(September 15 – November 21, 1944)
The 100th/442nd at Bruyères, Belmont and Biffontaine, September 29 – October 1944
After arriving in France, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team joined the 36th Division, as part of the 7th Army. In October 1944, the 442nd reached the outskirts of Bruyères, a quaint little town in northeast France. The Allies were only 40 miles from Germany. But standing in the way were the Vosges Mountains and a cornered, yet determined German army.
The town lay in a valley bordered by four conical hills that the Allies named A, B, C and D. To take Bruyères, the Nisei had to take the hills. On October 15, under the command of Major General John Dahlquist, the 442nd went into combat. The 100th Battalion attacked Hill A. The 2nd Battalion attacked Hill B. But after a day of heavy fighting, the Nisei had advanced only 500 yards.2
The Germans had the terrain and the weather on their side. The mountains were more than 1,000 feet high and were covered with tall pines. The fog and the thick underbrush limited visibility to a dozen yards. Although it was still autumn, the Nisei soldiers could feel the bitter cold of the oncoming winter, later reported as the coldest in several decades. An icy rain poured down, soaking the men’s uniforms, socks and boots. Artillery barrages and “screaming meemie” rockets pounded continuously. Almost every shell the Germans fired burst in the trees and showered hundreds of jagged steel fragments and wood splinters on the men below.3
For three days, the infantrymen fought back constant German attacks. With the help of artillery fire from the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, the 100th took Hill A, and the 2nd took Hill B. The 3rd Battalion routed the enemy out of Bruyères, but the Germans still held Hills C and D.4
On October 20, during the fight to take Hill D, the Germans wounded a soldier from F Company. As the litter bearers carried him away, the Germans fired at the stretcher and killed him. Infuriated that the enemy shot an unarmed, wounded man, the F Company men charged up the hill and annihilated the Germans.
Nearby, the Germans shot at another Nisei carrying party.5 This time Staff Sergeant Robert Kuroda singlehandedly killed three Germans with grenades and killed or wounded three others with his rifle. The carrying party was rescued, but Kuroda was killed by a sniper. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for his heroic action.6 It was later upgraded to a Medal of Honor in 2000.
Meanwhile Dahlquist ordered the 100th Battalion to march east, more than a mile from the nearest friendly troops, and take the high ground overlooking the village of Biffontaine. The men reached the ridge and dug in. But soon they were being hit from all three sides with German artillery, rockets and anti-aircraft fire.10
They held the ridge, but the men were critically low on water and supplies. Five tanks accompanied by a platoon and loaded up with ammunition and water tried to reach the 100th. But the Germans ambushed them, killing three and wounding several others.
At the same time, German bicycle troops attacked the 100th along the right rear flank.11 The 2nd Battalion beat off the attack, but the 100th still needed supplies. Finally soldiers from G and L Companies, carrying water and ammunition on their backs, found their way through the thick forest with the help of the French resistance and relieved the beleaguered 100th Battalion.12
Dahlquist then ordered the 100th to descend the ridge and take Biffontaine, a small village with no rail line. It was an objective that many men thought was tactically questionable. Nevertheless, they followed their orders. The 100th climbed down and quickly captured 23 Germans, some enemy arms and several houses.13 But soon the Germans re-grouped. They surrounded the town and blasted the 100th with anti-aircraft cannons and tank fire all through the night.
Exhausted, the men in the 100th huddled in the cellars of ruined buildings. Many had not slept for eight days. The casualties were piling up. Their cache of captured weapons had run out and the supply lines were again cut off. The Germans swarmed among the houses, yelling “Surrender!”, but the 100th held the town.14
The next day the Nisei attempted to carry out some of the wounded, but a German patrol captured many of them. Only three of the 20 were able to escape.15
On the afternoon of October 23, the 3rd Battalion finally broke through to free the 100th. Biffontaine, a farming hamlet of about 300 people, was now in Allied hands. The cost for the 100th was 21 killed, 122 wounded and 18 captured.16
The 100th, 2nd and 3rd Battalions were finally ordered back to Belmont for a well-deserved rest.
- 1Chester Tanaka, Go For Broke: A Pictorial History of the Japanese-American 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442d Regimental Combat Team (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), p. 80.
- 2James M. Hanley, A Matter of Honor: A Memoire (Springfield, MA: Vantage Press, 1995), p. 54.
- 3Ibid, p. 51.
- 4Lyn Crost, Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), p. 176.
