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 "We are Iowa boys of the 34th Division, and have fought side by side with the boys of Japanese descent...We know plenty of folks that call themselves Americans that have done much less to prove they give a hang about their country.  There have been times when these Japanese, as you call them, have saved many lives, only because they have proven themselves better Americans than some that were not of Japanese descent."
(From a letter to the Des Moines Register written by 7 white soldiers of the 34th Division, after they read previous "Letters to the Editor" critical of the Japanese Americans back in their home state of Iowa..")

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"Monte Cassino"

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War in the Mountains

 

While the 442nd was finishing its training at Fort Shelby, the 100th Battalion was fighting for survival in the high Apennine mountains of Italy.  The men spent their second Christmas away from home, bundled against the cold blizzards of the winter.  Slowly some replacements were arriving, often young Nisei of the 442nd who had completed their training, but the infusion of fresh soldiers could not keep up with the high casualty rate the Purple Heart Battalion was suffering.

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It was the aggressive manner in which the Nisei took the war to the enemy, and not a lack of training or leadership that accounted for the high number of men killed or wounded.  The Fifth Army had to slug its way to Rome, one heavily defended mountain at a time, and it seemed that the small soldiers of the 100th, dwarfed by backpacks almost as large as they were, were sometimes bent on taking "a mountain a day".  On January 11th they took Hill 1109.  Two days later they attacked and wrested Hill 1207 from the crack German grenadiers.  The next day they moved on to capture Hill 692.  The next day they captured the town of San Michele.  All this during an intense blizzard that dumped 2 feet of snow around soldiers with no winter clothing, men who went without sleep for three nights.  Wrote one of the survivors, "You have to have the will, you have to have the desire, and you have to have the spirit.  It's a mind over matter situation.  You can go without food, you can take extreme cold, you can take extreme heat, you can take anything if you make up your mind you can and you will do it."

In the military history books, one can think of the progress of the 5th Army as being one mountain at a time.  To the soldiers who weathered adversity as well as enemy gunfire, rather than being one more mountain gained, it all too often was one more friend lost.  One member of the 100th wrote home to say,

"When you read that a town was taken, or a certain hill was taken, remember that in the process of that accomplishment lives of fine fellows were lost., and also, that during this accomplishment for the participants, life was a horrifying massacre.  You lose your buddies--fellows with whom you laughed, ate, slept, sweated.  They grow to be more than mere buddies.  They become blood relations to you and they die before your eyes--not a pleasant, natural death, but an unimaginable kind of mutilation mixed with groans and prayers ending with a gurgling last breath.  Only five minutes ago you might have been laughing with that buddy of yours."

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Each mountain the 100th took also brought them one step closer to Rome, and the goal of liberating the capitol city.  One major obstacle loomed in the way of the 5th Army's advance, a high mountaintop crowned with a spectacular monastery.  Founded in 529 by St. Benedict of Nursia, it was home to the Benedictine Order.  For centuries it had been the leading monastery in western Europe.   Three times it had been destroyed, by the Lombards in 590, the Saracens in 884, and by an earthquake in 1349.  Each time it had been rebuilt from the ashes of its ruin.   Now the American commanders believed it was being used by the Germans as a fortress to turn back the 5th Army's advance.  Orders came down through the chain of command:

 

"Destroy Monte Cassino"

 


 

 

"The battle of Cassino was the most grueling, the most harrowing, and in one respect the most tragic, of any phase of the war in Italy." (General Mark Clark in his memoir Calculated Risk)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The small town of Cassino sat at the entrance to the Liri valley, blocking the only road north into Rome.  German Field Marshal Kesselring had begun to respond to the Allied invasion with a series of tactical retreats further into the mountains.  Monte Cassino, the 1703 foot high peak that rose above Cassino, dominated his Gustav Line to check the advance.  Into the town he poured some of his finest soldiers including the crack 1st German Parachute Division.  At the top of Monte Cassino stood the 1300 year old Benedictine Monastery.  Cassino had to be taken, and in order to do it Monte Cassino would have to fall to the allies.

4_cassino_ruins.jpg (12654 bytes)Reluctant to destroy such a vital part of world history, British General Bernard Freyberg never-the-less requested permission to bomb the mountain top structure.  On February 15th Pope Pius XII granted permission, and American B17s began dropping the first of 2,500 tons of bombs to demolish the stone monastery.  They performed their task well, but it was an ill-fated success, for the rubble of the once elegant monastery provided excellent locations for the Germans to dig in.  It would take 4 assaults and cost 100,000 lives to finish the task the bombers had begun.  The blood that stained the ruins of a once proud icon of world history included the blood of hundreds of Nisei from the 100th Infantry Battalion.


On the evening of January 20th the 141st and 143d Regiments of the 36th Infantry Division (formerly of the Texas National Guard) began crossing the Rapido River which ran along the side of the town of Cassino.  The ice-choked river was flooding, up to 200 yards of ground was awash after the Germans had destroyed the dam upriver.  The crossing was made using 12-man wooden assault boats.   Before the boats were halfway across, German artillery began to rain from the heavens.  Entire boats disintegrated in flashes of fire, wounded survivors quickly drowning in the frozen waters.  By dawn only about 1,000 men of the 143d had made it across.  In the daylight they came under intense machinegun fire from the German soldiers in the high ground above them.  The regimental commander ordered them to withdraw, and the haggard remnants of the proud Texas unit made their way back across the river.

