June 26, 1944
Private First Class Kiyoshi Muranaga was a kotonk who had enlisted to serve with the 442d Regimental Combat Team from the relocation camp at Amache, Colorado. Now, a year after the small built youth had started his training, he found himself battling for his very life. It was the first taste of battle for the men of the 442d, and the taste left a bitter flavor of fear and desperation. This was not a war maneuver, the bullets weren't blank and the grenades weren't dummies. Everything, including the blood that his fellow soldiers were spilling on the Italian hillside was all too real.
The 442d had started early that morning on the short route to relieve elements of the 517th Infantry Regiment and 142d Infantry Regiment, in an area Major General Charles Ryder, commander of the 34th Division, had been assured was occupied by friendly forces. Before the General realized how strong the enemy presence was, his jeep as well as the jeep of a Colonel accompanying him in the area, was captured. The drivers of both vehicles were wounded, but the General escaped capture himself. It was into the cauldron of such a powerful enemy presence that the raw recruits of the 442d tasted first blood...most of it their own.
The men of the 442d had been anxious to establish their own reputation, to prove they were every bit the warriors their veteran brothers of the 100th had proven to be. For this reason the Regimental commander, Colonel Charles Pence, had allowed the second and third battalions to move out at daylight on the road to Belvedere. The 100th was held in the rear in reserve.
Sweeping in along either side of Suvereto just south of Belvedere, they advanced directly into the heavy enemy concentration that held the important Italian city of Belvedere. By early morning the Second Battalion was pinned down by fire from inside the city of Belvedere as well as enemy 88mm weapons hidden in the high hills nearby. Companies E and G were unable to move and taking heavy casualties, including the battalion's operations officer Captain Ralph Ensminger, who was killed in action. Private Muranaga's F Company had been lured into a trap, and found itself under heavy direct fire from a self-propelled 88mm enemy gun.
As the heavy shells began falling on the men of Company F, a mortar squad attempted to set up resistance. The harsh terrain made their effort of no effect, and the soldiers were ordered to take cover. Private Muranaga remained at his gun position, and single-handedly began adjusting mortar fire on the enemy gun. The enemy position was only 400 yards from the exposed Nisei, but he braved the incoming leaden death to drop three rounds near the enemy, adjusting fire each time. His third round landed directly in front of the German 88, causing the enemy to withdraw. Before they withdrew however, they dropped yet another round on the Nisei position. As Private Muranaga prepared to fire a fourth mortar, his position took a direct hit. The young soldier from a Colorado relocation camp became one of the first casualties of the "Go For Broke" Regiment, earning the Distinguished Service Cross on his unit's first day of battle. More than 50 years later his award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
The Belvedere-Sassetta action was the first of three to warrant the award of the Presidential Unit Citation to the 100th Infantry Battalion. By the time it ended the Nisei killed 178 enemy, wounded 20 and captured 86, virtually destroying an entire enemy SS combat team. It cost the Purple Heart Battalion 11 casualties, including four soldiers killed in action. For the Second and Third Battalions of the 442d it was a bitter-sweet introduction to the warfare they had trained for. The newly arrived soldiers had wanted to win their first engagement without any help from their veteran brothers of the 100th.
In the end, it was these battle-savy men who had already fought their way half the distance of Italy's western coast, that saved the day. Moving swiftly in from their reserve position, the 100th Infantry moved around to the east of Belvedere. From the high ground north of the city they could see the exposed flank of the German motorized battalion that threatened their brothers in the 2d Battalion. Without protective artillery fire, Company B struck swiftly at the exposed enemy flank, catching it completely by surprise. Company A had moved north to cut off the retreat of the enemy, and Company C followed the enemy into a nearby olive grove to destroy them. By afternoon the road west of Belvedere, which had been expected to require several days of fierce fighting to wrest from enemy control, had fallen to the lightening strike of the 100th.
