Editor’s note: On this day, June 5, exactly 73 years ago, the all-Japanese American Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion sailed out of Honolulu Harbor aboard the SS Maui. This was just six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. On that fateful morning, most of those men, who were draftees, were serving in two Hawai‘i National Guard units. My own dad was among them — he was in the first group of draftees and was supposed to have been discharged on Dec. 8, 1941. Pearl Harbor changed that, and Dad remained with the One Puka Puka for the duration of the war in Europe.
The men on board the Maui had no idea where they were being taken, nor if or when they would see their families again. When they docked in Oakland, Calif., seven days later, the unit was renamed the 100th Infantry Battalion.
As they have every year since their return to the Islands, surviving veterans of the 100th — all of them now in their 90s, a few over 100 — along with their families and friends, will gather to commemorate the formation of the first Japanese American Army combat unit of World War II. The lunchtime gathering will be held on Sunday, June 21, at the Dole Cannery’s Pömaika‘i Ballroom. To date, 17 100th Battalion veterans have said they plan to attend their 73rd anniversary celebration.
In the following piece, 100th Battalion “son” David Fukuda shares Maui veteran Willie Goo’s memories of a near-attack in the vicinity of Cassino, which became a pivotal battle in the history of the 100th Infantry Battalion.
We were still 10 minutes away from Cassino when we caught our first glimpse of the imposing and famous Abbey of Monte Cassino. Its distinctive rectangular shape atop the mountain flashed in and out through the trees bordering the train track. We were traveling from Rome through the famous Liri Valley, the exact route that the Germans had protected so stubbornly during the winter of 1944.
Upon arrival at the Cassino train station, we could see the abbey directly above as it dominated the town, even in the pouring rain. It remained the focus of attention as we drove north again to our hotel in the little village of Castrocielo, located about seven miles away.
The following morning, however, as we prepared to leave our hotel to visit the Benedictine Abbey, a thick fog blanketed the entire region. My immediate thought: This was the fog that Willie Goo talked about!
Willie Goo was the son of a Chinese American father and a Japanese American mother. He had been assigned to Company C, which was often referred to as the 100th Battalion’s “Maui company,” as most of the Maui boys had been assigned to the company while stationed at Schofield Barracks on O‘ahu two years earlier. Among the names of C Company veterans whom I have become familiar with since settling on Maui are Jack Gushiken, Johnny Miyagawa, Louis Sakamoto, Masanao Otake, Taro Tonai, Kaoru Moto, Masao Sato, Susumo Fukuyoshi, Mike Tokunaga and Sueo Noda.
From October through January of 1944, C Company sustained many losses, including the battalion’s first commissioned officer casualty, Lt. Kurt Schemel, who was killed in action on Nov. 3, 1943. Between Thanksgiving Day of 1943, when Company C was 175 men-strong, until Dec. 12, 1943, the company lost over 100 men, leaving it with only 50 men who were still able to fight. Other 100th Battalion soldiers from the deactivated E and F companies were transferred to C Company.
In January of 1944, the 100th Infantry Battalion was attached to the 133rd Regiment, 34th Division, which had been assigned the job of making a frontal attack on the most heavily defended point of the entire Gustav Line — the area surrounding the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, one of the Nazis’ top strategists and the man Hitler had personally chosen over the more experienced Gen. Erwin Rommel to lead the defense of Italy, had prepared the hardened German fortifications.
The area along the Rapido River where the 100th Battalion was positioned to attack had been dammed upstream and the water used to flood the flat lands, making vehicular and tank support impossible. Additionally, all of the olive trees had been cut down, giving the German artillery and machine guns an unobstructed view. Only the 8- to 12-foot-high walls of both sides of the now-dry riverbed offered protection from enemy fire, but these areas had been heavily mined.
To traverse these walls, the men would have to cut through the barbed wire fencing mounted along the top of the walls on both sides of the river before climbing the mountain to engage machine gun nests located about 200 yards up the slope.
At about 11 o’clock on the night of Jan. 24, the Allied forces began a spectacular artillery barrage. The entire hill was bursting with flames and it appeared that no one would live through all the bombardment.
Willie remembers thinking how fortunate he was to be on the American side of the war, because not even the Germans would have put up a barrage like the one he had witnessed.
Willie’s Company C, along with Company A (which my father fought with), were ordered to move out toward the river walls behind a “rolling barrage,” in which the shells would advance 50 yards every 15 minutes, allowing the troops to advance. When the troops reached the minefields, the trip wires had to be located and the mines deactivated by hand.
Sgt. Johnny Miyagawa cleared the trail for Willie’s platoon.
“Crawling through the mud, I felt like we were climbing uphill the entire time,” Willie remembered. Only when he and the troops reached the protection of the river wall and looked back on the open field did he realize that the land was completely flat.
As soon they reached the walls, the German machine guns opened fire on them from all directions. Men were still crawling though the muddy fields and were being killed or wounded by the enemy fire. Those at the wall were pinned down, as any movement seen by the Germans attracted machine gun fire.
Willie recalled the heated discussion that ensued among the officers regarding whether to attempt an attack. C Company commander Capt. Jack Mizuta decided to launch an attack when the heavy fog bank made its way down the river, completely obliterating the view of the mountain. He still remembers seeing Johnny Miyagawa with his wire cutters in hand, ready to cut down the barbed wire above the wall. The men were in position to follow with the attack.
Then, just as suddenly, the fog dissipated, and the attack was called off.
“The fog saved my life,” said Willie, who, at age 95, still lives in his own home in Waihe‘e and participates in AJA veterans activities.
The suicide mission was aborted. Following a disastrous daylight charge by B Company the following day, all three companies were called back to the rear lines.
The 100th would be committed in another futile attack on the 8th of February — this time on Castle Hill, where the men were caught in an exposed position for four days. It was the toughest battle of the war for the 100th Infantry Battalion.
By the time the fighting around Cassino was suspended, the 100th — which had landed at Salerno, Italy, only seven months earlier with over 1,400 men — was down to 521 still able to fight. It was from this battle that the One Puka Puka earned its unofficial nickname: “The Purple Heart Battalion.”
David Fukuda is a member of the Maui-based Nisei Veterans Memorial Center board of directors. His late father, Mitsuyoshi “Mits” Fukuda, was among the 1,432 AJAs of the Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion who sailed out of Honolulu Harbor on June 5, 1942. Because of his leadership qualities, Mits Fukuda rose from first lieutenant, to captain and then to major. He was the last commanding officer of the 100th Battalion. Just months after victory in Europe had been proclaimed, Fukuda was promoted to executive officer of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which the depleted 100th Battalion had been attached to in June 1944 as the unit’s 1st Battalion. He oversaw the return of his soldiers to Hawai‘i and the continental U.S.