Awakuni, the Tank-Buster

Author: Ben Tamashiro, D Company
Puka Puka Parades, October 1978, vol. 32 no.5

Interview with Masao Awakuni about his experience as a bazooka man in World War II during the battle of Cassino.

Combat tanks as we know them today initially appeared in the First World War and men could do nothing then but run and hide. But as with any game where the introduction of a new offensive play sooner or later produces a checkmate, the Goliath of steel begat, in time, a slew of counter weapons. One of these was the bazooka, a man-carried weapon; in that light, a weapon somewhat analogous to David’s slingshot.

In the last issue of the Parade, we recounted Masao Awakuni’s single-handed destruction of a German tank on Castle Hill in Cassino on February 8, 1944. That was his second tank. In this interview, we take you back to Awakuni1s first encounter 3-1/2 months earlier, on October 22, 1943, near Alife. Interviewers are Warren Iwai and the writer, and Q stands for their questions and comments. MA is for Masao Awakuni,

Masao was a member of the 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company. He had started out as a rifleman but became a bazooka man when that weapon was introduced into the 100 sometime during its training period; he does not recall when.

Q What did you fire at in training?

MA Shucks! I don’t know! I assume it was imaginary things.

Q But you had adequate practice in handling and firing that thing?

MA Just to load. I don’t think we fired at anything in training.

Q What did you feel about this new weapon for which you did not even get to fire a real, live round in practice?

MA It’s a strange thing, this thing of machine against man. Could a bazooka knock out a tank that is armored, made of real steel, and everything? I didn’t, even see a tank before Alife! You get the point? Even in your heart you have a doubt. I’m told that, this would knock a tank down. I couldn’t believe myself that the rocket could penetrate through the tank, until I fired upon it.

The 100th had fought through towns and mountain villages with place names like Chiusano, Benevento, Bagnoli, and Caserta. And they had just completed their first crossing of the Volturno River. Now, with all its regiments, and the 100th, across the Volturno, the 34th Division prepared for the fight to take the town of Alife. The 100th pushed off along the slopes of the valley through which flowed the Volturno. It was exactly one month to the day since the men of the 100th had climbed down the rope ladders of the S.S. Frederick Funston at Salerno.

Enemy tanks were roaming the area and one had crept up to Charlie Company’s left flank, fired some rounds, and caused a number of casualties. Awakuni was to the rear of the company when the call came to set up a tank blockade. He hurried to the front accompanied by an ammunition carrier and some riflemen.

A road ran parallel to Charlie Company’s front. It ran along a natural dip, or low part, of the landscape. It was abutted at one point by another road running perpendicular to it. Looking over the lay of the land, Awakuni positioned himself at this juncture, or T, in the road, on the reasoned guess that the tank (which he had not seen as yet) would be coming down the perpendicular to the main. And if it did, he would have a good vantage point. With that, he loaded his bazooka. His ammunition carrier who would do all subsequent loadings in the firing sequence was to the right and rear of him while the riflemen positioned themselves around them. Then he laid down on his belly…. and waited.

To give you, the reader, a more feeling approximation of what the field of fire, looked like to Awakuni from his belly-down position above that T in the road as he faced his moment of truth that October morning in Alife, imagine that you are lying on your belly on the sun deck of your 2-story home. Suddenly, a heavy truck (the tank) comes rumbling into your driveway (the perpendicular road) and stops by the entrance to your garage directly below you. From the sun deck, you look down at the vehicle; the distance is 12-15 feet.

To Awakuni’s left was a farmhouse, and trees to the right. Also to his left but not within his view was the spot where the German tank had earlier shot up the C Company men. So he knew that if it came, it would be coming from that direction

Then he heard the clanking and the growling, and the roar of the engines. He knew by the sound that the tank was headed his way even though he could not see it the farmhouse blocked his view of the tank’s approach.

Q How long was it before the tank appeared?

MA About five or ten minutes. But I really don’t know – we were so scared! You don’t think of time; time is not the point. We were so tense and scared. You wonder how big the tank is. You wait, wait . . . then you blink your eyes and all of a sudden, it’s right there in front of you. You cannot explain in words . . . there it is! We cannot see the tracks, or nothing of the tank. Only the turret. And the only thing to do is fire upon it! That’s all you know, hoping that the first shot is in the right spot. I was lucky it didn’t explode, we were so close to the tank.

It is, what it was . . I call it fear, anyway. You only can hear the tank noise, and then you wait. The tank sounds come louder and louder. Either you perspiring with fright or what, you cannot recognize until it’s all over. Once you see the tank in front of you, then you fire the first round. You hoping and praying that it’s the one. Then after that, you get what the infantrymen call “trigger happy”. Because the next shot comes automatically because, I guess, all the tension and fright which you had, which I cannot explain, makes a man trigger happy. So I fired my two rounds. And Obara, my ammunition carrier, he carried maybe two or three – I used all his, too.

Q So you fired five shots?

MA Yes.

Q And you hit the tank with all five?

MA Yeah. You can’t miss because it’s so big, so close. And it comes automatically, from all the training.

Q After you fired your last round, then what?

MA You’re scared, because you don’t have anything left. Then I realized what I have done, fired everything. Nothing left. I should have held back a shot, at least one. But it’s too late. What if another backup tank follows?

Awakuni’s concern, of course, was the matter of resupply of ammunition. He was completely out. His only reassurance was that somewhere back in the company, there were two more bazooka men.