Engineers hastily constructed portable bridges for a renewed crossing, and as night fell on the 21st the soldiers of the 36th moved across them and into enemy territory, only to find themselves hopelessly out-gunned with no hope of retreat.  Two days of intense fighting followed, but by noon on January 23rd every American on the German side of the Rapido River had been killed or captured.   Three years later the state of Texas asked for a congressional investigation of General Mark Clark and the Fifth Army for "one of the most colossal blunders of the war"...an action that almost annihilated two full regiments of the 36th Infantry.  

 

January 24, 1944

Despite evidence of the powerful enemy force that had repelled two regiments and nearly wiped them out in the previous two and a half days, orders came down for the 100th to cross the Rapido and attack Cassino.  The battalion that had landed with more than 1,300 soldiers before suffering more than 50% casualties had received some replacements.  A report on January 20th listed their ranks as now having 832 men, including officers...still well below fighting strength.   But orders for the Purple Heart Battalion were to "Take Cassino", and the 100th had gained a reputation for following orders, regardless of how impossible the task appeared.  On the night of January 24th the 100th moved into position to cross the Rapido River.

Moving out from San Micheli a few miles from the east bank of the Rapido River, the Nisei moved into the darkness.  As they approached the river they found themselves in a morass of knee-deep mud caused by the flooding.  Embedded in the mud were thousands of deadly German mines.  Slowly they moved through the mud, groping in the darkness to detect the enemy mines, as they advanced towards the 8-foot high stone dike that channeled the raging waters of the Rapido.  At midnight American artillery commenced with a heavy volume of supportive fire that, rather than covering the advance of the 100th, simply alerted the enemy to their presence.  From the high western bank of the river the Germans began to pour deadly machinegun fire on the approaching Nisei from well hidden and fortified emplacements.  Alpha Company's Captain Richard Mizuta was badly wounded probing in the mud for mines, when one of the explosive devices almost severed his right arm and leg.   Despite the mud, mines and enemy fire, companies A and C managed to reach the wall, where the men struggled for survival throughout the day.

As night fell on the 25th the Battalion Commander, Major George Dewey, was wounded and his executive officer killed as they attempted a reconnaissance of A and C companies.  Major Caspar Clough, who had been relieved of command the previous evening when he had ignored orders from the regimental commander to send his soldiers into what he considered a "suicide mission", resumed command of the 100th.  The following morning Bravo Company made a daring daylight advance under cover of a smoke screen in an attempt to reach its sister companies.  Suddenly the wind arose, blowing away their cover and revealing their position to the enemy in the bunkers on the far bank of the river.  Artillery and machinegun fire rained in torrents as the men of B company struggled through the exploding mines and muddy shore to reach Alpha and Charlie Company at the dike.  Of the 187 brave soldiers who began the assault, only 14 reached the wall.  These survived only because they had fallen into the mud, laying there as though dead, until darkness fell.   As the few survivors of the 3 Nisei companies hugged the wall in the darkness, regimental headquarters ordered their withdrawal.

The Purple Heart Battalion withdrew to San Micheli to bury their dead, treat their wounded, resupply the survivors, and welcome not nearly enough replacements.  Major Clough had been wounded and the battalion's new commander was Major Jim Lovell who had just returned from a hospital in North Africa where he recuperated from wounds received in a previous action.  On February 8th Major Lovell led his men back into action. 

Castle Hill (Hill 165) sat over the only paved road leading to the monastery at the top of Monte Cassino.  The Purple Heart Battalion took control of the hill against only light resistance, but resistance was strong enough to send Major Lovell home with a war ending wound to his leg.  The recovering Major Clough again took command as the 100th, with virtually no support on its flanks, clung tenuously to their position.  For four days the enemy poured heavy fire on the Nisei.  Major Clough was wounded again and two more soldiers were killed in action.  Finally, unable to send the beleaguered soldiers support,  the regimental commander ordered the 100th to fall back into the hills near Cassino to join the regimental reserves.  On February 15th the bombing that destroyed the abbey at Monte Casino began.

February 18, 1944

After three days of some of the most intense bombing of the war, the second assault on Monte Cassino commenced.  It was the last assault on the mountain fortress by the 34th Division, as well as its 100th Infantry Battalion.  Already badly decimated by three weeks of fierce fighting, the Division didn't have the manpower to get the job done.  One platoon of the Purple Heart Battalion attacked the mountain with 40 soldiers...only to return with five.  In four days of intense fighting the 100th managed to fight almost halfway to the top of Monte Cassino, but again there was no manpower left in the Division to render them support.   When finally ordered to withdraw the 100th Infantry Battalion was down to 512 men.   Monte Cassino remained in German hands, a sad defeat not only for the brave Nisei but for all the men of the 34th Infantry.  Their advance had been strong, aggressive, and nearly successful.  Had they not run out of men and material, they just might have succeeded.

It would take five divisions until the 17th of May to finally bring Monte Cassino to its knees.  There was no shame in the defeat at Monte Cassino, these brave soldiers had ALMOST done it by themselves.

 

..

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