This past May, my wife Judy and I joined three other Hawai‘i couples — Ed and Jan Sakoda, Wayne and Carol Matsunaga, and Alvin and Ellie Shimogaki — on a journey to Italy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino. The connection between us — Jan (daughter of Gary Uchida), Carol (daughter of Arthur Komiyama), Alvin (son of Calvin Shimogaki) and myself (son of Mitsuyoshi Fukuda) — is that our fathers served together in the 100th Infantry Battalion during World War II.
We were visiting Santa Margherita with Grand Circle Tours. As part of our tour, we had arranged for a day trip to the commune of Aulla in Tuscany.
Aulla had been the objective of “Task Force Fukuda,” which my father, Maj. Mitsuyoshi Fukuda, led in 1945.
April 25, 1945. It was early morning and Dad was on the southern bank of the Aulella River, across from Aulla. It is one of only a couple of instances in which I know precisely where Dad was on a given date and time during the war. There are no records of skirmishes with the enemy, or even of shots being fired on this day — only of flowers and wine. But to the Italian people, this day is of far greater importance than Dad or his men could have realized at the time.
Aulla is a small town of approximately 10,000 inhabitants. Today, it is adjacent to a major corridor into Austria. During World War II, the town was leveled by Allied bombs due to the presence of German soldiers.
One building largely spared from destruction was the Abbey of St. Caprasio, our first stop in Aulla. A photo taken in 1945 shows its bell tower standing defiantly over the rest of the demolished city.
In the adjoining museum, an animated docent shared with us the history of the abbey through our driver, who doubled as our translator. The abbey was the 30th stop on the famous Via Francigena pilgrimage from Canterbury, England, to Rome and Jerusalem beginning in the ninth century. In 2013, 1,100 people passed through the abbey on pilgrimages. In addition to the relics, or bones, of St. Caprasio, Rome had sent the skull of St. Severo for safe keeping from the Saracen invaders, adding to the stature of the abbey.
In 2003, a 500-pound unexploded British bomb was unearthed in the apse when major repair and archaeological work was undertaken. The bomb was situated less than 10 feet from St. Caprasio’s tomb. Had it detonated, both tomb and apse would have been destroyed. That it didn’t was seen as a testament to the miraculous powers of St. Caprasio some 1,500 years after his death.
After leaving the abbey, we drove up the hill overlooking the town to visit the Brunella Fortress, an imposing structure which the Fascists had requisitioned and where German soldiers were billeted during the war. From the steep, narrow, winding road, an abandoned railroad station and railroad tracks can be seen running between the hill and town itself. Once at the top of the hill, we walked about 100 yards until we reached the massive walls of the fortress and crossed over a bridge to the inner fortress.
After navigating a deep walkway, we came to a sign (in Italian) directing us to ring the doorbell. A few moments later a worker appeared. She collected our entrance fees, gave us some quick directions for getting around and then disappeared. We never saw her again, or anyone else, during our two-hour visit.
The massive walls of this 15th century fortress were built to withstand cannon fire. The views from the rooftop are spectacular, allowing for panoramic views of the town and surrounding rivers, mountains and valleys. The photos I had brought with me of a bombed-out Aulla in 1945 and the more recent promotional photos of the town had been taken from this vantage point. From here, I could see clearly where Dad and his men were on the morning of April 25, 1945. Equally impressive was the terrain that the unit had had to transverse to reach Aulla — steep mountains and deep valleys covered with thick vegetation.
Dad was the executive officer of the 100th Infantry Battalion at the time and had been ordered to lead a task force consisting of Company B, Company F and a platoon from Antitank Company.
In his book, “Go For Broke: A Pictorial History of the Japanese American 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team,” Chester Tanaka, a 442nd RCT veteran, described Task Force Fukuda as a special “commando” unit that had been organized only two days earlier.
“Should Aulla fall, the escape route that led from La Spezia and Genoa would be cut off,” Tanaka wrote. “The Germans knew this and so did the 100th/442nd.”
Task Force Fukuda left Viano on April 23 and was to join 2nd Battalion in a pincer move, coming in from both sides of Mount Carbolo.
Wrote Tanaka: “Task Force Fukuda and the 2nd Bn. drove in on Aulla from the now fleeing German Army. The roof had caved in on the enemy.”
In a May 1983 letter to Bob Sasaki, then-executive secretary of the 442nd Veterans Club, Dad wrote:
“I recall that we carried a whole lot of lines to maintain telephone communication with the 100th Bn. Headquarters. I remember taking a field artillery observer with me and asking for artillery fire when we reached the outskirts of Aulla. Because we saw enemy activity in the town and it was getting dark when we arrived on the south side of town, I decided to attack in the morning.
When we moved into Aulla the next morning, to our great relief, the Germans had pulled out. We did not go beyond Aulla. The 442nd moved in from the East and went on ahead. I remember sitting by the roadside of Aulla and watching the units of the 442nd march by.
Captain Sadami Katahara was the CO of “B” Company. I remember “Monzook” Okazaki and Marshall Higa. (Capt. Joseph Hill was CO of “F” Company).
It is unclear what the people of Aulla remember of that April morning in 1945. In fact, in the 1980s when retired U.S. Brig. Gen. William W. Molla was doing research on Aulla, his father’s birthplace, a local historian who had just published a pamphlet on the liberation asked Molla for the name of the commander of the “Philippine” troops who entered the town on April 25, 1945.
Today, Aulla and the rest of Italy observe April 25 as “Liberation Day,” even though the Allied nations recognize May 2 as the end of the war in Italy. In 1946, the Italian government selected April 25 as “Liberation Day” because Milan and Turin were liberated as well on that day.
While I was able to see first-hand the difficult terrain that the men of Task Force Fukuda crossed en route to Aulla, it’s hard to fully comprehend the anxiety they must have felt as they entered the town — or their relief at seeing that the enemy had fled. I realized that the day the 100th/442nd entered and liberated Aulla remains a special day for the Italian people and it left me with a great sense of pride.
David Fukuda is retired and lives on Maui. He is an active member of the Maui Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans and a board member of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center in Wailuku.