Samurai—American Style, The 100th Infantry Battalion

Samurai—American Style, The 100th Infantry Battalion

By Michael E. Murphy

Rising quickly from the edge of the shell crator he was sharing with some buddies from his squad, PFC Sadao Munnemori quickly put a troublesome German machine gun nest out of business with a grenade toss from twenty feet. He was in a shell hole near the top of “Georgia”, an artillery target designation for a small hilltop between Mount Camilla and Mount Cerreta in the Ligurian Alps in Northern Italy. It was shortly after dawn on April 5th, 1945 when the attack began. Munnemori was a recent replacement for an earlier casualty to 2nd Platoon of a Company of the 100th Infantry Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The 100th was operating on the right of the Allied Fifth Army in an attempt to roll the Germans back from this section of the Italian coast and thus force them back over the Po River. Such a move would force them to fall back on their final defensive positions along the Adige in Italy and probably enable the forces under General Mark Clark to pinch off large German forces and capture a substantial amount of men and material. Clark worked for British General Earl Alexander whose overall strategy was to employ alternating left and right hammer blows to the German lines up and down the Italian peninsula forcing the enemy to respond to him and to force him ever northward as he chewed up his resources in manpower and material. The Allied dominance of the air battle greatly aided in these efforts.

As Munnemori rose again to silence another machine gun nest with a second grenade, an enemy grenade bounced off his “steel pot” and fell into the crater with his buddies. Immediately PFC Mannemori hurled himself atop the German “Potato Masher”. The ensuing explosion tore away half his torso and face and he died. His buddies survived and continued the fight until not only “Georgia” but “Ohio 1”, “Ohio 2”, “Ohio 3” and “Rocky Ridge” fell within the next few days. Munnemori was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart and Congressioinal Medal of Honor. Considering his background this was little short of amazing. Munnemori was originally from Los Angeles. He and his family had been moved to an internment camp early in the war. This was a wrong headed policy followed by the government and carried out by the Army in response to public panic and racial bigotry following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial fleet on December 7, 1941. Munnemori had volunteered for and joined the U.S. Army from an internment camp. Often such individuals had to sneak off in the middle of the night to avoid retaliation from camp inmates who were justifiably angry and frustrated over the treatment they had received.

There were ten such centers throughout the United States and they were run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). The Army had expected to recruit 3,500 men from such centers but they only had 1,200 volunteers of which 800 passed all loyalty and physical entrance requirements. This was also partly the fault of the WRA which issued a long questionnaire in connection with efforts to release and relocate the camp inmates. The WRA questionnaire attached negative results to affirmative answers and positive results to negative answers designed to test the loyalty of the inmates. However, the manpower shortages were more than made up for by recruitment from the large Japanese American population of the Hawaiian Islands. Here where there were large numbers of Americans of Japanese Ancestry, AJA’s, who formed a much larger percentage of the population, racial bigotry existed also but in Hawaii’s more mixed population it was not as strident nor a powerful and internment proceedings were on a much more selective and smaller scale. The 100th had originally been recruiting from the islands and was formed around the 298th Infantry, a Hawaiian National Guard outfit which had existed long before the war. Originally the Battalion Commander, his executive officer and his company commanders were white but all the rest of the battalion’s staff were AJA’s except for Second Lieutenant Young D. Kim who joined the battalion in the states after it had journeyed to Fort McCoy for intensive training and forming in June of 1942. Kim was the son of Korean immigrants and ended the war as the Battalion S-2 with the rank of Captain and a Bronze Star, Silver Star, Distinguished Service. Cross, as well as a Medaglia al Vaiore Militare from the Italian government for gallantry in action. Kim demonstrated an extraordinary skill in killing Germans and making prisoner snatches. He was only twenty-five when he joined the battalion at McCoy. He claimed a prewar job at a slaughter house accounted for his peculiar aptitude.

One of the factors that contributed to the outstanding combat successes of the 100th Battalion of the One Puka as it was referred to by its members in the pidgin used by most of the islanders among themselves, was the extraordinary quality of its leadership. The battalion was led by Lieutenant Colonel Farrant L. Turner, who had grown up in the islands and gone on to win a captaincy in France in World War I. His executive officer was Jim Lovell who knew many AJA’s from his experiences as a teacher and a principal in the Hawaiian school system including McKeinley High School referred to as “Mikado High” because of its high enrollment of Japanese American students. Similarly the other officers of the original staff and company commands were “kamaainas” or long-time white residents who knew and understood their AJA charges. The men sensed this and demonstrated this knowledge and appreciation by an extraordinary unit loyalty and devotion to duty. Colonel Turner would be ordered to a hospital for rest in October of 1943 after leading the unit through the crossing of the Volturno River and the battles for the small Italian towns of Dragoni, Alife, Sant Angelo D’Alife and other as the 133rd Regiment of the 34th Infantry Division to which the 100th was attached, took part in the breakout from the Salerno beachhead.

Salerno had been an attempt to couple an amphibious assault with attacks along the Gustav Line, a series of defensive positions fortified and held by the Germans’ Army Group “C” led by Field Marshal Kerselring. It was composed of the German X and XIV Armies. Fifth Army’s enemy in these flights was the XIV Planzer Corps which was a tough nut to crack. The 100th often found itself facing tough, experienced combat troops of the 29th Panzer Granadier Division, the first Para Division, the 16th Panzer Division and other experienced and determined opponents. The Germans used the rough and hilly terrain that crossed the Italian peninsula along with river obstacles to create formidable defense lines to slow up the Allied advance and grid up their resources. Kesselring was particularly adept at this game.

