There I Was, In Italy . . . .!
By Walter S. Kadota
The men were seated cross-legged, in a patch of shade, near a running creek of the Volturno River, jotting down notes of the briefing when I walked limply into their circle. The call had gone out for me to be present at this meeting of the squad leaders, but on this particular morning of October 20, 1943 my stomach had started misbehaving and I had no life in me to be stirring about. Then, too, I wasn’t line company — I was just a pill roller in the medical detachment and I thought maybe the lieutenant merely wanted me for a piece of my adhesive.
I let out a rumbling burp by way of explanation. The Sarge let out a loud guffaw. “No, it can’t be” Not you!” he clucked. I was all for crawling back into my hole, but the Looey motioned me to stand fast and listen to what he had to say about the coming night’s mission.
Able company was leading the assault, he said. That meant tailing along with the lead platoon for this medic — my first time up. The mere thought of it should have turned my stomach cold, but at this moment I could feel a warm feeling of pride surging through me in the knowledge that I was let in on the briefing — me, a private and a non-combatant at that.
But that’s how it was with this 100th Infantry Battalion of Niseis of the 34th Infantry Division. The espirit [sic] de corps and warm camaraderie of the men were deep-rooted, for they all had their beginnings in Hawaii and you had to be one among them to appreciate the fierce attachment that they had for the outfit. Here, no one was made to feel that he didn’t belong on the team.
I felt good, buoyed up with a flaming “go-for-broke” spirit! and I told myself, no matter what, I’d never let the outfit down. Life took on a brightened lift and I was only dimly aware of the growling pains that had plagued me all morning. The Looey shifted the map in my direction, his blunt forefinger tracing the location of a crossroad criss crossing the Dragoni- Alife highways, just outside of the little Italian town of St. Angelo D’ Alife. Apparently that was our objective.
The Sarge, now dead serious, nodded confirmation, his unsmiling eyes telling me that this one was going to be a toughie — nothing at all like the pushovers we’ve been having up to now, chasing the Germans up the Italian boot from Montemarrano. The Looey went on: “They’re hopping mad to slug it out with us for a change, so if we do walk into their field of fire, let’s hope we can see something. Reconnaissance has it that it’s all open ground out there — just the thing for tanks — and that’s not good for us. It’s going to be a rough night and there’s bound to be casualties, so you, medic,’ — this to me — you stick to the men, and the rest of you, remember, we’re moving up with fixed bayonets tonight! Any questions?”
We jumped off in the dead of night, in as pitch dark a night as one could ask for, ready to do battle at close quarters. Casualties would hit a new high for the battalion, the Lieutenant feared, but in spite of his forebodings none of the men had taken time out to see the new chaplain. Their philosophy was a simple one, born of exigency of battle: “When your number is up, you’ll go no matter what. In this business, it’s kill or be killed. Time enough to moralize and make peace with your Maker after you’ve lived through each battle. You have to look at it that way if you want to keep a level head about you out there on the line.” That being a quote from a hard-bitten BAR man to a visiting war correspondent [sic] during the last bivouac in a place called Montesarchio as I recalled.
It was rugged going from the start as we jogged cross-country through endless fields and sweet-smelling orchards, and when the point squad called for a break to sheath back our rickety-rackety bayonets we welcomed the halt with sighing relief. “About time they wised up,” a fat, stubby dogface growled to himself as he propped his body against a nearby tree. I made for his direction and wordlessly squatted down to share the other half of his tree. The sour smell of the countryside punctured the night air and the dogface kept snorting and cursing softly to himself. “Stinking place, this! What a place to die! If they ever get me, medic, tell the Old Man I said I want my body shipped back to Hawaii. Tell my sister the insurance is made out to her. Tell her to take care of the kid sister. She’s still not married. Go look her up. And take care of this V-mail letter for me. See that she gets it in case anything happens to me.”
He stuffed the letter into my shirt. I grunted back noncommittally. I didn’t know the guy. I didn’t know if I would go for his sister. I relegated the unsealed letter into my pack roll, mumbling to myself: “Sure, I’m the medic and I don’t have to do any fighting, but look-a-here, Fat Stuff, I’ll be taking the same risk as you out there. Don’t saddle me with your problems, Bub. I’ve got my own worries. What the heck am I doing in Italy? I exploded inside me. What will I get out of all this? Will I still be around when we take Rome?”
The muttering was bad — niente buono — as the boys would say, meaning your number was up. Well, I wasn’t going to take their word for it. With a flick of my steel helmet, I erased morbid thoughts from my mind.
Stretching full on the wet gangle of weeds and vines, I peered up at the darkened sky. Tiny pin pricks of star-light blinked feebly in the distance. As I watched them, thought of home and old friends and the last girl I went out with came to mind. I wondered if they were thinking of me and if I would ever see them again. Then a rude nudge in the ribs jolted me out of the dream and I could hear a sergeant-like voice saying it was time to be up and moving.
