Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Mid-May of 1944 was a pivotal period in the history of the 100th Infantry Battalion, highlighted by the Allied effort to wrest the 1,700-foot high Benedictine monastery called Monte Cassino from German control. The 100th’s involvement in this five-month-long campaign left the unit decimated. The 100th Battalion had arrived in Italy in September 1943 with some 1,300 men; by mid-May 1944, only 512 were fit to continue fighting. It was here, in the battle for Monte Cassino, that the 100th earned its nickname, the Purple Heart Battalion.
My dad, Gary Uchida of Headquarters Company, was seriously wounded near Cassino. So when my husband Ed and I heard about a tour to Italy that would include a stop in Cassino to mark the 70th anniversary of the town’s liberation, we thought it would be a good opportunity to learn more about the area where Dad was wounded. Our two-week tour of Italy took us to Rome, Florence, Pisa, Santa Margherita, Bolzano (once part of Austria) and Venice.
In preparation for the trip, I spent time talking story with longtime friends of my dad — Edward Ikuma (HQ), Kenneth Higa (C), and Sonsei Nakamura and retired Judge Takashi Kitaoka (both B) — all 100th Battalion “originals,” like my dad, who had sailed out of Honolulu Harbor in June 1942. I wanted to find out what they remembered about their time in Italy. Seventy years have passed since they fought in Italy, but I was amazed to find that their memories of Italy are deeply etched in their minds and hearts. The ports, towns, hills, rivers and events they mentioned, once just names to me, became real as we visited these locations on our trip, leaving me with good memories.
We arrived in Rome late in the day on Sunday, April 27. It was an auspicious day: the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII, both of whom were being elevated to sainthood.
Our tour group spent three days exploring Rome and included a visit to Fontana di Trevi, or Trevi Fountain. Sonsei Nakamura had told me that after a month of treatment for trench foot (what we now know as frostbite), he was assigned to the Albergo Marino Hotel, which was located near Trevi Fountain, to help American soldiers as they arrived for rest and recuperation (or relaxation or recreation). I promised Sonsei that I would take a picture of the Albergo Marino Hotel, if it remained. At my request, our tour guide had researched the hotel before we arrived. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find it. It had either been torn down or renamed, which is what I think happened.
Since returning from the trip, I’ve had some time to reflect on our tour of northern Italy, trying to pick out my “favorite” part. But I’ve come to the conclusion that each place we visited was special.
What stands out in my mind is the camaraderie Ed and I formed with our fellow 100th Sansei — David Fukuda (son of Mitsuyoshi Fukuda, A Company) and his wife Judy, Wayne and Carol (daughter of Arthur Komiyama, HQ) Matsunaga and Alvin Shimogaki (son of Calvin Shimogaki, HQ) and his wife Eleanor. We socialized with others on the tour, but especially enjoyed the special bond that developed between the Hawai‘i travelers.
Our northern Italy tour ended in Venice. Then began our Monte Cassino mini tour. Our Hawai‘i group caught the train south to Cassino, where we met up with Don and Corinne (daughter of Susumu Kunishige, A) Hamano; Don’s sister, Val Nomura and her husband Scott; Glenda Koyama (daughter of Yasuo Takata, B); Bryan Yagi (nephew of a 442nd RCT veteran) and Vanessa Perry.
As we approached the town, we were excited to catch glimpses of Monte Cassino between the trees. High on the distant hill, it looked so majestic.
It was fitting that we visited the Salerno Museum on the first day of our mini tour, as the men of the 100th Battalion took their first steps on Italian soil at Salerno on Sept. 22, 1943.
