October 25, 1944 (2:30 PM)
Colonel Charles Pence knew something major was up the minute General Dahlquist walked into the 442d RCT's command post at Belmont. The RCT commander wasn't surprised to see the division commander, visits from the General and his crisp aide Lieutenant Lewis, were common. Today, however, Colonel Pence's attention was quickly drawn to the other officer with General Dahlquist. It was hard to miss the three stars on the uniform of Lieutenant General Alexander Patch, commander of the 7th Army Corps. Yes, something was definitely in the wind.
"I don't really want to send your soldiers to battle again, so soon," General Dahlquist told Colonel Pence, "But I have little choice." With that, he ordered Second Battalion to move out before darkness fell, to assume a defensive position on the flank of the 141st Regiment. From there, the General visited Lieutenant Colonel Singles at the 100th Battalion's command post. He laid out the scenario being played out on the hilltop near La Houssiere, explaining the predicament of the Lost 1st Battalion and informed the Purple Heart Battalion's commander to have his soldiers ready to move out on a moments notice, should it be necessary to commit them to the rescue effort.
October 26, 1944
The 100th and the 3d Battalions remained for one more day at Belmont as the exhausted men of the 2d Battalion moved out in support of the 141st Regiment. As dawn broke the skies on Thursday, October 26th, the Lost Battalion had survived its second night on the hill. The beleaguered soldiers were under almost constant enemy artillery fire and most had not eaten in 24 hours.
Meanwhile, for two days the enemy had pushed back every effort by the rest of the 141st Regiment to reach their trapped comrades. East of Belmont Technical Sergeant Charles Coolidge was covering 3d Battalions right flank. His subsequent Medal of Honor citation explains much of the difficulty the "Texas Division" encountered:
Leading a section of heavy machineguns supported by 1 platoon of Company K, he took a position near Hill 623, east of Belmont sur Buttant, France, on 24 October 1944, with the mission of covering the right flank of the 3d Battalion and supporting its action. T/Sgt. Coolidge went forward with a sergeant of Company K to reconnoiter positions for coordinating the fires of the light and heavy machineguns. They ran into an enemy force in the woods estimated to be an infantry company. T/Sgt. Coolidge, attempting to bluff the Germans by a show of assurance and boldness called upon them to surrender, whereupon the enemy opened fire. With his carbine, T/Sgt. Coolidge wounded 2 of them. There being no officer present with the force, T/Sgt. Coolidge at once assumed command. Many of the men were replacements recently arrived; this was their first experience under fire. T/Sgt. Coolidge, unmindful of the enemy fire delivered at close range, walked along the position, calming and encouraging his men and directing their fire. The attack was thrown back. Through 25 and 26 October the enemy launched repeated attacks against the position of this combat group but each was repulsed due to T/Sgt. Coolidge's able leadership. On 27 October, German infantry, supported by 2 tanks, made a determined attack on the position. The area was swept by enemy small arms, machinegun, and tank fire. T/Sgt. Coolidge armed himself with a bazooka and advanced to within 25 yards of the tanks. His bazooka failed to function and he threw it aside. Securing all the hand grenades he could carry, he crawled forward and inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing enemy. Finally it became apparent that the enemy, in greatly superior force, supported by tanks, would overrun the position. T/Sgt. Coolidge, displaying great coolness and courage, directed and conducted an orderly withdrawal, being himself the last to leave the position. As a result of T/Sgt. Coolidge's heroic and superior leadership, the mission of this combat group was accomplished throughout 4 days of continuous fighting against numerically superior enemy troops in rain and cold and amid dense woods.
The men of the 442d's Second Battalion were ordered to move out in front of the 141st's Third Battalion. Though the Nisei themselves were not yet aware of the plight of the Lost Battalion or the reason for the move, it was the first step in a series of actions that would place their fate in the hands of the Go For Broke regiment.
Lieutenant Blonder knew the men were getting desperate. It was possible to survive for a period without food, but the men needed water. When possible, rainwater was collected from shell holes on the hilltop. Further down the hill was a larger pond that had accumulated considerable water from the incessant precipitation. The water was green and foul tasting, but it was water. At night the Americans would try to slip through the forest to haul back the much needed water. They did so with their weapons gripped tightly, their senses alert. The Germans controlled the forested sides of the hill, and drew water from the same hole.