The previously untested soldiers of the 2d and 3d Battalions accepted the turn of events well. They had nothing to be ashamed of, had fought their first battle well and given a solid accounting for themselves. The "rescue" at Belvedere proved that the experience of the veteran Purple Heart Battalion was pivotal to the success of the Team, but it also marked the real beginning of the teamwork of all three battalions of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. One might also wonder if, in some unique way, if it was the dress rehearsal for another incredible rescue effort in which the 2nd and 3rd Battalions would share the spotlight of "cavalry coming to the rescue" only six months later in the mountains of France.
The 442d held the area for four days, fighting northward to the Cecina River. On July 1st they crossed the Cecina, the 100th Battalion moving north along Highway 1 to Pisa and the 2d and 3d Battalions fighting their way inland towards Firenze. Both important cities sit on the Arno River and are linked by the east-west Highway 67. The drive to liberate them would remove the Germans from control of the Italian countryside south of the Arno River and bring direct pressure on the Gothic line.
Shortly after crossing the Cecina River, the 2d Battalion began the assault to drive the Germans out of the town of Castellina. Just a week earlier, Company G had been pinned down for most of the day at Belvedere. On the fourth of July they found themselves facing a similar threat. The enemy was dug in on well fortified hillsides, and suddenly Company G was taking intense fire from several directions. Private First Class Frank Ono was moving forward with his squad when the torrent began. Quickly he turned his own machinegun on the enemy, knocking out one position with well placed fire.
Refusing to be pinned down again, Pfc. Ono began advancing through the merciless hail of leaden death, killing a sniper and giving his squad leader time to reorganize the squad behind him. The enemy mounted an assault, determine to destroy the lone gun-man. Pfc. Ono felt his machine gun ripped from his grasp by enemy fire. Undaunted he began throwing grenades, defending his position and forcing the enemy back until his platoon moved forward. Then, taking the rifle of a wounded soldier, he renewed his offensive. Suddenly he saw his platoon leader and a rifleman fall nearby. Ignoring the machinegun and mortar fire, Pfc. Ono ran into the fray to administer first aid. Then, as the platoon was organized to withdraw, the young Nisei who had volunteered for military service from Indiana, stayed behind alone to keep the enemy at bay and protect his platoon. Virtually unprotected, exposed to intense fire, and alone, he not only covered the withdrawal of his fellow soldiers, he survived to wear the Distinguished Service Cross awarded for his heroism that day. Mr. Ono never knew his DSC was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. He passed away in 1980 and his award was presented posthumously to members of his family.
Nearby, Private First Class William "Bill" Nakamura found himself in a similarly perilous position. The twenty-two year old native of Seattle, Washington had been attending classes at the University of Washington when Executive Order 9066 ended his academic hopes and placed him at the relocation camp in Hunt, Idaho. There, he had volunteered for service in the U.S. Army, leaving behind the concentration-camp atmosphere for barracks life. Even as Frank Ono fought to save his squad, Pfc. Nakamura struggled to free his own pinned-down platoon. Alone, he voluntarily crawled toward the enemy gun that kept his fellow soldiers pressed to the ground, rising within 15 yards of the enemy to throw 4 grenades and eliminate the threat. Then he remained behind, again alone, to cover the withdrawal of the platoon. Suddenly he heard the sound of a fierce fire-fight. Near the tree line the enemy had opened up on the platoon once again. Pfc Nakamura crawled to a vantage point that allowed him to rain effective fire on the enemy, cutting off their assault and allowing the platoon to withdraw into the treeline. As the badly battered platoon from Company G reassembled to take stock and treat the wounded, Pfc. Nakamura was not among them. His body still lay on the battlefield where he gave his life for his fellow soldiers, dying to preserve the liberties of a Nation that a year earlier had itself imprisoned him. The date was July 4th, Independence Day, 1944.
The first three Medals of Honor awarded to members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team all went to kotonks in the 2nd Battalion. Even as the new soldiers were proving themselves to their brothers in the 100th, the mainlanders were showing their comrades from the "Islands" that they had more in common than ancestry. They had a common courage and commitment. More and more the team was coming together. Three days after Pfc. Ono and Pfc. Nakamura wrote new history for the 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Technical Sergeant Ted Tanouye gave the 3rd Battalion its first Medal of Honor hero.
