Author: Richard Humble
Club 100 45th Anniversary Reunion, June 1987
Description of the 100th Infantry Battalion before Pearl Harbor and during the war. Proves that Americans had it all wrong to judge them.
After Pearl Harbor They Faced Distrust And Suspicion. But Under Old Glory They Fought — And Bled — With Honor And Distinction
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 there were more than 71,000 Nisei — American citizens of Japanese parentage — in the U.S. In their own eyes the Nisei were, as they passionately affirmed, loyal Americans willing to fight for their country. But the Japanese holocaust unleashed a whirlwind of distrust and suspicion which continued until the Nisei were given a chance to prove their loyalty beyond question — on the battlefield.
In the shocked aftermath of Pearl Harbor, many Americans tended to forget that the Nisei had been recruited into the U.S. Army before the war, and that many of them were already in uniform when the Japanese attacked. Many were also ignorant of the fact that the first Nisei had died at Pearl Harbor, and that two Nisei had been involved in the capture of the first Japanese POW of the war, when one of the Japanese midget submarines was taken after the Pearl Harbor attack. Nevertheless the mood of the hour was “relocation”: the mass roundup of all citizens of Japanese ancestry in the western states and their transportation to guarded camps in the Middle West.
Unacceptable for service
At the end of June 1942, the work of the War Relocation Authority was virtually completed. As early as 17 June, the U.S. War Department had advised the discontinuation of the induction of Nisei, all of whom were reclassified to “IV-C”: unacceptable for service because of ancestry. Not until the end of the year was this official policy relaxed, when 160 Nisei volunteers from relocation camps were accepted for military training.
Ironically, the training of the unit which was to do so much to transform the status of the Nisei had already begun. The problem of the Nisei already in uniform at Pearl Harbor had remained; and in June 1942 two Hawaiian infantry regiments — including many Nisei who had served in the Hawaiian National Guard — were transferred to the mainland for training as a new unit. At Camp McCoy in Wisconsin the formation of the U.S. 100th Infantry Battalion got under way; and by the end of the year its progress and performance during training — first at Camp McCoy and later at Camp Selby, Mississippi — had made such a startling impact that the U.S. Government’s containment policy towards the Nisei was modified.
On 28 January 1943 the formation of a special Nisei combat team was announced. The response was overwhelming: over 10,000 volunteers for only 2,500 places. Beginning its training at Camp Selby [Shelby] in April 1943, the 442nd Combat Team with its spirited motto “Go For Broke!” more than lived up to the high standards set by the trainee 100th Battalion, and eventually joined the latter in Italy in 1944.
The six-month “suspicion period” after Pearl Harbor had delayed the formation of the 100th Battalion to such an extent that it was not ready for Operation Torch, the first participation of U.S. forces in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) in November 1942, for which the new Nisei troops were earmarked. Nor did the unit take part in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. The 100th Battalion first set foot on enemy soil at the close of September 1943, when General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army was preparing to break out of the Salerno beachhead and advance on Naples and Rome.
When its operational career began in Italy the 100th Battalion had been organized as a separate battalion of seven companies: five rifle companies, a heavy weapon company, and an HQ company. In action, two rifle companies were normally held in reserve, giving the unit the battle strength of a standard U.S. Army battalion. The 100th Battalion first saw action as part of the U.S. 34th Division, and in the first week of November 1943 fought a battle which stands out as a superb example of the Nisei in war.
Between the Salerno beachhead and Rome lay the serpentine coils of the Volturno River, which had so many twists and turns that the grouse “every damn river in Italy seems to be called Volturno” became popular in the Fifth Army. Beyond the Volturno lay the German defense-line at Monte Cassino. But it was on the Volturno that the 100th Battalion earned its first battle honors.
On 3 November the unit was given a special mission: to secure the left flank of 34th Division by pushing across the Volturno and seizing and holding vital road junctions in the Oliveto-Venafro sector. As the Germans commanded the high ground on the far bank of the river it was obvious that the Nisei would not be able to hold their objectives without taking that as well. It was to be a night action; and at 2400 the crossing of the Volturno began.
Piercing screams were heard
At once the Nisei came under mortar fire and suffered casualties, but the battalion crossed the river in good order and prepared to advance on its initial objectives. Company E led the advance on the left flank, Company B on the right, but both found their progress seriously impeded by mines and booby-traps. While Battalion HQ was digesting this information, Company B was nearing the road junction which was its first target. Suddenly it was caught in a heavy burst of German machine-gun fire, which caused considerable consternation at HQ. Piercing screams were plainly heard at the rear and it seemed that Company B was being cut to pieces by an ambush. The screams continued, but as the seconds ticked away it became apparent that the sound of the German machine-guns was being drowned by a steadily rising volume of firing from what were clearly American weapons. Perplexed, the Command Group moved forward to find out what was going on — and met two grinning Nisei escorting a small column of very shaken German prisoners. At last the position was clear.
Company B had been advancing along a low stone wall when the German machine-gunners opened up on them. The Nisei dropped behind the wall for shelter and promptly used it as a breastwork to return massed fire. Then the word got around that the lieutenant in command of the right-flank platoon was missing, assumed wounded or captured. His platoon sergeant consulted with the men and they made the impromptu decision to go in with the bayonet and get their officer back. The sergeant’s shouted order to fix bayonets was heard by the entire company, which swept forward over the wall, screaming its battle-cry — the screams which had caused such concern at Battalion HQ.
