longer "Hill D", it became "Ohama's Hill".
Such was the nature of combat in the Vosges Mountains. In Italy it had not been uncommon during a lull in battle for medics from the 442nd to go onto the battlefields under a flag of truce to remove the wounded. The Nisei had extended the same courtesies to the medics of the enemy. But the fighting would be different in France. The Vosges Mountains were the last barrier between the Allies and the Rhine River, the German homeland.
Their backs to the wall, the enemy was under orders to hold the Vosges at all costs. Like a cornered animal, they fought with a ferocity here-to-for unseen. There would be no quarter, no mercy.
Added to the desperate resistance of the enemy, the battle in the Vosges would also be fought against the elements. The mountains were covered with thick conifers, heavy undergrowth, and rugged terrain. So thick was the vegetation that the enemy would dig in below ground, watch an American patrol pass within yards of their position, then pop up from hiding to rain death on them from behind. As had been the case in retaking Ohama's Hill, the enemy was not always ahead, they were also behind the advance.
October 20, 1944
With the fall of Hill C to the 100th Battalion the day following the charge at Ohama's Hill, the high ground around Bruyeres was controlled by the Americans. After assaulting and pushing the enemy off the hill under a smoke screen, the 100th was ordered into reserve. They returned reluctantly to Bruyeres, knowing there was still a strong enemy presence in the area. The hill they had fought so hard to take fell back into enemy hands when darkness fell after the Purple Heart Battalion's departure on the evening of the 20th. The following morning elements of another American Division approached Hill C, only to find it back under German control. It cost more than 100 casualties to retake the real estate purchased with Nisei blood the day before.
Meanwhile, elements of the 2d and 3d Battalions were stalemated a few miles east at the important rail center of La Broquaine. Because the enemy was behind as well as before the advancing Nisei, evacuation of wounded to the rear and the flow of supplies to soldiers in the forward areas was often difficult and dangerous. On October 20th one supply train was attempting to shuttle needed ammunition and supplies forward when it was ambushed by strong enemy force. Staff Sergeant Robert Kuroda was leading his squad in an effort to destroy the snipers and machinegun nests in the hills when the supply train was pinned down by fire from a heavily wooded slope. Ignoring the deadly fusillade around him, Sergeant Kuroda advanced to the crest of the ridge where he located an enemy emplacement. Within 30 feet of the enemy he began hurling grenades and firing clip after clip of ammunition, destroying the position and killing at least 3 enemy soldiers. As his ammunition was exhausted, he saw an American officer fall to the enemy hail of leaden death. Sergeant Kuroda ignored the heavy fire to rush to the aid of the officer. The officer was dead, killed by fire from an enemy position on an adjacent hill. Sergeant Kuroda took the fallen officer's Tommy gun and turned it on the enemy position, advancing until it fell quiet to his fearless charge and accurate fire. Slowly the Sergeant turned towards the sound of additional enemy gunfire, seeking to locate the position. As he prepared to turn his submachine gun on the position, a sniper's round streaked through the hillside, ending his valiant rescue of the supply train. For his heroism, H Company's Staff Sergeant Robert Kuroda was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Fifty-six years later it was upgraded to a Medal of Honor.
The small French villages in the Vosges are only a few miles apart, but because of the terrain they can appear far removed from each other. They can almost seem isolated from each other by the thick forest. In the early winter, the weather causes them to seem even further apart. It rained on October 15th when the offensive towards Bruyeres began, continued to rain almost constantly for the next ten days as the 442d battled from one hamlet to the next. In the early morning the moist ground would yield a dense fog causing even more difficulty in travel.
The 36th Infantry's 141st and 143d Infantry regiments, as well as the three battalions of the 442nd regiment, were scattered throughout the small region. Because of the terrain, the weather, and the fog, it was often difficult for the units to keep track of who was where. Companies I and K were pursuing the Germans who were withdrawing from Bruyeres into the Belmont forest. Though in retreat, the enemy still fought furiously. Among the Nisei killed pursuing the enemy was a young soldier from Los Angeles, Technical Sergeant Ted Tanouye who would never know he had earned the Medal of Honor less than 100 days earlier in Italy.