Those who succeeded Turner in battalion command were equally fine leaders and earned the respect and loyalty of the men. Turner was relieved by Major James J. Gillespie who followed Turner to the hospital with wounds only one month after assuming command. He was a “mustang” of former enlisted man who had risen from the ranks and a cool and quick thinking leader in combat. After Gillespie, Major Lovell assumed command only to be wounded in return. He returned from the hospital to joyous cries of “The Major is back”, only to get hit and evacuated again about a week later.

Turner an his successors promptly ignored the prohibitation against putting “Nisei” in command positions. Several of the AJA’s rose from the ranks to assume positions as platoon and company commanders. One such commander was a Company’s Captain (later Major) Mitsuyoshi Fukaca who was awarded a silver star for his leadership in the battle for the village of Belvedere in Southern France in late June, 1944. Nor were the officers the only ones to garner medals for bravery, not that this was the goal of such actions merely one of the results. At one point a platoon from Company C and a heavy weapons platoon from Company D occupied parts of the French town of Biffontaine only to be isolated and surrounded by Jerries. During the night of October 21-22, 1944 these units were repeatedly attacked by larger German forces who heralded demands to surrender the beleaguered unit along with grenades, bullets, and high explosives. Those demands were invariably met by loud and contemptuous “Go to Hell’s”. Colonel Pence, commander of 442nd regiment, worried over the 100th’s situation sent an armored task force over the road from the billage of Belmont to Biffontaine. Some of the men from Company A climbed on the tanks to provide additional fire power. One, Sergeant Itsuma Sasaoka manned one of the machine guns atop the tank continuing to fire even after being badly hit at a Jerry roadblock. He fired until he was past the roadblock when he fell from the tank. His body was never found and he was declared Missing-in-Action. He was also awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his courageous actions.

Though he was not a member of the 100th Battalion, Second Lieutenant Daniel K. Inouye of 3rd Platoon, E Company, 2 Battalion, 442nd Regiment, well illustrates the courage and tenacity of these American Samurai. In an assault on Colle Musatello on April 21st, 1945 near the end of the Italian campaign Inouye’s platoon came under heavy machine gun fire from three enemy emplacements. Inouye charged one ready with a grenade to take it out. On the way he was hit in the side but got up and continued his attack. He then charged a second nest hurling two grenades but he was hit in the legs and knees. He crawled towards the nest to hurl another grenade. As he drew back to throw, one of the occupants hit him with a rifle grenade in his arm which practically blew off. With his arm hanging by threads of flesh and his dead hand clutching a grenade primed to go off, Inouye screamed to his men to “Get Back” and pried the grenade out of his useless right hand. Then turned one more time towards the enemy. He managed to throw the grenade with his left hand just before the same German rifleman got off a second rifle grenade. The grenade blew up in the Jerry’s face and Inouye, struggling to his feet, once again moved towards the bunker firing with his left hand as his bloody arm flap wet and useless against his side. Inouye, minus one right arm, was promoted to captain and awarded a Distinguished Service Cross before being discharged. Inouye had started the war as a private and is perhaps the most famous alumni of the 442nd Regiment. He is now one of the two Senators from Hawaii and recently conducted the Senate Contra hearings.

The Italian Campaign and the battles in Southern France were all fought in rough, hilly terrain. Often times a man wounded would not get to the aid station for twelve to fifteen hours due to the mud and rugged terrain. Many died before getting there. Similarly the supplies needed to continue the battle often had to be transported on men’s backs and the terrain was too rugged for even mules to travel it. The German defenders were skillful and highly motivated taking every advantage they could wring out of the difficult terrain. It took equal determination and courage coupled with great skill to dislodge them from their positions.

The nisei were motivated by a desire to prove their Americanism and that of their entire community. Many died in the effort. Even in training they had established an exemplary record. Wherever they went they received kudos for their manners and bearing. They reacted with enthusiasm to all their endeavors. So much so that Colonel Turner once admonished them “You can’t drink Wisconsin dry because they. make the beer right here.” The People of Sparta, Wisconsin, near Fort McCoy where the 100th trained from June 1942 to December of that year found them to be “friendly, honest and very interesting to visit with.” The feelings were mutual for when the soldiers wrote home about the favorable reception they received from the people of Wisconsin, social club, the Victory Sons of Mokihana, advertised at the USO and in the island papers “to provide a special entertainment for the men from Wisconsin as a gesture in return for the kind reception the people of Wisconsin have given the soldiers of Japanese ancestry from Hawaii who have been stationed at Camp McCoy, Wis.” These soldiers often traveled over the United States as far as Washington, D.C. where the Lincoln Memorial was the favorite stop and New York City where the Statue of Liberty was the big attraction. But closest to camp the men of the 100th Battalion established a much closer relationship with the population of Sparta, Wisconsin, Soon after their arrival and after some speeches and public meeting with Lieutenant Colonel Turner, the doors of the Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Knights of Columbus were opened to the men of the the battalion. In town many men who attended church services were invited to the homes of fellow worshippers. Miss Alice Kenny of the Sparta USO became a sort of den mother to the men after she broke the ice and began introducing the men to townsfolk and arranged various social events like dances and suppers. Before they left to go to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, the men of the 100th threw a luau for the people of Sparta. They served up more than hundred pounds of steak in snoyu sauce and several other traditional Hawaiian dishes. In April 1943, while they were undergoing training in massive division size maneuvers and in intense heat and discomfort the men of the battalion contributed $343.00 towards a gift to the people of Sparta who had just experienced a severe spring flood.

Carl Sandburg, the biographer of Lincoln, noted American poet and praiser of Chicago’s vitality made a statement about the future conduct of the Nisie battalion while they were still at McCoy. His comment illustrates the generally fine impression they created by their determinatin to excel and dedication to duty. “Anyone who bets on the future service of the 100th Infantry Battalion of the 2nd Army, in training at Camp McCoy, will not go far wrong.”