October 27, 1944
Back at Belmont, at 2:00 A.M., the two remaining battalions of the 442d Regimental Combat Team were alerted. Two hours later the 3d Battalion moved out and into the darkness of the forest. An hour later the 100th Battalion followed. Every other effort to relieve the Lost Battalion had failed. Now it would be up to a group of soldiers who had left more than a week of combat two days earlier, to accomplish what no one else seemed able to do. Still the Nisei were not aware of the nature of their mission, the lives that depended upon their success. But as they moved out of Belmont it was hard to miss the line of ambulances and built up aid stations that had been assembled for the eventual rescue. It was an eerie symbol of what lay ahead.
Moving into the forest, it was almost impossible to see. The soldiers created a human chain, each man holding the straps of the pack ahead of him. Sliding down muddy trails, forcing their way through dense brush, and stumbling over sharp rocks, the Nisei walked obediently into the jaws of certain death.
All three battalions moved slowly northward in the direction of St. Die, to approach the La Houssier position from the northwest. Third Battalion, already far forward, would make the drive down the middle with the 100th and 2d Battalions guarding the flanks. On that first day, a heavy concentration of German 88mm fire tore into the men of the 3d Battalion, causing numerous casualties. Still, the brave men fought on. In the forests, the Germans seemed to be fighting with increased intensity. The German high command had become aware that their soldiers in the Vosges had trapped nearly an entire American battalion and Adolf Hitler had personally issued orders to stop any rescue effort.
October 28, 1944
The three battalions of the of the 442d spent their first full night back in the forest trying to hold their positions and stay alive. Their orders were to attack at daylight, in what General Dahlquist expected to be an aggressive and swift push to snatch the Lost Battalion out of harms way. During the night the enemy moved reinforcements, including heavy armor into the valley to turn back the Americans. When the attack commenced at 6:30, it was still dark in the forest. Suddenly the darkness came alive with the brilliant flashes of enemy artillery. Company K took two hours to push forward some 350 yards when an enemy mortar left several brave soldiers lying in the mud, dead and dying. By mid-morning platoon sergeant George Nishi was the only NCO left in the unit. As he attempted to pull his men back a grenade landed in his foxhole. Quickly he tossed it back at the enemy. A second grenade came in his direction, killing the young soldier behind him. Nishi was wounded in the back.
Shortly before noon, after receiving orders from General Dahlquist, Colonel Pence ordered Company L out of reserve. The division commander was desperate, the destruction of his "Lost Battalion" would be a major catastrophe. Not only did the General order an unrelenting frontal assault by the 442d regardless of cost, he went to the front himself...issuing orders and pushing men forward. To many of the Nisei, none of whom still were aware that their mission was one to rescue a lost battalion of friendlies, it was senseless. It was difficult to see themselves as anything other than cannon-fodder, expendable in the push through the Vosges.
The battle raged through the morning. Artillery support was requested. On the right flank the 100th battled through the forest. First Lieutenant James Boodry, the battalion S-3, was killed by an air-burst as he huddled next to Charlie Company Commander Bill Pye mapping out the forward strategy of the battalion. Boodry had replaced Kim when the latter was wounded at Biffontaine by bullets meant for Pye. The same shrapnel that split open the head of Lieutenant Boodry, also wounded the Charlie Company commander. Reeling in horror, blood streaming from his wounds, Pye moved forward. Minutes later the fierce enemy fire reached out to him again. He would go no further into the Vosges, one leg shattered by an enemy shell.
Everywhere, casualties were falling...to enemy fire...to artillery fire...to mines and booby traps. Technician Fifth Grade James Okubo was a medic. All the medics of the 442d had gained the respect of the soldiers time and again, going into the open to recover wounded, hoping that the enemy would respect their non-combatant status. Sometimes it worked...sometimes it didn't. As the Nisei advanced on the enemy they were faced first with minefields and roadblocks, behind which the enemy could hide and rain leaden death on the advancing Americans. One hundred fifty yards ahead of Okubo lay wounded soldiers, within 40 yards of the enemy lines. Despite the heavy fire he crawled forward time and again. Two grenades landed near him but he ignored the danger they represented. In all he rescued and treated 17 men.
As darkness fell again over the forest, even Lieutenant Colonel Singles was wounded. The same shell that peppered his body with hot metal as it struck his jeep had killed the passenger next to him and wounded another. After two days of horrible fighting, two lieutenants were all that remained to command the entire battalion. During the night a patrol of twelve men was sent through the darkness to the rear to obtain badly needed ammunition and supplies. The patrol was unable to finish their important task. Two were killed and the remaining ten all wounded.