- 5Accounts vary as to whether it was a supply party or a litter party. See Crost, p. 177; Tanaka, p. 83; Hanley, p. 58; and Franz Steidl, Lost Battalions: Going for Broke in the Vosges, Autumn 1944 (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), p. 45.
- 6“Staff Sergeant Robert T. Kuroda United States Army,” Asian Pacific American Medal of Honor Recipients, US Army Center of Military History, last updated June 27, 2011, accessed on January 13, 2015.
- 7Crost, p. 179.
- 8Steidl, pp. 48-49; Tanaka, p. 84; Crost, p. 179.
- 9Crost, p. 179.
- 10Hanley, p. 61.
- 11Tanaka, pp. 88-89.
- 12Crost, p. 181.
- 13Steidl, p. 54.
- 14Crost, p. 182.
- 15Tanaka, p. 89.
- 16C. Douglas Sterner, Go For Broke: The Nisei Warriors of World War II who Conquered Germany, Japan, and American Bigotry (Clearfield, UT: American Legacy Historical Press, 2008), pp. 64-66.
ORAL HISTORY CLIPS
Susumu Satow [interview 243]
Starts on Tape Four, between 10 and 12 minute marks
We assembled in Marseille, and there we were shipped by train to Épinal, and from Épinal we went to the front lines for the Battle of Bruyères.
Can you describe to us, Bruyères?
Well, Bruyères was a small railroad hub and it was very important to the Germans, and so there was a need for us to capture it and so that was our assignment. And so it took us about maybe two weeks, three weeks for us in combat to capture Bruyères, but we did that. And so today, if you go back to Bruyères, you know, where Japanese Americans are heroes there, and in fact, they got a museum in the center of town that tells a story of the Japanese American soldiers. It tells about the internment, how the 442nd was formed, and how we liberated Bruyères.
Can you, in your own personal words, describe to us this battle and whether it was—was it like hand-to-hand combat kind of battle or what? Can you describe it for us?
Well, it wasn’t hand-to-hand but Vosges Mountain was a forest, pine tree forest, and so there was shrubbery all over the place and we have to—we had to move forward to that, and so it’s pretty hard to tell where your enemies were. But—and also, the artillery shell that we were getting, hit a tree, we call it tree burst, and from that the shrapnels are showered down into the—toward the ground, and so a lot of casualties we had to suffer. And so this was all the way up to the township of Bruyères and it was a downhill, I remembered digging a hole there and looking down into Bruyères and I could see the streets and on the far end of town, I could see a German tank’s gun sticking out. So, there was enemy there and we had to fight for that.
James Matsumoto [interview 300]
Starts on Tape Six, between 12 and 16 minute marks
Now, I just want to step back a little bit further and—to Bruyères.
And you were talking about how heavy the fighting was there.
And that this town was liberated.
Can you describe some of the action that took place there?
Well, it was a little village set down in a little valley in a wooded area in the French Alps there. It was not too big, but we went in there and we really got attacked. I mean, the Germans were in there very strong and they had their best troops in there. So they—we fought door-to-door. Every house, we went in one house, out the other house, into the house, into . . . And, boy, it was really a battle, we really lost a lot of men. And when we was approaching that, there was already fighting, so the other troops were fighting in there. So we went in there and mopped it up. And there was so many people dead on the road there that they’re using a bulldozer to push ’em off the road so the trucks can get through. That really impressed that.
Was that troops from both sides?
Yes, both sides, yes.
The—after having liberated this town, what was the response of—by the townspeople to see these Asian troops?
I know. They thought Japan had invaded. [Laughs.] Yeah. They were very happy. They—I guess they put up a monument since then for the 442.
Takeichi Miyashiro [interview 123]
Starts on Tape Four, between 24 and 26 minute marks
After that was Biffontaine. Biffontaine…the captain again told us to go – this time was there were – in Bruyères he told me to go to the right. Biffontaine he told me, “Take your platoon to the left.” But you know, one will say on the wooded area over there, they start shelling us too, you know under a mortar shell. But I observed over there, there was a half-track directly in front of us but, oh, further away, they could have fired [on] us if they saw us going attack in, gee, that machine gun know where to find – there’s something on the other side I don’t know. Maybe [???]. But anyway, I saw some Germans attacking, no I mean some Germans climbing the stairway into…going into one tank. So I told my men, yeah, “Let’s move to the right.” We went into the right. I didn’t lose any men yet.