The attack was completely successful. It was also the first recorded bayonet charge by American forces in Italy, and all the German positions were overrun. During the battle the battalion wire team (a communications officer and five wire-stringers) became separated from the assault companies and came under long-range fire from the Germans, but Company E worked round on the flank and silenced the German fire. By dawn the 100th Battalion had taken all its initial objectives, but it had to spend the whole of the next day being bombarded by mortar and shellfire and could obviously not remain where it was.
At 0800 on the second day the battalion was ordered to advance and clear the Germans from the heights on its front. This was an extremely difficult assignment, because the line of advance would have to traverse an open plain in daylight. But by stealth and skilful use of cover, the battalion strung out into a mile-long column and set off on a stalking advance which took all day. As darkness came down the Nisei were in position at the foot of the heights, ready to wheel to the right and launch their final assault on the German positions.
As expected, the Germans had covered the direct approach to their positions with a dense mine field. This barrier was quickly penetrated by the Nisei, through the bravery of a sergeant from Company E who took on the duties of a one-man sapper: lifting and stacking the mines and marking a lane with toilet paper. This made for a speedy passage, but the “safe” lane was a tenuous one and uncleared mines caused considerable casualties, and alerted the Germans to the attack. To add to the problems of the Nisei the heavy weapons company became detached from the two assault companies by error, and the riflemen had to go in alone. But another surge of spirited hand-to-hand fighting cleared all the positions without the fire support which would normally have been considered essential.
By dawn on the third day, 100th Battalion had pushed forward 700 yards ahead of the 1st Battalion on its right, and the latter unit had to move quickly to join up with the left flank of 34th Division. Even then the Nisei had to beat off continual German counterattacks and hold their gains for two days of aggressive patrolling before they were relieved and withdrawn from the sector.
Cunning and resourceful
A fortnight before, on 21 October, a staff visit to the sector of 34th Division had prompted the War Department to issue a press announcement on the Nisei: These soldiers are as far away from the stereotyped picture of the evildoing sons of Japan as the all-American boy is from a headhunter. It’s in their faces. They obviously believe in what they’re doing, and look calmly secure because of it. The action on the Volturno proved that the Nisei were also a highly-efficient fighting unit — cunning and resourceful battlefield technicians with an esprit de corps second to none.
The next major battle the Nisei were involved in was the Allied attempt to break through at Cassino in the early months of 1944. Here they suffered grievously — the brunt of the early fighting at Cassino fell on the Fifth Army, which suffered such heavy losses that there was a public outcry in America. The heaviest fighting was seen during the bloody crossing of the Rapido river, notorious for the terrible mauling of the “Texas Boys” of the 36th Division. On the Rapido, whose banks were commanded by the guns and mortars on the German side, the Nisei had little but their own superb elanto carry them through. Total Fifth Army casualties between the opening of the Cassino battle on 15 January and the fall of Rome on 4 June were 10,744 men. And the 1,300-strong 100th Battalion had made a heavy contribution in proportion to its size. In April and May 1944 the main effort at Cassino passed to the Eighth Army.
After the fall of Rome the Allies pushed on to the north, but were halted by the German Gothic Line across the Apennines Mountains in late June. During the advance the 100th Battalion had added repeatedly to its battle honors in countless “fire brigade” actions. And on 27 July 1944, Gen. Clark decorated the battalion with the highest honor the U.S. Army has to pay to its units: the Distinguished Unit Citation “for outstanding performance of duty in action”. By the time of this award the men of the 100th Battalion had won 11 Distinguished Service Crosses, 44 Silver Stars, 31 Bronze Stars, and three awards of the Legion of Merit. Fifteen men had won battlefield commissions and over a thousand men of the battalion had been given the Purple Heart — many of them posthumously. Few units in military history have ever won so many honors in such a short span of combat history; and the exploits of the 100th Battalion prompted a flood of Nisei recruiting at home: into the Air Force, the Army, the paratroops, and even the WACs.
In April 1944 the new 442nd Combat Team, its training complete, was sent to Italy to join the 100th Battalion. It soon showed that its efficiency and fighting ability matched that of the 100th, and it was instrumental in the capture of Livorno. For the 100th Battalion more fighting lay ahead, with Operation Anvil, the invasion of southern France in August 1944, the push up the Rhone valley, and the last campaigns in the Rhineland. But its most important work had been done in Italy. There it had won its most enduring battle honors; there, too, as the “guinea-pig” Nisei combat unit, it had proved to the world what superb fighting men the Japanese-Americans were.
Major James J. Gillespie, an experienced officer of the U.S. 34th Division during the Italian campaign, gave his own fiery testimonial to one of the most remarkable fighting units of World War II: “These Hawaiian Japanese call themselves Hawaiians or just plain Americans. They’ve earned the right to call themselves anything they damn well please. I’ve never been so mad in my life as I have been since I returned to the United States and have heard cracks made about Japs fighting on our side in Italy. Anybody who calls these doughboys ‘Jap’ is the most narrow-minded person I know of. These kids, so far as I am concerned, are just as much American as I am.” The Nisei had made their point.