Thanksgiving On Hill 920 By Masayoshi Kawamoto, First Sergeant, Co. C
On Thanksgiving Day 1943 our battalion was ordered to move forward to push the Germans further back into the hills near the town of Colli, Italy. “C” company of the 100th Inf. Bn., of which I was a member, was to spearhead the attack. The weather was clear and the days were rather warm, but the nights were down to freezing temperature. For two weeks it had rained steadily but the ground was dry now. Most outfits had been issued winter clothing, but we were still in our summer uniforms.
We got up to Hill 1017 (named 1017 because it is 1017 meters high) to relieve a paratroop outfit. The slopes were very steep and difficult to climb. Reaching the top of the hill we were stopped by artillery and mortar barrage from the surrounding hills on our enemy’s side, but fortunately without casualties. On the second night, with one officer, our third and weapons platoons were sent forward to attack and take Hill 920, we believing that the defense there was not too strong. We were mistaken in this but under the able leadership of our third platoon sergeant, the enemy was forced back from the slopes of the hill to the top. There, under good cover of thick woods, they built a defense position we were not able to break.
Communication was maintained with these two platoons by wire which stretched a couple of miles between hills 1035 and 920. It was not long before the wire was cut by an artillery barrage. Four nights later we set out for Hill 920 to try and take the hill under the leadership of the company commander. This included company headquarters, 1st platoon, and 2nd platoon.
While all of this was happening we had to have our supplies of food and water. Each evening we sent a ration and water detail of about 20 men for our supplies. They started out as soon as night fell because it was dangerous to move about in daylight. To get to the supply dump and bring up the food and water required half the night due to darkness and unmarked, steep, dangerous frails. The battalion supply was not able to get the food up to us because they were short of hands. We were weakening our position by sending the men down for food, but that was better than starving to death or dying of thirst.
The second night after our weapons and third platoons were sent to Hill 920, we sent a detail of men carrying water and food to them. The place was difficult to find became of the dark and lack of trails. The detail finally reached the place with only half of the water in their 3 five gallon cans, or about a glass of water to each man. The rest was spilled by the men slipping and dropping the cans, for although the days were dry, the nights were cold and heavy with dew, making everything wet.
The food that was sent over there was supposed to be turkey sandwiches from Thanksgiving Day. Somehow the battalion supply foolishly got the idea that turkey sandwiches would be the thing to send to the men instead of the usual K or C rations, not knowing the terrible conditions and situation the men were in. The boxes of food got mixed up in the dark. Only slices of bread reached the men. This water and food were the only supplies the men got for six days. Although we joined the third and weapons platoons on the fourth day, we had nothing except what we had saved. We joined them before we could replenish our supply.
When we joined the third and weapons platoons on Hill 920, after a night of wandering trying to locate them, we found out for the first time the terrible condition they were in. They were thirsty, hungry, and cold and they were not able to evacuate their wounded. They had been in a terrible battle, and although victorious for the moment because they surprised the enemy, they had been in constant fear of counter attack and from daily mortar barrages.
I offered water to some of these men, for my canteen was full. Several accepted my water with thanks, and although anyone of them could have drunk all the water with one gulp they took only a mouthful and returned the rest. Others politely refused, saying, “Keep it you are going to need it yourself.”
I thanked God that I was fighting with such men as these. After four days and nights of hell, they were still calm and able to think of others besides themselves, keeping the spirit of unity at a time when it was most needed. Most men would have thought of themselves only. The men were glad and excited upon seeing us, but they settled down to grim business when we were ready for the attack.
Plans were immediately made to attack the hill. Two patrols were first sent out. About two hours later they were back. One patrol met no resistance; the other came back, leaving a couple of dead scouts behind. We attacked the hill just before noon but it was a complete failure. Several men died in the attempt, and many more were wounded. The Germans were well concealed in the thick woods and were looking down on us from good defense positions. All they had to do was fire machine guns down at us and throw grenades and mortar shells.
We had no observation position for our own mortars and artillery, so we had no support for our riflemen. After organizing we made a second attempt to chase the Germans back, but with the same disastrous results as the first. Without artillery and mortars, our riflemen were useless.
We moved back into our old position, which was only about 200 to 300 yards from the enemy. Only the thick woods separated us. Knowing we were close, the enemy harassed us all afternoon and night by throwing mortar shells. We stubbornly kept our position knowing that we had to attack again when morning came. We lost several more men by keeping the position as the shells found our slit trenches one by one.
