(November 1944 – March 1945)
The 100th/442nd, The “Champagne Campaign”
In November 1944, the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team left the cold, dark forests of the Vosges Mountains and headed south to the sunny coasts of the French Riviera. But with nearly 2,000 of its wounded lying in hospitals all around England, Italy and France and even more lost in combat, the 442nd was less than half its strength and could not be used as a regiment-sized force.1
The 442nd needed replacements. But more than that, the men needed rest. Since they had first arrived in Italy in June, the fighting had been brutal and virtually nonstop. Eventually, 265 men recuperated from their wounds and returned to the 442nd. Another 1,214 replacements, mostly draftees from the mainland, arrived and received training.2
The regiment spent the next four months in the Maritime Alps and the French Riviera. After the Vosges, the assignment seemed easy. Their mission was to guard a roughly 12-mile stretch of the French-Italian border and keep the enemy from breaking through to the southern coast of France.3
The 100th Battalion moved to Menton, a coastal town near Monaco. Soldiers from the 2nd and 3rd Battalions took up defensive positions in the nearby hills, close to the town of Sospel and the ski resort Peira Cava.
The men had to trudge across snowy slopes to remote outposts, but they stayed in dry dugouts that were much more comfortable than those in the Vosges Mountains. They received their supplies of canned meat and other items by mule train because army vehicles couldn’t make it up the steep, winding trails.4
Soldiers on patrol sometimes met sniper fire. The Germans shelled almost daily, and the 442nd’s Cannon Company and the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion returned fire.5 Yet the Maritime Alps was a comparatively quiet front.
In December, during the Battle of the Bulge, when the Germans broke through Allied defenses at Ardennes, the French-Italian border was tense. The Nisei were told to watch out for spies, saboteurs and German paratroopers wearing American uniforms. Although they didn’t see any paratroopers, they did capture an enemy company of 75 and a group of Italian Fascists disguised as women.6
One day, a Japanese American soldier was on guard duty in the hills overlooking the harbor at Menton. He spotted what looked like a large fish stuck near a sandbar. He called down for other Nisei to investigate. Everyone was hoping for a meal of sashimi, or raw fish. Instead, the “fish” turned out to be a one-man German submarine. The young driver had mistaken Menton for a harbor five miles away in Italy. When the driver motioned for the Japanese American soldiers who discovered him to push him off the sandbar, the Nisei in turn pointed his Tommy gun at him and motioned for the German to surrender.7 Eventually the sub was pulled ashore.
The men dubbed their time in southern France the “Champagne Campaign,” because of the availability of wine, women and song.8 During the campaign, they enjoyed the nightclubs, music and dancing in nearby French resort towns. Monaco was supposed to be off-limits, but some soldiers managed to visit the casinos there. A few lucky officers were able to secure 18-day passes to Paris.
French villagers invited some of the Nisei into their homes for dinner. Over these meals, lasting friendships were formed, with some friendships eventually turning into marriages. The Nisei also celebrated the holidays. I Company, for example, held a Christmas party. They decorated a Christmas tree, sang carols accompanied by their guitars and ukuleles, and handed out candy to the children.
But war was ever-present, even in this relatively peaceful region of southern France. Isolated tragic incidents served as a cruel reminder that the war was still raging on.
On November 30, three K Company men sunbathing in a courtyard were surprised when a German tank fired at them from the hillside on the Italian border. Two of the men died, and the third lost both his legs.9
On January 20, 1945, C Company discovered enemy troops hiding in a hunting shack. Fourteen prisoners were taken. However, one Nisei died from wounds he suffered during the raid.10
Two men from G Company carried a wounded officer on a litter through an area where American forces had previously laid mines. The mines had not yet been cleared, and they tripped one. Both died instantly.11 Another soldier, from L Company, was out on patrol when he stepped on a mine. His buddy behind him died while he himself lost a leg.12
For the four months from November 21, 1944, to March 17, 1945, in spite of the relative quiet of southern France, 11 men died, two were reported missing, 96 were wounded and six others were injured in non-combat casualties.13
Then, in early March, the men heard rumors that the regiment would be moving out of southern France to a top-secret destination. Adding to the mystery were orders for the 522nd to separate from the regiment and head north to help the 7th Army with its push into Germany.
On March 23, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, without the 522nd, sailed from the port of Marseille to an unknown destination, marking the end of the “Champagne Campaign.”
- 1Masayo Umezawa Duus, trans. Peter Duus, Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and 442nd (Honolulu, HI: UH Press, 1987), p. 220.
- 2Ibid, p. 230.
- 3Lyn Crost, Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), pp. 229-237.
- 4Dorothy Matsuo, Boyhood to War: History and Anecdotes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (Honolulu, HI: Mutual Pub. Co., 1992), p. 122.
- 5Ibid, p. 121.
- 6Crost, p. 233.
- 8Matsuo, p. 121. The same nickname was also given to the Southern France campaign by the Seventh Army. See “Southern France: The US Army Campaigns of World War II,” US Army Center of Military History, last updated October 3, 2003, accessed on January 12, 2015, http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/sfrance/sfrance.htm.
- 9The two men who died in this tragic incident were Corporal Larry Miura and Sergeant Kenji Sugewara. The soldier who lost his legs was Sergeant Takaji Goto. Duus, pp. 223-224, and Crost, p. 231.
- 10This was John Tanaka. Crost, p. 231.
- 11Duus, pp. 224-225.
- 12Matsuo, p. 121.
- 13Ibid, p. 123.
ORAL HISTORY CLIPS
Susumu Satow [interview 243]
Starts on Tape Five, between 0 and 2 minute marks
From there, we were just getting ready to move to Southern France, and so I went back to my unit and went on to Southern France. Yeah. And there, we were guarding the Italian-France border so that there’d be no invasion from that direction. And so, we did all kinds of stuff, you know. We were in a fort to—we were taking care of meals so that we could supply some of our outpost.
Starts on Tape Five, between 2 and 4 minute marks
So, how was the Champagne Campaign for you?
For me, it was pretty well protected. It was—I was in a fort. And once in a while we had to make a run with a mule but, otherwise, you know, you’re under the protection of the fort, and so it was pretty easy. And the pass to Nice was very liberal, and so we had a rest camp there and so that’s where we stayed, and we visited the night clubs and what have you before being sent back to the line.
Did you meet any of the people in Nice?
Yeah. We just, you know, sort of a conversation, that’s about it, you know. Nobody that, I would say, we did develop a friendship with or anything like that.
Did you get a chance to taste any of the wine or the stuff from there?
The cognac, wine, schnapps––terrible. Yeah, although I didn’t get drunk; I knew when to stop.