Awakuni, the Tankbuster II

Author: Ben Tamashiro, D Company
Puka Puka Parades, December 1978, vol. 32 no. 6

2nd part of interview with Masao Awakuni about his first experience blowing up a tank as a bazooka man during the battle for Alife.

“The first quality of a solider is fortitude in enduring fatigue and hardship: bravery but the second. Poverty, hardship, misery are the school soldier.” Napolean

The battle of Cassino began on the night of January 17, 1944, and if ever the Allied Forces had misery for company, this place was it: mountains capped with snow, weather cold and wet, violent rains, heavy snowstorms, mud, flooded rivers, wet foxholes, rocky hillsides, freezing nights, and trench feet. And on the battlefield itself, so determined were the Germans to make a stand at Cassino (after having been driven all the way back from Salerno and having had to evacuate Naples) that despite the massive infantry and artillery assaults by the American Fifth and British Eighth Armies, and despite the bombing of the Monastery by the U.S. Army Air Force to deny its use as a super observation post, they continued to fight on for the next four months, and did not give up Cassino till May 18.

In one of the excellent books written of that battle, Fred Majdalany writes that “The performance of the 34th Division at Cassino must rank with the finest feats of arms carried out by any soldiers during the war.” (The quote of Napoleon’s, above, is extracted from his book.) And in the official U.S. Army history of the war in Italy, the publication speaks of the horrifying casualties suffered by the 3d Battalion, 133d Infantry of the 34th Division in the opening three weeks of the battle for Cassino. Then, this: “The 100th Battalion, 133d Infantry, was in even worse condition. By the night of February 7, the total strength of the three rifle companies numbered 7 officers and 78 men.” (Note: The 2d Battalion, 133d Infantry, had been assigned to guard General Eisenhower’s headquarter in Algiers. The 100th took its place but retained its own numerical designation.)

This is the backdrop against which Masao Awakuni, 3d Platoon, Company C, 100th Infantry Battalion, recalls for us that incident of almost 35 years ago – on 8 February 1944 – when he beat a German tank with his bazooka and left it in smoking ruins on one of the saddles leading up to Castle Hill.

Castle Hill is a 300-foot knoll at the northeastern edge of the town of Cassino. Sitting on the hill is a small castle from which the hill derives its name. The Castle seems to be almost an exact miniature of the more-famed Abbey of Monte Cassino.

Rising behind Castle Hill is the 1700-foot high mountain mass called Monte Cassino from which the town gets its name. Sitting at the very top is the famed Benedictine Abbey, more commonly referred to as the Monastery; a massive four-storied building built in the form of a trapezium whose longest side is more than 200 yards long, twice the length of Buckingham Palace. Built like a fortress with thick battlemented base, it has long even rows of small cell windows which could serve as observation posts or firing portholes. The battle for Cassino was a fight for this mountaintop, for whoever controlled it was lord over the southern approaches to the city of Rome lying 75 miles to the north.

Although all the infantry units were down to their bare bones in manpower, the fight did not let up. So the morning of 8 February found C Company of the 100th pinned down on Hill 165 by enemy machine gun and mortar fire pouring down on them from the heights of Monastery Hill to its right and Castle Hill on the left. What happened next is described by Thomas D. Murphy in his book, “Ambassador In Arms”:

“A German assault gun appeared from some buildings behind the Castle, and began to pump shells down at the men on Hill 165. Rifle grenades couldn’t reach it, so the same bazookaman who had ruined a German tank at Alife was called forward from a support platoon. He sneaked across rocky terrain to a point within thirty yards of the gun and fired. His first shot hit one of the treads, and as bullets rattled around him he aimed again, and this time his rocket pierced the tank’s armor and exploded inside. Tank-buster Masao Awakuni then crawled behind a boulder and sweated it out under sniper fire. In the dark, ten hours later, he returned to his outfit, a self-applied bandage around a wounded arm. He later received a DSC.”

Warren Iwai who himself was a member of the 3d Platoon, Charlie Company and the writer, conducted an oral interview with Masao Awakuni last month at the clubhouse. That interview follows; MA stands for Masao Awakuni and Q represents the questions and comments by the two interviewers. The interview is revealing in that it not only sheds more light on the incident but tells us something of Masao himself.

MA: They called for a bazooka man so naturally, I have to go. I assumed I saw two tanks. Then I dropped down because I saw one of the tanks, the gun was coming up. So I hid behind the rocks. Then no sooner I done that, I saw one tank on my left side of the Castle Hill. He was going to the Castle and was ready to turn. His rear was facing towards me so I took the bazooka and aimed at the rear, and I shot at the rear section. So, accidentally, it burst into flames. So I figured that was it already.

But in the meantime, I seen that Major James Lovell was wounded on the fourth terrace below me but nobody could give him aid at the time, firing was so intense. You stick your head out and zing! That’s all you could hear. In the excitement, that’s all I can think about it. Until that very night I got wounded and came down. And that’s all.

Q You fired just one shot? (Murphy mentions two)

MA Yes, only one shot. The tank stopped and burst into flames. And I saw the Germans come out of the tank and there was some shots firing, but you cannot see because we’re all under cover with the terrace. We cannot stick our heads out.

Q What time of the day was this?

MA I assume it was close to about ten or eleven o’clock.

Q What happened to you after that?

MA We couldn’t do anything. We just were pinned down. In other words, no move, no nothing.

Q And that’s the way you stayed for the rest of the day?

MA Yes, till nightfall. At nightfall, when I tried to stretch myself, because lying down all day I was so tired, I lift up myself, facing the front, then I get injured on my left arm, right by the elbow.

Q Bullet?

MA Bullet.