Meanwhile, Company K had found a complete set of the German defense plans for the region on the body of an enemy officer killed in a skirmish with a German armor column. This led to the formation of Task Force O'Connor, consisting of Companies F and L and led by 3d Battalion's Executive Officer Major Emmet O'Connor. Task Force O'Connor, bolstered by the new intelligence information, moved out with dawn the following day along the left flank of the 2d and 3d Battalions. After fierce fighting, the task force closed ranks with their comrades in a pincer movement that virtually secured the area from Bruyeres to La Broquaine by the evening of October 21st. Along the way the task force killed 80 enemy soldiers, captured 54, sent most stragglers deeper into the Belmont Forest, and earned a Presidential Unit Citation for the two companies.
After being ordered back to Breyeres from Hill C, the 100th Battalion bedded down in the city. Early in the pre-dawn hours of October 21st, as the weary soldiers of the Purple Heart Battalion tried to rest, the unstoppable Captain Kim joined Colonel Shingles at Battalion headquarters. The assistant division commander had arrived with new orders...."Prepare to move out for Biffontaine."
The small French hamlet in peace time boasted a population of some 300 people, living in homes nestled among the hills of the Vosges. Now much of it was deserted, save for the Germans who had fortified a position near the village church. Without so much as a full night's sleep, the Nisei of the Purple Heart Battalion were rousted for a quick, forward movement. In the hours before dawn they nearly ran as they forced their way to a ridge overlooking Biffontaine. In the process they passed through the enemy defenses, only to find themselves isolated by early morning, cut off from the rest of the 442d. As night fell on the 21st the brave but weary warriors were low on ammunition and supplies. For many there had been no food rations in more than 24 hours. The soldiers clasped hands over their empty stomachs, counted their rounds, and dug in for the night.
Early the following morning the 100th began digging the enemy out of the area. The Nisei were taking fire from three sides, and their meager supplies were almost gone. The battalion S-3 sent a report that, "The 100th will have to be throwing stones if they don't get ammo." One supply train from Company A was ambushed by 50 Germans. Captain Kim and his other officers would have been content to sit on the ridge and hold the line until they could obtain resupply and reinforcements. Any other action would have been foolish. Foolishness prevailed!
"Capture Biffontaine," was the orders transmitted from the division to the officers of the 100th.
"This puts us beyond radio range and artillery support, and we are low on ammunition," Captain Kim responded over the radio. "Promise that you'll put another unit in our position (on the ridge overlooking Biffontaine) if we go down into Biffontaine." The regimental commander promised. And with that, the battered Nisei fighting force began sliding down the steep slopes of the ridge and into the city.
Fortunately, most of the Germans that had been holed up in the city had already escaped the "back way". Only about 50 Germans remained behind, unable to make the withdrawal. Biffontaine fell easily to the Purple Heart Battalion. It would not be held so easily. Rather than leaving the town to the Allies, the Germans attacked from four directions, moving in on the Nisei. One emerging German fired several rounds at Captain Bill Pye, Commander of Charlie Company. He missed the CO, the bullets flying under the officer's arm as he pointed to the enemy. Three of the whispering shards of death slammed into Captain Kim's right hand. While the soldiers tried desperately to hold in the face of the German counter attack, help was on the way.
The Felber task force consisting of an armored group set out from Belmont to bring fresh water and ammunition to the surrounded Nisei at Biffontaine. From the high ridge that separated the two towns, the same ridge held by the Nisei at the time they were ordered into the village, German fire halted the supply train. The Second Battalion was pulled from reserve and sent to the rescue. As they struggled towards their surrounded, outnumbered comrades, their flank was hit by a special detachment of German bicycle troops. The advance to Biffontaine slowed, but the infantrymen of the 442d beat back the superior mobility and firepower of their motorized opponents. Company K of the Third Battalion moved along the floor of the valleys to dig out the enemy and fight their way into Biffontaine. Troops from Company G of the 2d Battalion were moving on foot under the leadership of the battalion S-4 Captain George Grandstaff in an effort to carry supplies to the beleaguered force at Biffontaine.