Lieutenant Blonder huddled next to the radio as dusk fell on the battalion's fifth night alone on the barren hilltop. Freshly turned dirt revealed the place where earlier in the day, his men had buried three more of their own. He had made it a practice to send out only two radio messages each day in an effort to spare the battery of the one precious link the men had with the rear. His messages were always the same: "Send us medical supplies." "We need rations." " Please, we need fresh Water." "I need radio batteries." "My wounded need plasma." Every morning the enemy tank had appeared. Throughout the day and night, enemy artillery fell on their small 350 yard defensive position.
During the day a flight of P47 fighter-bombers of the XII Tactical Air Combat Wing flew over to drop supplies. The stranded soldiers on the ground waved white underwear and popped smoke grenades to guide them in. None-the-less, few of the supplies landed in the small perimeter, and much of the supplies that were on target quickly rolled down the hillside and into the hands of the enemy.
That evening an American 105 artillery round whistled through the air, homing in on top of the men of the Lost Battalion. Buried in the nose of the warhead in place of explosives, was chocolate. It was a bizarre, desperate effort to get some nourishment to embattled soldiers who had not eaten in a week. The velocity of the shell caused the chocolate to burrow deep into the mud upon impact. It was a novel idea, a good effort, but like all other efforts to provide relief to the Lost Battalion, it had failed.
The survivors on the hillside had no way of knowing that the men of the Go For Broke regiment were slugging their way to reach them. They could only hope and pray that tomorrow they we see friendly faces breaking through the forest below them. With dawn they would face their sixth day alone in enemy territory. Though they prayed that day six would bring rescue, instead it would only bring the worst yet....both for the men on the hill and the brave Nisei coming to their rescue.
October 29, 1944
For the first time the men of the 442d Regimental Combat Team were made aware of the fate of the Lost Battalion and their mission. With that knowledge came some understanding of the events of the previous days. For the men of the 100th who had been cut off and surrounded at Biffontaine, there was a special sense of identity with the 36th Infantry's "Lost Battalion." It steeled the resolve of the surviving Nisei to push forward. It also helped to explain the division commander's frustration and drive in the field.
The men of the 442nd knew that General Dahlquist, despite all his perceived shortcomings in the way he used the Nisei unit, did not lack in courage. Field commanders had become accustom to seeing top brass in the field on occasion. They were not accustom to seeing the commander so close to the fighting, so often. During the effort to rescue the Lost Battalion, the division commander was desperate to bring the mission to a successful conclusion. The darkest day yet for the Nisei would also be the General's darkest moment.
At dawn the 100th and 3d Battalion launched their attack, running directly into heavy resistance supported by enemy armor. It was the small Nisei infantrymen going head to head with multi-ton, steel fortresses of death. The brave soldiers never wavered. At eight in the morning General Dahlquist urged Colonel Singles to push his men onward. "There's a battalion about to die up there (in the mountains) and we've got to reach them." Before noon the General had arrived at the scene of the fighting with his young aide, Lieutenant Lewis. As Colonel Singles and the division commander viewed the terrain, an enemy machinegun some 40 yards away opened fire. Twenty-seven year old Wells Lewis, the eldest son of the first American to receive the Nobel prize for literature Sinclair Lewis, fell dead...his blood splattering the uniform of his commanding general. It was a blow to the General from which he never fully recovered. Still, he remained in the field to issue orders and command the Nisei forward.
In the valleys the Go For Broke Regiment's 232d Combat Engineers fought through the mud to shore up roadways with logs. Along the hillsides they cleared minefields and booby traps. Wounded were everywhere. James Okubo, the medic who had braved enemy fire the day before to rescue 17 men continued his courageous efforts in the face of enemy fire to rescue 8 more. His actions the previous day combined with his actions on the 29th to save a total of 25 wounded Nisei. He would survive to wear his Silver Star medal, but before his war would end there would be more lives to save.
Lieutenant Colonel Pursall of the 3d Battalion ordered Companies I and K to assault the high ground. His men were hesitant to move from the safety of their foxholes, knowing the assault would be deadly and useless. Standing in the open, bareheaded without a helmet, the Battalion commander raised his .45 Army Colt pistol and said, "Okay, boys, let's go." as he led the way forward in classic John Wayne style.