Q So then – you evacuated yourself?

MA Yes, came down from the terrace, slowly that night. See, I was injured about eight o’clock that night.

Q Who took care of your injury?

MA Nobody. Because we couldn’t yell for medics at that time. And I don’t think they had any medics there, that’s what I assumed. Because we were quite way up in the front of the line.

Q Did you take your bazooka along with you?

MA No, I left everything there. Just took off the battery of the bazooka.

Q Which brings up the question of ammunition. Before you fired at the tank, how many rounds did you have?

MA I had two rounds.

Q So when you left the position, what happened to the other round?

MA I left it there.


Compared to the rifleman who is always a part of the action, the bazooka man is one who just follows the platoon wherever it goes, waiting for a call which comes infrequently, if ever. What is it like, being a bazooka man, and the waiting game which goes along with it … in the meantime, trying to keep alive? Masao was asked his feelings about this.

MA Well, the bazooka is almost at tall as I am. In the winter months, it gets so cold even the mittens which we wear cannot hold the pipe. And it’s so clumsy. Climbing the hills, still lugging the bazooka around, with nothing to do, nothing to shoot; at night, I really wonder, “What I’m carrying this bazooka for, way up in the hills?” It gets in your way, you bound to hit something and make noise, and bushes get in the way, too. During the winter months, rain, hurry up and wait.

Then the cry came for a bazooka man that day in Cassino. Masao responded to the call, worked himself up the rocky terraces, one by one, than lay belly down on a little “pimple” among the rocks. At first, he could only hear the tank. Then it came into view. The adrenalin began flowing.

MA I was so excited. Things were hot. But I just had to wait. At the moment, first thing you know is to load and prepare yourself. The rest is a waiting game, until the right time comes around. In the meantime, I’m wondering what am I doing over there? Why shouldn’t some other people have been at my place?

Q Why do you ask the question? What makes you say that, or think that?

MA This was my second tank. And you always wonder, “Do I have to be the one to knock the tank?” In my heart, I know there are others who could have done the same thing if they were in the right place at the right time. That’s my belief. The others could have done the same thing. In other words, sometimes I wonder why it was me to be the one to meet the tank.

Well, your first encounter with a tank was on the twenty-second of October, about three-and-a-half months before Cassino. In between – the 100th had no encounters with a tank? No one had knocked off a tank?

MA That part I don’t know nothing. The first tank I knocked out, it took me about three days later, or a week later, that I was wounded and went to the hospital. In the meantime I don’t know what happened. The second tank was the same thing. I got the last one in the morning; during the night I got hurt again.

Q Getting back to your question of why they had to call you ….

MA No, I don’t think that they particularly called for me, they didn’t mention my name, they only ask for bazooka man, that’s all.

Q And you happened to be there.

MA Yeah, I was there, heard the call. So, you know, as a soldier, it automatically come to mind that it must be you, so you go out.

Q Well, maybe, in trying to get an answer to your question, maybe, it was just one of these things, huh?

MA That’s true.


Between Awakuni and Warren Iwai, they can recall only some of the fellows who were there at that time in their decimated platoon: Lt. Norman Mitchell who was either the platoon leader or acting company commander, platoon sergeant Johnny Miyagawa, Sgt. Jack Gushiken, squad leader Mike Tokunaga, platoon sergeant Masanao Otake, and Kiyoshi Sagawa. Bear in mind that the strength of the 100th Battalion was down to 7 officers and 78 men – barely half a company!

The picture of a battle, whether it is captured in the immediate aftermath, or a recollection years later, is a mosaic of incomplete, confusing, and often contradictory reactions and impressions. Take Awakuni’s DSC citation, for example, reprinted here. It was issued by Hq 5th Army, on 29 May 1944.

It speaks of Awakuni having fired three shots. But in the current interview, Masao is certain that he fired only one shot. The tank had gone up an incline headed in the direction of the Castle and, by Awakuni’s reckoning, was about to make a turning move so it could come about and face its gun downward towards the men of Charlie Company huddled on the lower slopes of Castle Hill.

It was at this precise moment, when the tank’s rear was exposed to Awakuni, that he saw the opportunity and fired at the undercarriage where the engine and the gas tanks are housed. The tank burst into flames on that first shot. Having made, his way down the hillside that same night, Masao was evacuated to a field hospital (his recollection is that Major Lovell was in the same ambulance) where he had a cast put on, then sent back to a general hospital in Naples.

The Anzio landings were, made on 22 January. Suddenly, one day, the doctors removed Masao’s cast – the same was happening others in the hospital, and presumably to others in other hospitals – and the whole group of former patients were shipped to Anzio in response to an emergency call for more men at the beachhead. But in the condition they were, these GIs were useless at the front so they were returned to Naples within two weeks. After recuperation at the replacement depot, Masao was sent back to Anzio but by this time the Allies had broken out of the beachhead [sic] so it was not until Civitavecchia, about 40 miles above Rome, that he caught up with the 100th (this is where the 442nd joined the 100th).

Shortly thereafter, Masao was returned to stateside and was back in Hilo by September where he worked in the army post office AP0 960 until his discharge from the Army in August 1945 at Fort Kam. Masao was born in Honomu, Hawaii coming from a family of three brothers and three sisters. He retired as a painting supervisor with the C&C Honolulu in 1977. He lives with his wife Miriam in Kaneohe; they have no children. He is presently doing volunteer work with the Koolau Senior Citizens Club, teaching swimming and bowling, while at the same time taking lessons from the American Red Cross in order to qualify as a lifeguard.

Awakuni’s story of his encounter with his first tank, near Alife on 22 October 1943, will be told in the next issue of the Parade.