Hawaii’s Legendary Battalion

War Correspondent Who Followed the ‘Original 100th’ Reflects
By: Lynn Crost

“You’ve got me by my heartstrings,” said Lyn Crost by phone from her home in Washington, D.C. A second later, she gave in and agreed to write a piece on the Original 100th Infantry Battalion for this, the Herald’s special salute to the 100th. Although she was in the midst of preparing for a trip to New York, she promised to put to paper her thoughts and feelings on a group of men who hold a very special place in her heart.

The feeling is mutual. The mere mention of Lyn Crost’s name brings a warm smile to the face of even the crustiest vet. Crost brought their stories home to their loved ones in Hawaii via the reports she filed for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. In his book,

“Bridge of Love,” John Tsukano notes that Lyn Crost was one of only a few women war correspondents in World War II-and the only one to cover the l00th and the 442nd exclusively.

“Instead of writing about the big battles which she deduced would be amply covered by the wire services, she decided from the beginning that she would try to capture the spirit, feelings and esprit de corps of the men of the l00th and the 442nd… She wrote about what the men ate… their homesickness… their pride in their outfit…their thoughts
about the future.”

And in doing so, the heartstrings grew…
-Karleen Chinen

There was always a special note of pride in a man’s voice when he told me: “I was in the Original 100th Infantry Battalion.”

The words themselves conveyed not only the pride of this special band of men from Hawaii, but also the suffering they had endured fighting for the United States.

Unlike most American troops which fought on foreign soil, they had seen bombs fall on their homeland, threatening their families; and this had awakened in them the desperate need to fight against prejudice to protect the liberties which they had been taught belonged to all Americans. That Original 100th Infantry Battalion was to become a legendary battalion of legendary men-like those who fought for freedom and justice in America’s earlier wars.

Fifty years ago, on the night of June 5, these Japanese American soldiers and their haole officers sailed out of Honolulu Harbor for an unknown destination. Perhaps it would be the mainland United States. Perhaps they’d be drowned at sea by marauding enemy submarines. The enemy was already fighting to take Midway Island, and if it succeeded, might launch an invasion of Hawaii whose Japanese population, as well as its American-born sons, were suspect because their ancestral origins were the same as the enemy. Yet, as members of Hawaii’s National Guard, they had stood watch on that terrible night of Pearl Harbor, ready to kill or be killed, to protect Hawaii’s mountains and valleys, its military installations and its miles of shoreline against an unexpected invasion.

They were a microcosm of Hawaii: school teachers, factory workers, manufacturing officials, mechanics, agriculturists, salesmen, civil engineers, workers from sugar and pineapple plantations and from dozens of other Island occupations. And 95 percent of them were children of immigrants.

For the Japanese Americans soldiers on board the SS Maui that night, it was the beginning of a journey into American history which has no equal. The Original 100th Infantry Battalion, that band of men which was rushed out of Hawaii so ignominously [sic], was the first military unit which ever faced the challenge of proving, on a battlefield, loyalty to the United States. They had taken as their motto, “Remember Pearl Harbor.”No one had a more valid claim to it. And, echoing their love for Hawaii, their battalion flag displayed the feathered helmet of ancient chieftains and the taro leaf which Hawaiians believed was a protection from evil. No matter where they were to go, they would never forget their beloved Islands.

Nisei linguists of the Military Intelligence Service were already spreading throughout Pacific battle-torn islands. But their very existence was so secret that America wouldn’t begin to learn about them for another two decades. The 100th Battalion would be the first public proof of Japanese Americans’ loyalty to the United States and what they would do to protect it. After a training period, prolonged because they were constantly scrutinized for signs of disloyalty, the 100th finally landed on the Salerno Beachhead of Italy on September 22, 1943. One week later it suffered its first death when Sgt. Joe Takata was killed in an encounter which won the battalion its first Distinguished Service Cross. The men of the 100th would never forget Joe Takata. Each year, on the Sunday nearest the date of his death, they would hold a memorial service for their men who had died in battle, or succumbed later to the aftermath of wounds, or the ravages of age.

Army units which fought beside the 100th, military leaders who commanded it, and war correspondents who watched it would never forget this unique battalion as it wrote its history in blood, tears and unsurpassed courage until it reached the rock-encrusted slopes of Monte Cassino where it rose from the ignominy of suspicion to the acclaim of an admiring nation as it faced one of the greatest defense bulwarks of World War II: the German Gustav line. It was on those slopes, pounded by rain, frozen by the cold of winter, that the 100th Battalion’s undaunted courage created the legend of the Nisei soldiers, “the little iron men” who just never retreated. And it was there, by their heart-wrenching deaths and wounds, that they earned the sobriquet by which they would be remembered: The Purple Heart Battalion. Their bravery at Cassino, widely featured in newspapers and magazines, was the first glimpse the American public had of its nisei soldiers and what they would do to help preserve historic liberties of the United States.