Second Lieutenant Edward Davis was the only officer left in company K. Slowly he rose to his feet as the Nisei around him watched in amazement. All knew the order to assault the enemy above them would be suicidal and were reluctant to move further. The lieutenant turned to Sergeant Kohashi and asked, not ordered, the NCO to follow him. Then something amazing happened. Sergeant Kohashi rose to his feet with a loud yell of desperation that reverberated across the hillside. It shook the Japanese-American soldiers to the soul, eliciting similar cries. As a unit the Nisei leaped screaming to their feet in a "banzai" charge against the Germans.
In his own sector, Private Barney Hajiro rose to his feet to lead his own assault. Next to him was a friend he had known since basic training, Takeyasu "Thomas" Onaga". As they moved forward young Hajiro watched in horror as the close friend who moments earlier had loaded his browning automatic rifle, fell dead to a hail of enemy bullets. The young private who had already twice demonstrated the highest degree of valor could contain the torment of his soul no longer. With abandon he assaulted "suicide hill", yards ahead of the other men of his platoon, raining the rounds his dead comrade had loaded in the BAR on the enemy. Camouflage netting could not hide the enemy gunners from the fury of his assault, nor could the continuous stream of enemy machinegun fire turn back his determination. Private Barney Hajiro quickly knocked out two enemy gun emplacements and shot two snipers, allowing the rest of his unit to advance. Then enemy rounds slammed into Private Hajiro's left arm, rendering it useless. Fifty-six years later that arm still hung at his side, helplessly paralyzed, as the President presented Barney Hajiro the Medal of Honor for his actions on October 19th, 20th, and 29th. Every Memorial Day for those 56 years Mr. Hijiro has visited Thomas Onaga's grave site at the Punchbowl in Hawaii. Barney Hajiro believes, despite the permanent loss of the use of his left arm, that he was the fortunate soldier that fateful day.
The banzai charge on "suicide hill" consumed an hour. The Nisei suffered many casualties, but by 3:30 they had taken the hill. Those enemy soldiers who had been wounded or otherwise unable to escape the hill cowered in fear before the survivors of the onslaught. Never had they seen such courage, such fierce determination, such sheer force of will-power in the face of unbelievable odds.
These kinds of banzai charges, when looked upon in retrospect, further reveal the desperation to which the men of the 442d had been pushed. Pulled out of the line one day after concluding their 8-days of continuous combat to liberate Breyeres and Biffontaine, suffering the physical maladies forced upon them by the cold, wet weather, and driven beyond human endurance to accomplish what two previous regiments had been unable to do, their situation appeared hopeless. Many believed that relief would come only when they had freed the Lost Battalion or when the 442d Regiment had been destroyed to the man. They were beaten beyond emotion, yet they could not help the emotions that rose up within their breast at the horrible slaughter around them. Mr. George Sakato, a retired postal worker from Denver, Colorado looked back on October 29, 1944 fifty-six years later and summed the events up by saying, "Nowadays, they call it road rage." He should know, for he was there. His eyes still fill with tears whenever he is asked to recall the events of that day, reflecting the emotion of an event not reflected in his Medal of Honor citation.
The men of Private Sakato's platoon from E Company knew their objective only as Hill 617. Sakato's citation tells how the men moved forward to take the hill, destroying two enemy positions. Private Sakato personally killed five enemy soldiers and captured four more. Then the enemy counter attacked.
Private Sakato and his buddy Saburo Tanamachi had been together since basic training. As the enemy launched their renewed assault, George turned to Saburo and told him to watch out for a machine gun. It was too late. The enemy rounds slammed into his friend, ripping flesh and spilling blood. As Saburo Tanamachi died in Sakato's arms, tears welled up within the young private's eyes. A rage began to boil deep within as he gently lowered his friend's lifeless body to the ground. Tears continuing to blur his vision he leaped to his feet, heedless of the enemy fire that tore into the brush around him, to launch his one-man assault on the Germans. Using an enemy rifle and P-38 pistol he charged headlong into the counter-attack, killing 12 enemy, wounding two more and capturing four. Inspired by Private Sakato's brazen assault, his platoon followed, retaking the hill and capturing 34 prisoners. In all, Companies E and F killed 100 enemy and captured 41 in the taking of Hill 617.