The crest of the hill at Molino A Ventoabbto was vital to control of the vicinity, a strategic position that could control the lower terrain around it. Directed to capture the hilltop, Sergeant Tanouye was moving his platoon forward when he saw 5 enemy soldiers setting up a machine-gun position from which to attack his own men. Despite the lack of cover on the almost barren hillside, Sergeant Tanouye crept forward alone to destroy the enemy position. As he did, enemy soldiers in a second emplacement located the brave sergeant and began firing at him. Quickly Sergeant Tanouye returned fire, knocking out the second position. Grenades began to rain on the hillside as Sergeant Tanouye moved forward. Heedless of the explosions around him, one of which badly shattered his arm, Sergeant Tanouye moved towards an enemy-held trench, where he again rained death on the German soldiers. He fired until his ammunition was exhausted, then crawled 20 yards to obtain more, and continued his offensive. His leadership and courage inspired his men, and the platoon continued until they had wrested control of the strategic hill from the enemy. Before allowing himself to be sent back for treatment of his wounds, however, Sergeant Tanouye ignored his own pain long enough to organize his men into a defense of the hill they had just taken.
The wounded sergeant would later return to lead his men once more, to fight again for the country he loved, and ultimately to give his life on a foreign battlefield. Only his family would ever know that his heroism and inspiring example of leadership would be some day acknowledged by the award of his Nation's highest military award, the Medal of Honor. At the time of his heroism they prayed nightly for their son, a native of Los Angeles. They remembered him from the spartan accomodations of their temporary new home....in the Rohuer Relocation Camp.
On that same day, July 7th, the veteran soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion that had already endured far too much war, were fighting for survival near Castellina. Each town from the Cecina River to Livorno was a dangerous battleground, the rubble of stone houses providing German soldiers with fortified and well camouflaged positions. Though war continued to be waged on the roads and in the mountains, some of the most dangerous encounters were in the towns. Private First Class Kaoru Moto was fighting such a battle from house to house when a machine gun opened up on his platoon. He moved to within ten yards of the enemy and destroyed the position. When another enemy opened fire on the Hawaiian soldier, Moto crawled around behind the position to surprise the enemy and capture him. With his prisoner in tow, Pfc. Moto took a position near a house he believed the enemy would attempt to take and use for an observation post, determined to repulse any attempt by the Germans to enter. While guarding the building, and with a prisoner under his control, he knocked out yet another machine gun position. Wounded by a sniper in another house, Pfc. Moto dressed his wounds, then made his way back to his platoon. Relieved of his position, Moto was ordered to the rear to have his wounds treated. Even while returning for first aid, the intrepid soldier wouldn't quit. Upon noticing an enemy position near the road, he quickly wounded two, then crawled up to the position and captured these enemy as well.
Pfc. Moto survived the war to wear his Distinguished Service Cross, but died 8 years before his DSC was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
In the first three weeks of July the 442d Regimental Combat Team was in combat on an almost daily basis, fighting from one town to the next, pushing the Germans ever closer to the Arno River. The veteran warriors of the 100th Infantry Battalion and their newly arrived brothers of the 442d RCT killed more than 1,100 enemy and captured 331 along the way. It was a 3-week baptism of fire for the green troops from Camp Shelby, but more importantly it was the cornerstone of a developing team that was re-writing military history. They did it through solid tactics, great leadership, personal courage, and an aggressive attitude towards meeting the enemy and destroying him.