(You may recall that in the Cassino confrontation, Awakuni had two rounds with him; he fired the first and the tank burst into flames. Although he was prepared to fire the second, he was at the same time very conscious of the fact that at Alife, he had run out of spare ammunition because in his “trigger happy” reaction, he had fired all available rounds. Thus it was that at Cassino, he withheld firing the second and as it turned out, the second was not necessary.)

Q Now, did any of the tank crew pop out of the tank?

MA No, nobody popped out. But I could hear somebody in the tank saying, “Please help me!” I can swear to it that I heard that.

Q You mean the cry was in English!

MA Yeah, in English.

Q And your reaction to that?

MA Gosh, I was really scared. I thought I knocked off our own tank!

Q You mean, when the tank came down this road at you, you couldn’t see any markings to identify it?

MA You see, the farmhouse blocked the view of the tank and before I knew it, the tank was right in front of me!

Q So you assumed it was an enemy tank? What happened after that?

MA We couldn’t do nothing. We stayed over there, then some Germans threw some grenades and they exploded in the back of us. After that, everything came quiet. Then they told us to pull back.

Q The tank didn’t catch fire, or explode?

MA No, nothing like that.

Q So you pulled back . . .

MA That night, the captain . . I forgot who was our captain . . he gave me a glass full of whiskey for a job well done.

Masao was injured several weeks later, about the Thanksgiving period; he stayed in the hospital a long time, then rejoined the 100th in time for the start of the Cassino battle. As a footnote to the paradox of the times, he received a DSC for having knocked off a second tank at Cassino but only a Bronze Star for his initial action at Alife.

I’d like to return for a moment to that quote of Napoleon’s printed in last month’s story on Awakuni: “The first quality of a soldier is fortitude in enduring, fatigue and hardship: bravery but the second. Poverty, hardship, mistery [sic] are the school of the good soldier.”

Q Do you feel that you were brave or . . .

MA No, I don’t think I’m brave. It’s just that the tank came in my way. Anyone else over there could have done the same thing.

Q At the moment of the happening, none of us think of that kind of thing as bravery. But somehow, in the afterglow, you can’t help but think that part of the thing is wrapped up in the element of bravery. It still takes a lot of guts to make men do what they do in battle.

MA To me, bravery is not the word. It’s the training. And especially the duty to perform – that’s what comes first. When we were in Tent City, they took everything away from us. More than anything else, the next morning I found out that our rifles were gone!

Q You’re talking about December ’41, right after Pearl Harbor.

MA Even the army didn’t trust, us. I was a Boy Scout in my younger days; brought up on duty. Duty – we have to show them that we are American citizens. That comes first. I think majority of the 100th felt that way. The incident of taking away our rifles, our friends being evacuated to concentration or relocation camp – these are the things that bothered me most. One of my best, friends, Thomas Sakakihara, got in there, too. I’m a Hilo boy and we used to admire him. Even when I came home, his was the only place I could spend my time – go up to his home, talk story. But he never mentioned his time in the relocation center.

Q In other words, bravery comes out of the performance of duty.

MA Yeah.

Q Well, in that sense, what feelings, if any, did you have for your mother country, Japan?

MA I tell you the fact. I had no . . . no feelings at all. I didn’t think I had to be any other way to them. To my parents, yes – but not to their country.

Q I presume you had cut off your dual citizenship?

MA Yes, I did – at 21. So, in the community, we weren’t liked too much.

Q You mean, from the Issei viewpoint?

MA Yeah.

Masao joined this past summer’s 100/442 European tour at the very last moment, with great expectations of spending some time at Cassino and reliving his part of the battle. To his dismay, he had only a moment there inasmuch as the bus had to keep to its appointed schedule.

Sorely disappointed, what he would like to see is someone organize a tour which would start at Salerno (not London), then work its way up to Cassino, following the path taken by the 100th. The main point of such a tour would be to give participants enough time to go over the country at their own pace: to look for their points of personal encounters, to walk the grounds they had fought over 35 years ago, and to dwell in the wonders of their experiences halfway around the world from home. It surely must be possible for someone to run with Awakuni’s idea – certainly, there are many others in the 100th with that same yearning.

Speaking of Cassino, the picture on page 12 of the previous issue suffered for the lack of a complete caption. So would you please take time out and print the following in the blank space beneath that picture: CASSINO: The Monastery, Castle Hill, the town. Arrow points to approximate location, behind Castle Hill, of Awakuni’s encounter with German tank; C Company deployed in that area. The 133d (incl 100th) had task of clearing environs along foot of mountain while the other two regiments of the 34th Div., together with French Corps., were in mountains to right in attempt at pincer movement on Monastery. The 36th Div. was deployed to left of 34th. Photo – US Army.

That picture was reproduced by George Kurisu (Dog Chapter) of George-Dean Photography on S. King St., Moiliili from the book on the U.S. Army’s history of the “Mediterranean Theater of Operations – Salerno to Cassino.”

One final note. When Ken Kaneko read Awakuni’s story in the previous issue, he recalled that after the war, he had returned to Cassino in August 1945 and one of the things he did then was to take a picture of the German tank that Awakuni had blown up with his bazooka.

Ken had a simple box camera, and he couldn’t get too close to the tank because the area was still mined, but he did get the picture. He found it in his wartime picture album, a small 2-1/4″ x 3-3/8″ shot, now slightly yellowing with age.

We asked George Kurisu to blow it up a bit and sharpen the details. That’s what you see here – the busted up and burnt up tank, neatly framed by the shell of the castle on Castle Hill in the distance.

It’s a nice complement to the picture on page 12, a most unexpected and welcome addition to Masao’s memoirs, and another picture to add to the club’s records.

To Ken and George – thanks for your assistance.

And now – finito!