When the 100th had landed at Salerno it numbered 1,300 men. When it finished fighting on Monte Cassino five months later, its effectives totaled 521. This was the end of the “Original 100th Infantry Battalion,” as those men who had sailed from Hawaii in 1942 now called it.

They had fought not only a foreign enemy, but also prejudice and suspicion. And they had set the standard for Japanese American soldiers who followed. That band of men who had left Hawaii under a cloud of suspicion had won the admiration and trust of the U.S. Army-from privates to generals who now quarreled among themselves for assignment of Japanese American troops to their commands.

Replacements for the Original 100th’s decimated ranks came from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was still training at Camp Shelby, Miss. Now reinforced, the battalion carried on the magnificent record it had established during those first months of fighting. It was next sent to Anzio, and after the breakout there, it once more did the seemingly impossible. When two battalions (twice its number) failed to conquer the last enemy road block on the road to Rome, the 100th finally broke through, thus allowing Allied troops to maintain their schedule and enter the Eternal City on June 5, 1944-one day before the great Allied landing on the Normandy coast of France. Poignantly, it was also the second anniversary of the Original 100th Battalion’s departure from Hawaii, shrouded in secrecy, hurried because America doubted their loyalty if the enemy invaded the Islands.

When the 100th Battalion was combined later that month with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which had just arrived from the United States, it was allowed to retain its own name in this new combination, because of its impressive record during nearly nine months of fighting. The two units were now known as the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team as they fought northward-in Italy to cross the Arno River, then in France to rescue the Lost Battalion of the Texas 36th Division, and finally, in Italy to launch the Allied assault through the Apennine Mountains, which ended the war on the Italian front.

The Original 100th Infantry Battalion was the first Japanese American combat unit in the history of the United States. In fulfilling the trust given it, this unique battalion helped erase much of the nation’s suspicion of Japanese Americans and cleared the way for thousands of them to join the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became the most decorated military unit in American history for its size and length of service.

Lt. Gen. Mark Clark would never forget the 100th Infantry Battalion, which he had watched closely since it joined the U.S. Fifth Army at Salerno. In 1982, when he was no long able to travel to Hawaii to celebrate its 40th anniversary, he sent this message:

“I witnessed your magnificent performance and the respect with which you were held, not only by the American troops, but by troops of many nationalities who fought together in the difficult Italian campaign.”

With such a long history of outstanding battlefield action, it is not surprising that the highest ranking Japanese American field officer in the U.S. Army during World War II came from the ranks of that Original 100th Infantry Battalion. Maj. Mitsuyoshi Fukuda had advanced from a lieutenant in command of a platoon to commanding officer of the 100th Battalion,the first Japanese American to command an infantry battalion in United States history. Breaking precedent again, he was promoted to executive officer of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Maj. Fukuda was the last member of the Original 100th to leave Europe. In recognition of the battalion’s remarkable record, he was sent to Washington to be received by War Department officials. At that time he requested that something be done to perpetuate the memory of the 100th Battalion. He need not have worried; Hawaii would never forget those men who had left it to fight and die on foreign soil, far from the Islands they so deeply loved.

As years pass, statistics of decorations and the numbers of men killed and wounded may be forgotten. But the record of that Original 100th Infantry Battalion and what it meant in the acceptance of Japanese Americans as loyal citizens of the United States must be remembered. If it had failed in its first months of fighting in Italy, there might never have been a chance for other Americans of Japanese ancestry to show their loyalty to the United States as convincingly as they did on the battlefields of Europe. The 100th had proved that loyalty to the United States is not a matter of race or ancestry. And it had set an example for people of all nations who seek sanctuary here to fight for those values and concepts of government which have made the United States a refuge from the hunger and despair which haunts so much of the world.

Yes, I will remember well that courageous band of men from Hawaii-that Original 100th Infantry Battalion. Those of us who knew them and what they stood for and what they did could never forget them.

This article appeared in the June 19, 1992 issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the formation of the 100th Infantry Battalion. It has been reprinted courtesy of The Hawaii Herald, Hawaii’s Japanese American Journal.