Far ahead our two scouts probed the inky darkness, leading the battalion on closer into the enemy’s ground. Soon the olive trees faded behind and the uneven, furrowed rows of a hard, plowed field broke up the jogging cadence of the men. We picked our way over the hard-crusted dung piles which seemed to blob every which way and I soon found myself working up a sweat trying to stay abreast of the man ahead of me. Luckily we had not too far to go. The field ended in a line of Sycamores and when we emerged out of it, there straight ahead, lay the wide open flats. It was faintly light here in the open and we could make out a hump-backed mountain to our right, its craggy top sharply outlined in the glow of the late moon. Suddenly the moon broke clear, splotching the whole valley floor with tell-tale light. I stared out over the vast expanse of moon-drenched, naked ground and felt a sense of foreboding.
“I betcha we’re walking into a trap!”, the guy from the second platoon said. The ominous portent of his words promoted shivers up my spine, but even as I framed the words to shut him up, all hell broke loose!
“Burrutt!”, burped Jerry’s machine-pistols. Red pencil darts of tracers streaked across the field in a murderous crossfire. A flying body hit me heavily from behind and sent me spilling to the ground. From where I lay, I could see the others scrambling forward to form a skirmish line. I should have followed suit but, like a good brass general, I remained put. A rocketing flare turned night into day. Out of the corner of one eye I could see the bright blob of light spiraling down straight for my position. The cold sweat came on as, with one sickening plop! it dropped not 10 feet away from me, leaping in my direction in one sickening hiss. My taut fingers bit into the dirt. I died a thousand deaths wincing with imagining pain, half-expecting a flurry of bullets to plow into me. But nothing happened. Still another flare whooshed up the sky. Again I grimaced it through. The angry whine of whistling bullets rose to a nerve-piercing shrill as the Krauts cut loose with everything in their book. Mortar shells exploded all around us, flaring up the darkness. I was drained of all reflexes of the power to think. My body felt inert, incapable of movement. It looked like finito for me. Moments passed, but the end did not come. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the firing stopped and everything was quite still. Voices from up front righted me back to normal. “Anydody [sic] hurt?” I spoke to no one in particular. No one cared to answer, all were too intent on digging.
I reached back for my intrenching tool and started to get busy myself. Lying awkwardly on my back, I hacked feverishly away, but the sod was hard-packed and unyielding and my muscles began to rebel. Finally I laid aside my tool and surveyed the results of my labor. The hole was piteously small. Burning anger gnawed at my vitals and I jerked off a stream of expletives. “I’m a sad sack, all right,” I commiserated myself. “I live a good life, I don’t hate or hurt anyone — I even saved a dog’s life once. And now it looks like the end of the trail for me. Is this my reward for the ordinary life I’ve lived? What the heck am I doing here in Italy? What am I dying for? And what does the 34th think of us being on their team? Are they glad to have us? Dying would be easier if I knew the answer to the $64 question.” I took my ire out on the spade, making a vicious swipe of it at the ground.
Minutes passed and I was still fuming when the call for medic penetrated my ears. That was my cue. It meant leaping out of the frying pan and into the fire, but there was no fear in me as I threw off my pack roll, grabbed up my aid kit and ran forward, striking out blindly in a half-crouch sprint. I stumbled once, but I lurched back on my feet and kept going. The stage was all mine and I put out my best foot forward. A double stream of tracers came for me and I did a diving sprawl even as the red fingers of flame zinged past my ears. I smacked headon into someone’s protruding leg and heard a yelp of pain from its luckless owner. I peered into the half-light and saw him there — none other than Fat Stuff himself! Evidently, he had been nicked in the leg. “Never mind me, they’re calling for you up front. Get going!” He ordered me off while I fished around for a sulfa powder packed. “OK, I’ll come back for you; just hang on,” I told him dully. All of a sudden I wished I hadn’t acted stiff-necked about doing him a favor back there at the last break. Lamely, I picked myself up and plunged once more into the God-knows-what’s-ahead-of-me.
By sheer luck, I stumbled onto my target — a cuplike depression in which four men were crowded together fashioning out a pit. There was the Sarge and two dogfaces busily hacking away while the fourth, the unhappy victim, lay between them, sadly bemoaning his fate. “They been get me in the okole. How I going face the nurses?” he lamented.
Mama Mia, some guys just don’t appreciate their luck! Here was this guy ticketed for a nice, warm hospital bed — safe from all this shooting — and he wanted a crying towel yet. I got down to business, snipping away the trousers leg of his OD’s. He squirmed and fidgeted each time my fingers touched him and I botched half a dozen patches before I finally brushed him aside.
Another doughfoot crept up to the edge of our hole and demanded some attention. The front of his helmet was bashed in, the bullet having just creamed his scalp. He had cheated death by a hair. There was no room for him to crowd in, so I edged out into the open and fixed him up. Then we both took turns at a slit trench with his spade. “You think they’ll give me a Purple Heart for this one?” my partner asked. He certainly rated one: to make sure there would be no slip up, I jotted down his name and serial number on the casualty tag. I wondered why he, a recruit transfer from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, had volunteered to come overseas with us when he could have stayed happy in a training camp in Mississippi.
