(January 24 – February 11, 1944)
In his memoir Calculated Risk, commander of the Fifth Army General Mark Clark referred to the battle of Cassino as “the most grueling, the most harrowing, and in one aspect the most tragic, of any phase of the war in Italy.”1
In mid-January 1944, in blizzard conditions, the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) took the three mountains overlooking the town of Cassino. From there, the soldiers saw the Gustav Line, which protected the key road to Rome. The Germans had used the natural landscape and their engineering skills to build one of the strongest defense lines in all of human warfare.
To take the Gustav Line, the Allies had to descend into the Rapido River valley, traverse two miles of open fields filled with landmines, mud, and knee-deep, frigid water, cross a swiftly-moving river, then climb past more mines and barbed wire and up steep, rocky slopes to the 1,500-foot peak of Monte Cassino. From there they would have to ascend still higher to a four-story fortress with 10-foot-thick stone walls.
This was the monastery of St. Benedict, or the Monte Cassino Abbey. From the heights around the abbey, the Germans had a commanding view of the entire valley. They aimed their tanks, powerful 88s, and machine guns with interlocking fire down on the exposed Allied troops. Thousands of crack German Luftwaffe (Air Force) paratroopers waited in concrete pillboxes built into the hillside and linked by underground tunnels, some which hid tanks.
On the night of January 24, A and C Companies crossed the muddy flats. The men stopped to check for trip wires. Then they waded through or swam the deep irrigation ditches filled with icy water, all under German machine gun and artillery fire. Finally, at dawn, they made it to a wall, sheltered from the enemy fire.
Then in daylight, B Company tried to cross the flats, but the Germans gunned them down. Of the 187 men in B Company, only 14 made it to the wall.2 By the next day, the 100th, which was now missing many men and officers, was ordered back in reserve.
On February 8, the 100th again attacked, this time halfway up the mountainside on the way to the abbey. The Nisei soldiers secured a key hill, close to the monastery, but the 34th Division’s right and left flank units were not able to keep pace with the 100th. The 100th soldiers dug in deeper and held the hill for four days, but fierce resistance on their flanks still made the position perilous. The 100th was again ordered back in reserve.
Allied commanders reluctantly gave the order to bomb the sacred abbey. On February 15, waves of bombers flew overhead, dropping hundreds of tons of explosives and reducing it to rubble.
When the 100th launched its third attack on February 18, it was already under-strength. Again and again the men stormed the defenses of the well-entrenched, well-equipped enemy who rose from the rubble. The 100th regained the ground halfway up to the stone monastery, but it lost 200 more men. One platoon started the attack with 40 and ended with five. After four days of intense fighting and holding, the 100th was ordered back for replacements and equipment re-supply.
The British and Indian soldiers who relieved the 100th saw firsthand what the battalion had done and praised them. War correspondents reported back to the American public with glowing reviews of the unit, whose soldiers were dubbed “little men of iron.”3 The unit also earned the moniker, “Purple Heart Battalion,” because of the many casualties it suffered.4
The men of the 34th Division, including the 100th, had Cassino in their grasp, but they ran out of men and supplies. Eventually Cassino was captured by the Allies. But what the 34th had almost accomplished on its own in less than a month would take five divisions three months.5 The 100th had landed in Salerno in September with 1,300 men. But now, five months later, it had only 521 effectives.6 The Battle at Monte Cassino was costly, with about 200 casualties.7
In just four days, the 100th lost the majority of its men. It was only at Cassino that the Japanese American soldiers, who would never desert their fellow soldiers even in death, were forced to leave their dead on the battlefield.8
Monte Cassino was the last major action the original 100th completed. After that, the battalion received replacements from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and headed for Anzio.
- 1General Mark W. Clark and Martin Blumenson, Calculated Risk (New York: Enigma, 2007), p. 248.
- 2Lyn Crost, Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1994), p. 105.
- 3Crost, p. 115.
- 4Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board, “100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) The Purple Heart Battalion,” Japanese Eyes, American Hearts: Personal Reflections of Hawaii’s World War II Nisei Soldiers (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1998), p. 4.
- 5See “Italy: The First Four Months.” (2011-2013). 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Education Center. Retrieved from on December 4, 2014.
- 6Crost, p. 115.
- 7Arthur C. Rathburn cites 48 killed, 136 wounded, and another 86 hospitalized for non-combat injuries. See Rathburn, The American Japanese (Dane, WI: Fort Dane Books, 2004), p. 34. See also Woo Sung Huan, UnSung Hero: The Col. Young Oak Kim Story, trans. Edward T. Chang (Riverside, CA: Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies, 2011), p. 74.
- 8Masayo Umezawa Duus, Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and 442nd , trans. by Peter Duus (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2006), p. 127. See also Bernard J.D. Irwin, “Daniel K. Inouye, ” America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan, James H. Willbanks, ed., (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), p. 151.
ORAL HISTORY CLIPS
Young Oak Kim [interview 047a]
Starts on Tape Four, between 16 and 18 minute marks
YOUNG OAK KIM:
I think, very close to dawn, both C and A Company had breached the wall that—in this particular area, the Rapido River had been walled in on both sides and it was concrete. And so now you’re facing a—now, a major obstacle. I can’t remember exactly, but I think from reports that were coming back, that river was a good 15, 20 yards wide. It was a good 10 or 12 yards down, and then on the far side, it was higher, and then on that side, you had mines, barbed wire and everything ’cause there was a road. Now, across the road is where the hill started. And the Germans were dug in on that hill, and they were dug into—the hill was solid rock. And so, what the German engineering companies had done, they come out and air hammered these bunkers into solid rock, and the Germans were sitting in there comfortably with their machine guns, available fire, and everything else, and we’re sitting out there. And, of course, they had machine guns further up all the way up the hill, as well as other things. And, of course, they were firing at us with mortars. And that’s the first time we ran into the…we call the “screaming meemies.” Those are the rockets that fire and come in in clusters. And their artillery there was enormous in size.