JUST HOW CLOSE WAS THE ENEMY. If there was any doubt, the question was answered on the morning of October 29th. During the darkness of the previous night one of the Americans had been huddling in his foxhole when he felt another soldier climb in next to him. Exhausted, both men fell asleep, content to share the wet hole in the ground and to share their body heat. When the American awakened at daylight he saw his bedmate for the first time. It was a German soldier who, in the darkness had wandered into the small perimeter and taken shelter with the Americans, believing they were his German comrades. Not only had the Lost Battalion survived their fifth night, they captured a prisoner.
Lieutenant Blonder was worried. Despite nearly a week without food and sustained by only the brackish water drawn from shell holes, in spite of the hopelessness of their position, the men were holding up reasonable well. Most sincerely believed, even after six days with no respite, that help was on the way. What worried Lieutenant Blonder was that the Germans probably knew by now, how few and how desperate were the men of the Lost Battalion. The attempt at an air drop the previous day certainly had sent a message to they enemy as to the dire straits of the men they had surrounded. To his chagrin, he was correct.
The attack began with an artillery barrage. The men on the hill had been subjected to constant shelling for six days, but this was the worst yet. And then they came, moving through the brush to attack in force. Fortunately, the enemy while now realizing how helpless the battalion was, did not know where they had placed their heavy machineguns. By chance they made their assault on the most heavily defended area of the American perimeter. The gunners restrained themselves, firing single-shot bursts as the enemy came closer. Then, when the encroaching force was almost upon the defenders, the Lost Battalion cut loose with everything they had. The hillside was littered with the bodies of enemy soldiers, the attack thwarted, as the men of the Lost Battalion settled in for their sixth night in hell.
October 30, 1944
It was the fifth day in the forest for the soldiers of the 442d as 3d Battalion led the way. The rain that had fallen virtually every day since October 15th began to turn to snow altering conditions from bad to worse. Time was running out for the Lost Battalion and, equally important, the "cavalry" was running out of men to send to their rescue.
What remained of the 3d Battalion's I and K Companies joined with B and C Companies of the 100th to sweep down the ridge that led to the position of the Lost Battalion. To the left, the 2d Battalion was moving on the flank to dig out enemy soldiers and protect the efforts on the ridge. Men of the 232d Engineers and the 522d Artillery were fighting as infantrymen, many replacing lost soldiers in the battered line companies. It would have been a beautiful display of complete teamwork by the Regiment, a tribute to their personal maturity since the squabbles months earlier when the 2d and 3d Battalion arrived in Italy, were it not for the sad loss of so many team members.
Leading the way was the decimated remains of I Company, which soon ran into a roadblock manned by 50 enemy. K Company moved over to assist their badly outnumbered comrades, killing and routing the enemy and destroying the roadblock. Then, despite their fatigue, the Nisei moved on. Only two platoons remained in I Company which had been fully staffed at the beginning of the rescue mission, a company of 205 men: First Platoon consisting of six men, and Second Platoon containing two. The highest ranking officer of the 8-man company was an NCO, Sergeant Tak Senzaki. Shortly after 2 O'clock, it was these men who finally broke through to the Lost Battalion.
Private First Class Matt Sakumoto was the point man, the first friendly face the 211 survivors of the surrounded battalion had seen in a week. As the Nisei enlisted man walked past the first T-patcher he noticed the man's lips begin to quiver and his eyes fill with tears. He stared with relief and numbed shock at the miracle that had appeared out of the forest in the Vosges mountains. It was an emotion charged moment of silence...what can one say at a time like that. Turning to the mud blacked face, tears streaming down the cheeks from sunken eyes, Pfc Sakumoto could only say, "Want a smoke?"
Minutes later the rest of I Company broke through, and was joined shortly thereafter by K Company...or what remained of K company...17 men. In all the Nisei had lost 800 men in five days of battle to rescue 211. Sergeant Senzaki didn't allow his men time to reflect in their accomplishment, for the enemy was still nearby. He ordered his 8-man company to move on to take up defensive positions on the far side of the hill to protect the men so many of his brothers had sacrificed to reach. Within an hour the Lost Battalion was on its way down the other side, into the shelter of the waiting aid stations and the spotlight of a battery of newsmen. For those who survived it was one of those experiences that stamps itself indelibly on the subconscious, never to be forgotten. For the 442d Regiment Combat Team, in a series of war time accomplishments unprecedented in military history, it was
A Defining Moment.