The next morning at about 9 am, two rifle platoons from “E” Company joined us after trying all night long to locate us in the dark and dangerous hills. The men were fresh in spite of a sleepless night of hill climbing, and with renewed hopes we joined them to attack the hill. They led the attack this time to storm the hill, but it was of no use. We failed again with more casualties.
We could not get the much needed support from artillery and the 81 mm mortars from our heavy weapons company to aid us in our attacks. One artillery officer was killed and another one seriously wounded in attempting to find good observation positions. Two radio men with them were also wounded.
We tried observing from the tops of neighboring hills, but visibility was poor so we finally had our artillery fire by map. We had to give this up as several shells burst in our own area, wounding several of our men. Our heavy weapons company battery of 81 mm mortars also fired several rounds of shells by map from a neighboring hill but apparently did no good. We were alone in this battle for the hill.
After our last attempt at storming the hill, battalion headquarters finally sent word for us to remain in the position we already had with the men from “E” Company and await further orders. This we were glad to do. It was impossible to get the enemy from our position. They had to be chased out from some other way. We dug our slit trenches deeper and prepared for counterattack and a long stay.
It was not until the day after “E” Company joined us that we finally got some food and water from our battalion supply, but we had to wait till evening. Our men were hungry and thirsty. In the mornings some men were found shaking the leaves of trees and bushes to catch the precious drops of dew but they got only enough to wet their lips and tongues. Others were chipping the ice that they found on the frozen ground, but there was hardly enough ice free from dirt to be of any use.
Our spirits were low because we were on the loser’s side and also because of thirst, hunger and cold but no one complained. Our months of training in the states stood us well. We were soldiers. We knew what to expect and what was expected of us without explanation. Whatever food and water we had, we shared with each other. We were all in physically good condition and no one got sick.
We had two officers become nervous wrecks. The one that took the first unit to Hill 920 left our company for the aid station the day we joined them. He did not return. The oilier, our company commander, left our company after the second attack, saying he was going to battalion headquarters. He took a messenger along with him. The messenger returned alone.
With no officers, the company was left in my command, as I was the first sergeant of the company. I was in command for one day until relieved. The men had faith in their platoon sergeants and placed their hopes in them. The sergeants never failed them. Their courage, bravery and fine spirit to carry on the work in spite of the enemy and bad weather were somehow injected into the men and the men served well.
Our third platoon suffered the most casualties. One by one the leaders were killed or wounded until finally a private first class was temporarily elevated to the position of platoon leader with only about eight men under him. They finally joined the first platoon to fill up the vacancies there.
On the afternoon that “E” Company joined us, and after we were ordered to keep the position we had, the weather changed for the worse. It suddenly became colder and snow started to fall. Pretty soon the snow changed to rain, which brought us relief from thirst. We caught the rain with everything available and gave no second thought when we drank the dirty muddy water caught in unwashed raincoats and shelter halves. The rain only brought temporary relief for after that followed wet clothes, wet shoes, muddy grounds and slit trenches filled with water. It stopped raining before evening but we were still hungry and mortar shells were bursting around us all the time.
The messenger that went with the company commander returned to the company the morning of the day after we made our last attack. On the way back he found a well about 500 yards from our position, and we immediately sent a detail to get water for the company although we knew that water was coming with the rations that night After the muddy rain water the well water was sweet and refreshing. Our water problem was solved upon the discovery of the well. The discovery was not too soon. Only the cold weather, which prevented perspiration, kept us from dying of thirst.
The second night, after receiving orders to keep our position, we received our first food on 920. Battalion headquarters dumped our K rations about 1000 yards from our position from a mule team. They left the rest to us. The trail to our rations was frill of danger but we had to eat so we sent a detail of about 15 men each night (it was too dangerous to move about in daylight) for the next two weeks. Fortunately we had no mishaps. All the dead we could gather we took to the supply dump to be picked up the next night by the mule team.
The same night we got our food it started to rain again, and the rain continued for two days and nights. We managed to keep our bodies dry with raincoats and helmets, but our legs and shoes were soaked. Few of us had shelter halves, for many were made into stretchers, and all we could do was stand in the rain. We had no other shelter and we had to keep the ground we had won. We had little sleep those nights and days.
Meantime an officer was sent by headquarters to take command of our company. He was proven capable, and our spirits rose a little. We had faith in him, for he was fearless and kept his head under the most frying conditions.
