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.
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
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
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
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.