“Well, it’s this way,” he explained. “They stuck me in with some California born Kotonks and we just didn’t see things eye to eye. I didn’t take to their fancy three-dollar words and they couldn’t stomach my Hawaiian slang. Then too, there was an incident in one Southern town where the bartender refused me a drink because I wasn’t white. That I couldn’t take. So here I am.” “Well, things ought to be a lot different now. Maybe you’ll fall for one of them Kotonk wahines and settle down in the States.”
“No thanks for them dames — you can have ’em. I even had one of them tell me I was uncouth! Ugh, I’ll go back to Hawaii where you don’t have to apologize for not being white.”
“Well, I have to label you either W or C — white or colored — on your casualty tag. That’s SOP. What’s your pleasure?”
“W or C, eh?” What’s the diff? Just put me down as WC and you can interpret that as “who cares?” This red bull shoulder patch on me says the 34th Division boys have accepted me as one of their own. The other outfits respect me for it. I think I’m just as good a white man as Ike himself. I think he owes me a drink for this battered helmet.
“Say, you must be one thirsty paisan. Boy, I can use one, too. Darn it, darn it, what the heck am I doing here in Italy?” “You too? That’s the $64 question I keep asking myself too. You say you’re from Hilo? You know a girl name Sue — ?” Sue?” “Yeah, she and I…”
The jawing came to an end as our boys opened up with their mortars. The tables were turned on the Jerries and I got back into the other hole to watch the Sarge directing the fire. The boys breathed easier and laid down their tools to afford themselves the luxury of a few minutes breather. But it was not for me. My resolve to Fat Stuff returned to me in strength and I lit out of there looking for him.
It turned out to be a rough night. The Looey hadn’t lied. My tag book was lighter by a dozen slips and there were spots of blood all over my shirt when I finally made my way back to the boys in the hole. But where was Fat Stuff? He wasn’t around.
Dense fog started rolling in from the low-lying marshes along the river and soon blanketed our position. The Looey sidled up to our hole to let us in on the score. “We’re not getting anywhere hitting in the dark like this,” he said. “CP says to withdraw and outflank them. You’ll have to wriggle out of this one by yourselves. The others have taken off.”
The Sarge swore lustily at the idea of conceding this round to the Krauts, but the Looey did not linger to elaborate on his instructions and was off to contact the rest of the men down the line. I had to see about evacuating the wounded and my friend insisted on coming along, saying he could generate his own power, thank you. He shed his trousers and we slithered out of there, but fast. The Jerries tried to stop us with an angry burst of fire, but we continued on. Friendly hands reached out shaggy, bead-eyed corporal who unshamedly kept wiping away the hot tears in his eyes and repeating: “We thought you guys were goners.”
One of the heavy weapons crew, noticing something amiss, thoughtlessly inquired: “Hey, Tonkichi! What wen happen to your pants?” Blazing anger swelled up in my friend’s eyes as he lashed back: “Why you lousy farmer. Wassamatta you guys last night, taking off before us?” The poor farmer looked about him for support and received none. Then, baring his teeth in annoyance, he cuffed his forehead and volleyed back with a jargon of pidgin-English dialect that would have broken the back of German intelligence. “No come see me boy. You know me, I’m only a buck private. We wen go look for you guys but you guys no was. The way them bullets was coming, if you was in my place, I tell you, you no can talk. The place was more hot than hot. And who you calling — !”
The NEBELWERFERS screamed and we all scattered . . . .
A fresh battalion of troops of the 133rd infantry regiment moved up the line for a follow through attack while the 100th Battalion was deployed on an end run. It was daylight now. A blue-eyed doughfoot with an Iowa twang, noticing my presence on his squad, inquired: “What ‘cha going back for, Mac?” “I forgot something back there — something special — a letter.” “Say, it must be something special. Speaking of letters, do you happen to know a Billy Hoss-Hide from Honolulu? “It’s spelled H-O-S-H-I-D-E. We were pen pals until Pearl Harbor.” “Sorry, never heard of the guy. He’d probably keel over hearing you calling him HORSE HIDE. It’s HO-SHI-DE, rhymes with Billie Holiday, the singer?”
“Well, live and learn, brother. You Island guys are okay, you know. You don’t have to prove anything. Let me shake your hand, as one 34th Division man to another — as one fellow American to another.”
I felt a sudden stricture of my throat as I proffered my hand. He gripped it hard and added: “You guys know what you’re fighting for. You know what it’s all about and why you’re here. We’ve got a square in our outfit who’s always bellyaching about what the heck he’s doing here in Italy. I wish he was here talking to you.”
“Oh, I guess you’ll find jokers like him in every outfit. Well, this is the end of the line for me. Stay alive. See you in Rome,” I replied.
“Right! Stay in there and pitch, you guys!” I felt pleased — and proud — for I knew that in his own casual way, he was complimenting all the island men . . . and letting me know that “we belonged.”