The 100th’s landing at Salerno was the start of Operation Avalanche, the largest amphibious operation in history, exceeded only by the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. What moved me to tears at the Salerno Museum was seeing a railcar that was used to transport people to Hitler’s gas chambers. In addition to the Jews, I learned that Romanis, often referred to as gypsies; the handicapped; gays and even the elderly were rounded up for extermination. As I stood in front of the railcar, it suddenly hit me that this is what the war was about
. . . to end the tyrannical rule of the Nazis and to liberate not only the Italians but also all of the oppressed. I felt deep gratitude and immense pride in my dad and the men of the 100th for all they went through so that we could live as free people. I can’t imagine what life would have been like had Hitler succeeded.
We stopped later in Sant Angelo d’Alife to see a memorial that was erected in October 2004 to commemorate 59 members of the 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division, who were killed. Of the 59 killed, 21 were from the 100th. This list provided by the Japanese American Veterans Association identified them as: PFC Harold J. Arakawa (A), Pvt. Matsuei Ajitomi (C), Pvt. Kaoru Fukuyama (D), Pvt. Fred Y. Hamanaka (D), PFC Kiyoshi Hasegawa (C), Pvt. Yutaka Hirayama (C), Pvt. Satoshi Kaya (C), Sgt. Ronald S. Kiyabu (A), PFC Arthur A. Morihara (A), Pvt. Sakae Murakami (C), S/Sgt. Richard K. Murashige (A), Pvt. Martin M. Naganuma (C), Pfc. Hideo Nagata (C), PFC Kaoru Naito (A), Sgt. George Y. Ozawa (A), Pvt. Masatsugu Riyu (C), S/Sgt. Louis K. Sakamoto (C), Pvt. Ted T. Shikiya, (A), Pvt. Yoshinobu Takei (A), Cpl. Richard K. Toyama (A) and PFC Thomas I. Yamanaga (A).
On tap for our second day in Cassino was our visit to Monte Cassino. That morning, we awoke surrounded by a thick fog — so thick that we couldn’t see beyond 100 feet. At breakfast, I remember thinking that the fog was befitting the day, as we were headed to the place where one of the bloodiest battles of World War II took place, perhaps even the bloodiest in all of Italy.
As I tried peering through the fog, I recalled a story David Fukuda had told us. Willie Goo, a 100th Battalion C Company veteran from Maui, had shared it with David. The 100th was just about to launch an attack against the Germans in the mountains in the thick fog when the fog suddenly lifted. The suicidal mission was aborted and the men were called back to the rear lines.
The fog cleared for us, enabling us to make our first stop of the day — a memorial service at the Polish Cemetery, containing the graves of more than 1,000 Polish soldiers who were killed while storming the abbey of Monte Cassino in May 1944. During the ceremony, a young man or woman stood beside each of the grave markers, visually emphasizing the many soldiers who were killed in the battle. It was a sobering moment.
After the ceremony, we enjoyed a typical Italian lunch of pasta and wine. We also walked along the Cavandesh Road, an old mule track that was improved and served as a “back door” to the monastery during World War II, enabling the Allies to outflank the German positions.
Finally, it was time to visit Monte Cassino.
The view was breathtaking and it made me understand why taking it from German control was so important. From that vantage point, the Germans had a 360-degree of any ground movement.
The Monte Cassino abbey is home to the Benedictine Order, founded by St. Benedict in 529 AD. It’s hard to imagine that 70 years ago, this monastery and all the trees surrounding it were totally decimated by Allied bombs. The area was fully restored and is now teeming with visitors. Even the trees and shrubs have grown back.
Our guide Serena said that the abbey was completely destroyed, but when the rubble was cleared, the only object found whole and intact was the statue of St. Benedict. Hearing that gave me goosebumps!
We went downstairs to the basement, where we learned that everyone who had taken refuge under the abbey survived, including some of the townspeople. As the daughters and sons of 100th soldiers, we were especially proud to see the emblem of the 100th Infantry Battalion in a stained glass window that the men donated to the abbey.
We returned to the town of Cassino, where we saw a World War II tank. On it was a plaque that had been presented by the 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division. It read: “This plaque is dedicated to the memory of those Americans and Italians who joined together to bring freedom to this country. Let the sacrifice of the soldiers and civilians who died in World War II never be forgotten.”
