Combat In Italy

From Francis Shinohaka (B) (the Second Of Three Parts)

Combat In Italy

The 100th Battalion was attached to the 34th Division for combat in Italy. Major General Charles Ryder, commander of the 34th Division, was very supportive of the 100th Battalion. Many years later, while stationed as an officer at Fort Shafter, his son also backed the Nisei veterans.

We sailed from Oran on a calm Mediterranean Sea, but as we approached the coast of Italy, the seas became rough. We climbed down the rope ladder spread on the side of the transport into a landing craft which deposited us on the beach at Salerno. Heading north on the Italian boot, Sgt. Joe Takata and Keichi Tanaka were killed in our first battle on a Sunday morning, September 29,1943, near Montemarano.

The previous evening, while waiting for the trucks to move us to the front, Keichi came to say goodbye. I was stunned and rendered speechless when he said, “I’m going to die tomorrow.” He asked me to see his parents when I returned home. Later in the campaign, and just before he went into battle and got killed, Shizuo Teramoto, a very good-looking replacement from Pepeekeo, Hawaii, asked me to see his mother. It is amazing how these two heroes knew I would return home safely and be able to see their loved ones.

Although the shells followed us uncannily on our night march through Benevento, there were no casualties. Making a sharp turn to go downhill, a strange, fetic [sic] smell pierced my nostrils. In the darkness I concluded that this strong, nauseating odor must be that of a dead human. We dug in a muddy field after a nightmarish shelling in which the shells did not explode. A few hours later, we crossed a dry creek bed and advanced to higher ground which proved to be a good move. Next morning we could see the enemy artillery methodically rake over the field we had left the night before. I was astonished to see the heavy baggage carried by women on their heads. In a bam-like structure and in a large barrel, an Italian was stomping away in his bare feet, making wine.

Continuing our journey, A Company suffered heavy casualties at San Angelo d’Alife.

Our artillery laid down a barrage at midnight. We waded across a shallow Volturno River into a minefield. There was a sudden explosion and another was killed. We backtracked out of the minefield and circled around into a so-called banzai charge. The next day the 100th Battalion made a wide end run in a drainage ditch near Pozzili. Pozzili was in the sector of the Thunderbirds or 45th Division. The Battalion climbed a mine-infested mountain to capture Hill 600.

Captain Taro Suzuki, our company commander, went to the aid station with a wounded shoulder. Beside the ruins of a building, Corporal Masao Hatanaka, with his fingers cut off, was preparing to go to the aid station. Hearing a shell coming, I made a move to the walls of the building, but Sgt. Ted Hirayama stopped me. As I dove into the drainage ditch, the zeroed-in building was demolished and Cpl. Masao never made it to the aid station.

There were the bloated bodies of a paisan and a donkey in a gully as we made our tortuous climb. We passed the warning “Mine” down the line each time we spotted a mine marked with toilet paper. On a steep incline, a bush that one would grab to pull himself up, was cleverly mined. Friendly and jovial Yoshinao Omiya was carrying a machine-gun tripod when an umbrella-type mine was tripped. Yoshinao became blind when the shrapnel hit his right eye and the concussion damaged his left eye.

At the mountain, I learned that the whistling wheee of the shell was far away, but zzzzh like a bee meant it was very close. The shrapnel can be sharper than the sharpest knife as it neatly cut in half a rolled-up toilet paper with a sledge-hammer blow, imbedding itself in the C-ration can as it simultaneously knocked the combat pack into the foxhole. The 3 mortar squad of B Company was wiped out. The gunner and assistant gunner were killed and Haruo Hayakawa, the ammo bearer, was badly wounded. Hachiro Ito was killed later while unsuccessfully trying to throw an enemy grenade back.

Lt. Kim was directing the entrapment of a group of enemy soldiers as they approached in a draw. Since he was wounded, Major Gillespie sent a messenger to Lt. Kim asking him if he would like to be relieved. Lt. Kim declined the offer. Situated on the edge of the mountain was fortunate as the shells whizzed over our heads and exploded in the ravine below. A shell rolled into Jimmy Iwasa’s foxhole, but did not explode.

Days on the side of the mountain with feet sticking out into the cold mountain air was the start of trench feet. We descended the mountain and were put in reserve. Our bivouac area in an olive orchard was obvious and too close to town. We were shelled while sleeping. I was tired and tempted to sleep in a shell hole by a broken tree. Instead, I moved laterally a dozen yards or so and dug in beside a stone wall. Masaru Hamano who had slept in the shell hole was wounded slightly.

The shrapnel kicked dirt over me while I was sleeping in the foxhole. My steel helmet on top of the hole was heavily damaged. The shrapnel pierced the side of the helmet and exited the front, leaving gaping holes.

We moved further back and on the reverse slope of a hill. Awakened for guard duty, I could not put my swollen feet into the shoe. Guard duty that night was done with the toe in the shoe and the heel out of the shoe. Cigarettes and candy were distributed but the most precious item was toilet paper. Sgt. Harry Nishimura carefully monitored the roll so as to equally give each man his share.

A short, hectic run, a river crossing on a bridge of fallen trees and a climb up the mountain followed. We relieved the paratroopers on the mountain overlooking Colli and Scapoli. We were subjected to a mortar barrage. Satoshi “Kashi” Kashimoto from Hilo, Hawaii, later mentioned that a mortar attack was something he dreaded. One can hear the mortar shell being dropped into the tube and for a few seconds he has to sweat it out until the shell lands. Even though the mortar shell with acrid gunpowder shell may explode within a few feet of the foxhole it may do no harm if the hole is deep enough. However, a direct hit is possible. This happened to second squad gunner Masao Koizumi’s younger brother, Buster, who had just joined the first squad. Mikio Hasemoto of the 1st platoon with his BAR was a big factor in repelling an attack that followed.