The fighting was incessant, one ridge at a time, one more yard gained, yesterday's accomplishments quickly forgotton in the challenges of today's. Three days earlier Private Barney Hajiro of Hawaii had distinguished himself near Bruyeres by exposing himself to an enemy gun emplacement to draw their fire away from other troops attacking the position. He had quickly killed two enemy snipers bringing a much needed relief to the attacking Americans. That was three days before, miles behind his current position where on October 22d he and another soldier concealed themselves to ambush an enemy patrol. Together, the two men killed two, wounded one, and captured the remainder. Today's fierce fighting and Private Hajiro's heroic action would not allow himself a moment to relax and ponder his accomplishments as a soldier. The 18-man enemy patrol was only one of hundreds that moved through the forests of the Vosges Mountains.
Late in the day the Germans launched a second counter-attack at Biffontaine, supported by tanks. None of the resupply/reinforcement efforts had yet succeeded. The men of the Purple Heart Battalion would have to hang on by sheer force of their own will. As darkness fell, the enemy had moved infantry and armor into the city, proclaiming, "You are surrounded." Their calls for surrender were met by the rifle fire and grenades of Nisei who refused to quit. As darkness fell on the 22nd, the 100th Infantry Battalion was still surrounded in a city they shared with the enemy. The house-to-house battle ranged into the night.
Before the sun arose on the morning of October 23d, an attempt was made to send out a party of wounded under Lieutenant Jimmie Kanaya. Six guards were assigned to protect the 11 wounded men that included Captain Kim. Morphine had dulled some of the brave Korean's pain, but it had also dulled his senses and created some disorientation. The wounded who could not walk were carried on stretchers by a group of 20 German prisoners of war. As the small contingent moved through the dark forest, they paused momentarily to rest. Suddenly they were confronted by a squad of enemy. The Nisei called for the enemy squad to surrender. At first it seemed the ruse would work, then the world caved in. Captain Kim and Private Richard Chinen, a medic, managed to make it into the woods in an effort to evade the enemy. The badly wounded Kim and the medic were the only men of the litter detachment to escape capture. Kim would reach safety and have his wounds treated, but his war was over. Also lost to the leadership of the 100th Battalion were the Captured Lieutenant Kanaya and Alpha Company Commander First Lieutenant Sam Sakamoto. The latter had been evacuated on a stretcher after being severely wounded in the back, when he was captured by the Germans.
With virtually no officers to command them and no resupply in two days, the men of the Purple Heart Battalion struggled to hang on through the morning of the 23d. The Germans launched a third brutal assault on Biffontaine. The Nisei were reduced to fighting back with weapons taken from the dead bodies of their enemies. Miraculously they held, forcing the enemy to withdraw. By afternoon the 3d Battalion took control of the ridge overlooking Biffontaine. Task Force Felber broke through with water and ammunition and, more importantly, reinforcements for the battered city. The Germans had lost Biffontaine, along with 40 men killed or wounded and another 40 captured. It had cost the Purple Heart Battalion 21 soldiers killed, 122 wounded, and 18 captured.
The casualty numbers didn't reflect the loss in leadership to the 100th. In addition to Kim and Lieutenant Sakamoto, Bravo Company's Captain Sakae Takahashi had also been wounded. The entire 442d was pulled back to Belmont to lick its wounds and mourn its dead. As night fell on October 24th, the venerable unit could look back proudly on eight days of continuous combat under the most untenable of conditions. Badly battered, their ranks severely depleted, they had survived the enemy, the elements, and a series of bad decisions by division headquarters. Now, at last, they could rest for a few days, maybe even a week.
Unknown to the Nisei in that moment was the predicament faced by the 3d Battalion, 141st regiment of 36th Infantry more hopelessly surrounded than the Purple Heart Battalion had been at Biffontaine. Nine miles into enemy territory, every effort had been expended to save them...all to no avail. To call the battered 442d back into action so soon would be to sign the death warrant of a legendary battalion. But when all else had failed the stranded T-Patchers were left with only one hope of rescue. The Go For Broke regiment was sent back into the cauldron with new orders:
Rescue The Lost Battalion!