On the third and last day of our mini tour, we visited Anzio, where German bunkers are still intact on the beach. Kenneth Higa told me that when they were in Anzio, they encountered German fire and had to hunker down during the day. At night, however, they could get out of their foxholes and walk about without being shooting targets.
We also visited the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, where there are 7,861 headstones of American soldiers who died in battles in Sicily, Salerno and Anzio. While no 100th/442nd enlisted men are buried there, we learned that four 100th/442nd officers are buried there, including Jack Johnson, who was killed in action at Cassino in January 1944.
Additionally, two Nisei soldiers from Hawai‘i are listed on the marble Wall of the Missing — Toshio Sasano (A) and Sunao Kuwahara (C). If anyone reading this story knows where these men are buried, please email me at email@example.com and we will forward the information to the appropriate authorities.
When a missing soldier’s remains are located and confirmed by authorities, a rosette is placed beside his/her name to indicate that the soldier’s remains have been recovered and identified. We hope that rosettes can be placed beside the names of Toshio Sasano and Sunao Kuwahara.
Later that day, we visited a memorial and the Bell of Peace at the site of the Rapido River crossing. The memorial was dedicated in 1990. It was initiated by Georges Henri, then-mayor of Biffontaine, France, as a tribute to the men of the 100th Infantry Battalion. It is without question a memorial to the Nisei soldiers, as a plastic maile/‘ilima lei is draped behind the plaque. Although of the text is in French, we could make out a few words that we surmised were related to the 100th: “A La Memoire . . . 100eme Batallion D’Infanterie . . . 34eme Division D’Infanterie.”
Our “official” mini tour of Monte Cassino ended much too soon, but we accomplished and learned so much about the war, about Monte Cassino and about what the 100th had faced in battle.
The 100th Infantry Battalion has a website, 100thbattalion.org, which enables people all over the world to learn about the 100th, as well as the other units in which the Nisei soldiers served.
One person who found the website was Damiano Parravano, from Cassino, Italy. Damiano is a historical researcher with the Associazione Linea Gustav. (The Gustav Line was a German defensive line drawn across central Italy, just south of Rome. Monte Cassino is located here. From their fortified vantage point on its slopes, the Germans could see anyone coming through the valley.) Damiano emailed the 100th Battalion veterans clubhouse office in Honolulu, asking for permission to use a couple of photos from the website for a display in Cassino. Through this contact, Damiano learned of our planned trip to Monte Cassino and of my interest in visiting Pozzilli, near Hill 600, where my dad was wounded. He wrote:
Janice, we have spent years on the battlefields recovering the historical memory of the men who seventy years ago fought over there, but all this has a meaning if we can use our knowledge to the service of the veterans and their relatives who feel important to reach those places. I would like to tell you that it will be a pleasure to meet you and your husband and I will do as much as possible to lead you on the hill where your father was injured.
On May 22, Damiano picked us up in Cassino and together with Serena, our guide and interpreter, we headed to the town of Pozzilli and Hill 600. Years ago, when my dad gave me a copy of the book, “Remembrances,” published by the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Club, he marked an “x” on a map to indicate the area in which he was wounded. It was because of this map that we had a general idea of the terrain and surroundings of the battle.
Later, Damiano surprised me by asking me to describe my dad. Although we had met numerous people who knew about the 100th, Damiano was the first to ask me this question. As I was describing my dad, I suddenly remembered something he told me decades ago. He said that he was knocked unconscious for several hours and that by the time he regained consciousness, the sun was low in the sky. He said that just before regaining consciousness, he saw a bright light in the distance — like the light at the end of a long tunnel. As it approached, it became brighter, and just as it hit him, he regained total consciousness. After recounting this story to Damiano, he was quiet for a few seconds and then said, “Your dad must have been near death.” The thought shocked me, but I think he was right. A couple of times over the years, I recall my dad wondering why he was spared while many of his friends died. While we will never know the answer this side of heaven, I am grateful that he was spared so he could be my dad.