The rain stopped after the second night, but the damage was done. The ground remained wet and muddy until we were relieved on December 12. Our men started to get trench foot as the result of wet shoes and cold weather. One by one, they were sent to the aid station and then to the hospital. The aid station was about three miles away down a steep, rocky mountain trail, and the men must have suffered a lifetime of torture with their red swollen, aching feet.
There was nothing we could to for the trench foot and nothing to prevent us from getting it. It was impossible, with the enemy so close, to take off our shoes to dry and still be prepared to meet them if they came. Dry shoes stayed dry only a few minutes in the wet muddy ground anyway. By the time we were relieved on December 12, everybody had trench foot at one stage or another.
Trench foot is something that medical science does not know much about. They know what causes it but have found no cure except rest. They have not even found a relief for the aching pain. A man with trench foot has red swollen feet that keep aching continuously day and night for weeks and even months. Heat makes the pain greater and so does any object touching the foot. Anyone who has had a serious case of trench foot would rather be wounded than go through the same experience again.
After the two days of rain the sun came out bright and warm but the nights and mornings still remained cold and wet from dew. Things looked a little brighter with the coming of the sun which remained until we left the hill, but the Germans continued to harass us with mortar fire daily. During the two rainy days they ceaselessly fired mortars at us, and occasionally the mortars found their marks. After the rain stopped, the enemy probably got the idea that we had moved away, for their mortar shells were scattered and away from our area but close enough to be demoralizing and dangerous. We had no more casualties as a result of the Germans, but trench foot and uncomfortable nights were just as bad.
Our position was so close to the enemy that it was just plain murder to make any kind of noise. We had to talk in whispers and move around with caution. The thick woods were a blessing after the attacks for we were able to smoke and build small fires in daylight with our small Coleman’s stove that we carried around to heat water for our coffee. Those who had no stove, or did not want to wait for one, built fires with the wax covered paper box which contained our rations. One box torn into small narrow strips and carefully fed into die fires caused no smoke and was enough to heat water for one cup of coffee.
As the enemy harassed us with mortar fire, we did the same to them also. Our heavy weapons company from a neighboring hill helped us from their position. Communication all the time with headquarters was by radio and field telephone. The radio did not work too well, and the wires for the field telephone were out daily by artillery and mortar fire. Our communication sergeant was always out at night to fix the wires.
On the night of December 12 our relief finally came up to take over. They were colored French colonial troops under white French officers fighting with the fifth Army. The night was clear and lighted by a big moon, making traveling easy. They came without a sound and the enemy suspected nothing. By 10 pm they were in our position, and we started to evacuate. We traveled as lightly as we could by leaving most of our ammunition behind. The French Army was using American weapons, and they needed the ammunition anyway.
The trail back was by way of the aid station three miles away. Those with bad cases of trench foot crawled on all fours where the going was rough, but we made good time with the help of a bright moon for all were happy and were moving to a safe place to rest.
We started out on our campaign with about a hundred and seventy-five fighting men on Thanksgiving Day. When we returned on December 12, only about fifty remained. The rest were in hospitals or were dead. As we came down the hill that night we were a dirty, haggard group of men with beards three weeks old. The misery we went through was visible in our faces.
A little beyond the aid station we were met by trucks and were taken a few miles back to our kitchen area. We got there about 2 am. We were in a safe place at last, and we dropped off to a restful and much needed sleep on the cold wet ground with only shelter halves stretched under us. No one bothered to wash, and no guards were placed on duty for the first time that night.
The next morning the kitchen crew was up early and prepared a breakfast we never dreamed we would eat again. We had coffee with cream, ham and eggs, hot cakes, bread and mush. The men were all up by 8 am. Some had already washed from a nearby well. Breakfast was immediately after 8 am. All were laughing and talking and happy that Chance had kept us alive and well. We were living on Hill 920 again with our talk but this time were laughing and joking. The breakfast was the first real food we had eaten in weeks, and we stuffed ourselves to our threats, with the result that everyone got diarrhea.
That afternoon the 133rd Regiment, of which we were a part, was ordered to go into reserve, which meant that we were going to have a much-needed rest with plenty of kitchen-cooked meals. We had been on or near the front lines and in contact with the enemy since September 29. We were moved by trucks back near the town of Alife, where we reorganized our unit.
Our rest was short, for on January 5, 1944, we were ordered to go into action again. This time, equipped with winter clothing, we went up the snow-capped mountains to fight our way to Cassino.