“Rain, rain go away,” was the wishful song as the continuous rain and cold caused many more to suffer from trench feet. The incessant rain dampened the booster on the mortar shell causing it to fall short and among our own troops. I believe I was the only person with a “roof” over me as I was able to crawl under a huge boulder lying beside the path. This incongruous shelter may have been the envy of a couple of D Company machine gunners as they covered the path from their foxhole.

After a brief stay in the hospital for trench feet, Slim and I couldn’t come up with 10 lire for ice cream at a Red Cross in Naples. Slim sang “Paper Dolls…I rather have a doll that other fellows cannot steal”

We were transferred to a replacement depot on a race track on the outskirts of Naples. We were accepted warmly by the soldiers of the different outfits. Roll call was interesting. The Caucasian sergeant had difficulty pronouncing our Japanese names. “You-take-ay Come-you-jai” he yelled. “Hey, that sounds like me,” that person (Yutaka Kumuji) said to his buddy. Standing in a chow line we could hear “Avalon” in the distance. This charming but melancholy song reflected our mood on our up-coming return to the front

Meanwhile, the youngsters in Naples were singing their version of the German song, “Lili Marlene.”

“Tutti sere soto quo fanal.

… anke staserra aspettero,

con te Lili Marlene, con te Lili Marlene.”

This German song was so popular that Americans had their own version as well as the French and Italians.

Sounds of Fury was Cassino with tremendous barrages by the artillery. Cassino was the strongest and most formidable fortification, the Benedictine monastery atop the mountain commanding a sweeping view of the Liri valley was used as an observation post by the Germans. Any movement in the valley could be made safely only in cover of darkness. This impregnable defense of the enemy may have caused a young haole soldier to turn into a whimpering, trembling and helpless individual. The bombing of the monastery further attested to the ferociousness of the battle for Cassino.

“Somebody above likes us,” Fred Kanemura said. Sgt. Yasuo Takata, Fred and I, together with five others from A and C companies were assigned to Regimental Headquarters as guards. This duty enabled us to escape the suicide attack across the Rapido river. Of the 46 or so men from B Company that crossed the river, about 26 of them survived. We were sent back to the company together with some rear echelon people. While in a ravine below the monastery, I was granted a pass, ostensibly for a hot shower and some hot food. We were in a draw waiting for the sun to set before moving to the rear. Fred appeared in the knoll above and said, “Have a good time.” He then tossed fifty dollars to me.

Shortly after returning from my pass, I went to the aid station. Joe Maeda from Hilo, Hawaii, took my place. He was wounded in the stomach by a grenade attack in the town and given up as dead. Richard Yoneshige, later a postmaster at the Pawaa Station, lost a leg in a similar attack.

Chaplain Israel Yost conducted a service the evening before we sailed to the beachhead at Anzio. The solemn reverence of this brief service tinged with a sadness, a thankfulness for having survived thus far and an awareness of the ultimate sacrifice demanded in combat. Slim Nakano made up words to the Japanese song, “Fufu Funauta.” I liked the second verse:

“Anzio no tsuki sa eh hitori tabi,

Ore to omaye mo betsu betsu da.

Tatoe shiga nae infantry de mo,

Sumaaba miyako sa Italy zora.”

Before the breakout to Rome, George Okano, a kotonk (Mainland Japanese-American) from Wyoming, sang “San Antonio Rose.” The breakthrough was accomplished against intriguing defenses. An enemy shelter was dug deep into the ground while others were skillfully camouflaged. A spacious command post dug in a dry river-bed had a roof of soil and grass that blended with the surroundings. Our gun positions on the Windward Oahu beaches seemed puny in comparison, probably because they were hastily contracted.

Patrick Tokushima and Henry Terada were bosom buddies. They were killed a day apart in this big push to Rome. They are as close in death as they were in the Third Platoon. They are buried side- by-side in the National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

The Distinguished Unit Citation was presented by General Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Army, at a parade. This prestigious award was won by the 100th Battalion at a spectacular Battle at Belvedere. After the town was taken, the SS Battalion was annihilated on the road leading to Sassetta. Besides an enemy tank destroyed, four 155 mms, a self-propelled gun, two half-tracks, a couple of anti-tank guns, 7 trucks, twenty-some motorcycles and jeeps, in addition to a radio CP and a regimental CO were either captured or destroyed. Lt. James Boodry from Boston, 2nd Platoon leader of B Company, was one of those instrumental in this unbelievable encounter.

Over a hundred enemy soldiers were killed in this battle. Sgt. Grover Nagaji from Waipahu was killed from the concussion of an exploding tank. Sgt. Grover harbored a resentment against a prominent member of the Nisei community. This civic leader persuaded Grover to volunteer for the army, indicating he, too, would do so. After Grover enlisted, this person backed out, claiming he had family responsibilities.

After this triumph, our journey possible could have been faster, but for the lack of rations. The residents of a tiny village were in a bigger hurry to move. A closet in a shelled building was filled with expensive clothing. Personal belongings were strewn about, with books, papers and valuable stamp collections left behind. The fruit trees, especially the peach trees, were overladen with ripe fruit.

On the road to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a replacement, A1 Takahashi, sang his heart out:

“My heart tells me this is just a fling,

And yet you say my love means everything.

Should I believe my heart or you?

… and would I be sorry if I do?”

The least mentionable of my experiences in Italy may be guard duty of a brothel in Livorno, just after the 100th Battalion became the 1st battalion of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. The 442nd Regiment was made up of Japanese-American volunteers from Hawaii and the Mainland.

[Note: This ends Part II. The final part in this series will be in the April 2000 issue. Many, many thanks to Francis Shinohara for sharing his memories with us. We hope others will be encouraged to write about their experiences, too.]