We left Pozzilli and Hill 600 and began our search for the Volturno River. Although we didn’t know exactly where the men crossed the river — they crossed it three times — we did find some boys playing in the river. It made my heart happy to hear them playing, shouting and laughing and made me wondered what their lives might have been like had the Allies lost the war.
As we stood on the riverbank and saw the boys shivering from the cold, I tried to imagine how much colder it must have been in November 1943 when the 100th had crossed it. I knew from Judge Takashi Kitaoka’s recollection that on one crossing, the water was chest-high and freezing cold. Kenneth Higa mentioned that during one of the crossings in which the water wasn’t too high, he decided to take off his shoes to keep them dry. Midstream, however, he had to put them back on because the water was so cold and he felt like he was stepping on shards of glass whenever he stepped on a rock. That told me that the water level was high and that it was very cold. But only the men who lived through those experiences know what it was truly like.
They had good memories, too, though. Kenneth Higa remembers that while crossing the river, he found a cluster of grapes. Without thinking to wash them — he was, after all, in the water — he consumed them with gusto.
Before taking us back to our hotel, Damiano drove us to see the mountains near the Rapido River, where the 100th Battalion fought in late January 1944. He pointed to the area containing remnants of barracks. All we could see, however, was a wall of vegetation.
I am so grateful to Damiano for so generously sharing his time and expertise with us. And, I am grateful to be home and to be able to attend Wine Gang gatherings at the clubhouse and listen to the veterans share their wartime experiences. Now when they tell me a story, I can visualize the context of their stories.
I have one final story to share. In many ways, it sums why this trip was so special for all of us.
In Cassino, we stayed at the Hotel La Pace, which is centrally located in the town. The owner of the hotel, Pino Valente, is an avid World War II history buff and displays his World War II memorabilia in the hotel lobby. He has a wide assortment of books (some in English), and there was a television channel that aired the documentary, “The Battle for Monte Cassino.” Pino also had an American flag and a Red Bull patch on display, to which he added photos of Robert Takashige (B), Goro Sumida (A) and Jerry Sakoda (B), given to him by Bryan Yagi. My husband Ed and I presented Pino with a limited edition coin of the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Organization and an abridged edition of the book, “Remembrances,” containing the names of all of the 100th soldiers who were killed in action. He was so appreciative for all the memorabilia and information on the 100th Battalion.
While chatting with Pino, we learned that his grandfather was one of the townspeople who had taken refuge in the basement of the abbey, thus surviving the bombing. In fact, a part of the hotel was once his grandparents’ home. During the annual anniversary commemoration in May, Pino hosts an Apéritif, the equivalent to our cocktail hour, and invites veterans and/or their families to meet each other, even if they are not guests at the hotel. As a result, we met a Canadian veteran who fought at Monte Cassino. After the war, the Canadian soldier became an Episcopalian priest. Another evening, we met an Austrian soldier who was court-martialed by Germany for not firing his weapon against the enemy, the Allies. He said he was captured and held as a prisoner of war by Britain. It was an honor meeting these two gentlemen, as well as a few others at the Polish Cemetery Commemoration Service.
We also met residents who knew about the 100th. I asked one of them to tell me what was so special about the 100th. After all, the battle to take Monte Cassino was an Allied assault involving numerous nations. He said it was because the 100th fought with valor. And they’re right. But you would be hard-pressed to reach that conclusion on your own just by talking story with the veterans because they never boast — after all they did, all you see is humility and modesty, even 72 years after they went to war for our country.
Janice Sakoda’s father, the late Gary K. Uchida, was an original member of the 100th Infantry Battalion. This trip was to Italy was her first trip to Europe — she hopes to visit France in the near future and learn more about the 100th/442nd.