The actions of Company G Staff Sergeant Kazuo Otani on July 15th is perhaps one of the best illustrations of how the soldiers of the Go For Broke battalion welded all these traits together. Sergeant Otani exhibited his great tactical intuition when his platoon was pinned down in a wheat field near Pieve di S. Luce. After killing a sniper, Sergeant Otani ordered his soldiers to crawl to the cover of a nearby cliff, after first making his own desperate dash through a hail of enemy bullets to prove to them that it could be accomplished. While the platoon raced to the cliff for shelter, Otani exposed himself to the enemy, drawing fire away from his men. When part of the platoon reached shelter, Otani organized these men into a defense, then went back out into the field to encourage those soldiers still stranded there to safety. When one soldier fell wounded, Sergeant Otani crawled forward, completely exposed to enemy fire, to reach and drag the wounded man to shelter. While administering first aid, Sergeant Kazuo was killed by enemy machine-gun fire. Though he would never live to wear his Medal of Honor, his spirit of leadership and concern for his soldiers lived on in the many others like him to fought with the 442d Regimental Combat Team. Rejected by many of their own Nation, these brave warriors worked through their own differences to become more than a team....they became a brotherhood.
The three weeks of bitter fighting ended with the liberation of Livorno. This time the Purple Heart Battalion would not be denied the honor due them. The 100th Infantry marched into the town, considered second only to Naples in military importance as a supply base for the Allied Army, preceded only by General Mark Clark in his jeep. General Clark then placed the battalion under direct command of Fifth Army Headquarters, with orders to guard and city and provide order. On July 20th the 2d and 3d Battalions made their own triumphal entry into the historic city of Pisa. On July 25th the 100th/442d RCT was pulled back to Vada on Highway 1 near the Cecina River for rest and recuperation.
While in Vada, General Clark presented the Purple Heart Battalion with the Presidential Unit Citation for their outstanding efforts at Belvedere. On July 28th members of the 2d Battalion formed part of the honor guard for His Majesty, King George IV of England. In August Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the 34th Infantry Division. As he spoke to the soldiers who had fought so hard, for so long, and sacrificed so much....he could not miss those he knew had often led the way...greeting "the Americans of Japanese ancestry and your American officers."
On August 15th, the 2d and 3d battalions' rest came to an end. The soldiers who had fought so hard to become a team, were separated for a time. The 100th was assigned to the 107th AAA Group, Task Force 45 of IV Corps. The same day the rest ended the 442d's Anti-Tank company was making glider landings on the southern coast of France. The 2d and 3d Battalions of the 442d were relieved from the 45th Infantry and attached to the 88th near Florence. Allied planners claimed the move was an effort to confuse German intelligence. The reputation of the Nisei had brought them again and again to the attention of the enemy, who tried their best to monitor the movement of one of history's finest fighting forces.
During the last two weeks of August there were more battles like those the Nisei had come to expect, meeting the Germans almost daily in clashes near the Arno River. Even for the 100th near Pisa, the struggle for survival continued. On August 19th an element of Company A, 100th Infantry Battalion was attacked by a large number of German soldiers. Private Masato Nakae recoiled in horror as a shell fragment destroyed his own machine gun. In the face of an overwhelming force, his weapon useless, he refused to leave his post. Instead he picked up a rifle from a wounded comrade and began firing rifle-grenades at the advancing enemy. As the enemy surged forward determine to take the position by virtue of their superior number, Private Nakae began throwing grenades, ultimately repelling that first assault. A mortar barrage followed, during which Nakae was seriously wounded. Then a second assault was launched. Wounded and suffering intense pain, Masato Nakae refused to leave his position, firing back until the enemy was forced to withdraw. Private Nakae survived the war to return to his native Hawaii, where he died in 1998...two years before he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism that day.
In all, the Rome-Arno campaign cost the 100th/442d RCT nearly 1,300 casualties...one fourth of their total strength. The Nisei buried 239 of their brothers, patched the wounds of 972, and remembered in their prayers the 17 men who were missing in action. Their reputation, highly envied, was praised by all. General Ryder himself had watched the Nisei march proudly in a parade during the month of August when Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal visited the Italian front for an inspection. As the men of the 442d marched past, General Ryder turned to the Secretary and said proudly,
"My best outfit."