The First Four Months
The 100th Infantry Battalion, now attached to the 34th “Red Bull” Division’s 133rd Regiment, landed on the beachhead at Salerno in southern Italy on September 22. The 100th, along with the other two battalions of the 133rd, crossed the Salerno Plains on the way to Montecorvino, where they encountered enemy machine gun fire. On September 28, Sergeant Conrad Tsukayama became the 100th’s first casualty when he was injured by a mine. He was sent to a hospital for treatment and became the first of many Nisei soldiers who would discharge himself from the hospital without permission and return to the battalion.
The next day, on September 29, Sergeant Shigeo “Joe” Takata became the first member of the 100th to be killed in action when he advanced toward hidden enemy gunners and, despite being fatally wounded, revealed their position to his comrades. For his actions, Takata was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. Less than an hour later, Private Keichi Tanaka was killed by another hail of machine gun fire.
The 100th then moved north, capturing the town of Benevento, a crucial railroad and road junction northwest of Naples. The capture of Benevento and the 100th’s growing reputation as an effective and courageous unit, prompted General Clark to send a letter to his commanding officer, describing the 100th’s performance as “magnificent” and requesting more troops of their caliber. After their actions in combat at Benevento, General Ryder gave the 100th Battalion soldiers permission to wear the 34th Division’s Red Bull insignia as a symbol of his high regard for the battalion. The battalion would continue to wear the insignia proudly, even after being attached to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
In late October 1943, the 100th was ordered west. The men crossed the Volturno River twice on their way to capturing several critical hills, part of the German’s Winter Line of defense. At one point, the cold and rapidly flowing river water was chest-high as the 100th soldiers, who averaged 5 foot 4 inches tall, crossed the Volturno with their weapons and packs. Capture of these hills was crucial in clearing the way to Monte Cassino. Monte Cassino was an integral point in the Gustav Line, a string of heavily defended fortifications that the Germans hoped would halt Allied advancement through Italy.
Scarcely a month after the 100th arrived in Italy the battalion received shocking news: Colonel Turner had been relieved of his command and ordered to a hospital. At 48 years of age, he was older than most combat battalion commanders. The stress of command and the deaths of his troops had taken an emotional toll on him.
With Major Lovell in the hospital recovering from injuries, Major James Gillespie was assigned to command the 100th. Second in command was Major Caspar Clough. In the 100th’s next major engagement, the taking of La Croce, Major Gillespie had to be hospitalized and was replaced by Major Clough.
La Croce was the site of another fierce battle, with the 100th fighting continuously for control of hills against well-entrenched Germans. Casualties mounted, reducing the 100th to almost half its original strength. Trench foot was a common condition among the soldiers because of their inability to keep their feet warm and dry. Their feet would swell and turn purple. Some men would even crawl because it was too painful for them to walk. Severe cases sometimes resulted in amputation.
On December 12, French troops relieved the division and the 133rd Regiment, including the 100th, withdrew for 19 days of respite from battle.
Monte Cassino: The Hardest Battle
By mid-January 1944, the 100th was fighting with the 34th Division in the first and second attempts to capture Monte Cassino, which controlled the main highway to Rome. A Benedictine abbey was located at the top of Mount Cassino. On the slopes below it, the Germans had created machine gun nests and had chopped down trees and bushes, giving them unobstructed views of approaching U.S. and Allied troops. The nearby Rapido River had been dammed, creating a series of massive mud lakes and mud flats on one bank, followed by mined slopes and barbed wire. Artillery and machine gun fire rained down on anyone attempting to make a crossing. Evacuating the wounded was a dangerous and formidable task. Medics set up relay stations and four-man litter bearer teams to carry the most seriously wounded to aid stations.
Major Clough was relieved of duty after refusing to commit the 100th to a suicidal charge across the mud flats; he was replaced by Major George Dewey. The 100th suffered even more casualties in another attempt to cross the flats. After being pulled back into reserve for several days of rest, the battalion crossed the Rapido River at a different point. With help from other Allied forces, the 100th was able to pin down the enemy halfway up the slopes of Castle Hill, one of the Allies’ only successful advancements on the Gustav Line. Despite their efforts, the Allied forces were unable to capture Monte Cassino and, after two more attempts, resorted to an air strike on February 15 to level the abbey. Five fresh divisions were finally able to break through the Gustav Line after two more major assaults.
The devastating battle for Monte Cassino marked the end of the original 100th Infantry Battalion. The battalion had landed in Italy with 1,300 men, and five months later, only 521 remained fit to fight. An example was C Company. It had started with 170 men and after Cassino, only 23 remained. By this time, war correspondents were referring to the 100th as the “Purple Heart Battalion.”
Among those severely injured at Cassino was Major James Lovell. Recently released from the hospital, he was a welcome sight to his exhausted men. Word spread quickly through the ranks — “The Major is back.” Lovell commanded the 100th for only a brief period during the taking of Castle Hill. Also lost was their highly regarded executive officer, Major Jack Johnson, who was killed at Cassino. Johnson, born in Hawaii, was originally the unit’s training officer; he had replaced Lovell as executive officer after Lovell was injured.
With so many losses, the 100th was in need of reinforcements. Help came in the form of two waves of replacements from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-volunteer unit made up of Nisei from Hawaii and the United States mainland that had been formed a year earlier. The first two groups of replacements joined the 100th in the spring of 1944, bringing the battalion strength up to 1,095.