Casualties of War

Blue and Gray symbol of the 29th Infantry Division

Blue and Gray symbol of the 29th Infantry Division

When John Gallaher McConnell was old enough to go to war his father told him two things: one, he would be going to England for the drive on France, and two, be careful of Scots, they anger quickly.

John’s father, Alfred, was a coal miner who had experience with Scots. He had married one. Together the elder McConnells raised John and his three older brothers in Moundsville, West Virginia. The town was tight knit, and diverse. Native West Virginians lived with and intermarried people from Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary.

John's letter to his mother January 2nd 1944: Dear Mom, If you do not get this letter let me know and I will mail it. I cannot tell you where I am because I am not there. I can't tell you where I am going because I haven't gone yet. I am not back yet because I haven't gone yet. I don't know what I am going to do because I haven't done it yet. Well all joking aside, I am in New York City on a pass. I am stationed at Camp Shanks N.Y. and don't know where I am going nor when. I hope I go where Paul is but I am not that lucky

John’s letter to his mother January 2nd 1944:
Dear Mom,
If you do not get this letter let me know and I will mail it.
I cannot tell you where I am because I am not there. I can’t tell you where I am going because I haven’t gone yet. I am not back yet because I haven’t gone yet. I don’t know what I am going to do because I haven’t done it yet.
Well all joking aside, I am in New York City on a pass. I am stationed at Camp Shanks N.Y. and don’t know where I am going nor when. I hope I go where Paul is but I am not that lucky

When John joined the army he was sent to the Infantry. He spent New Year’s 1944 in New York City. By February he was sailing overseas. John’s father’s guess was correct. John went to England. John wrote his family. He saw his brother in London and experienced the wartime blackout. He sent his money home and invested in war bonds. He wanted the money to start his own small business when he was back in West Virginia. He wrote his father asking him join him in business. He didn’t want either of them to worry about someone else telling them what and how to do things anymore. The nineteen year old had  plans for his future. He just had to survive until he could make them happen.

Private McConnell was assigned to Company C, 175th Infantry Regiment of the  29th Infantry Division. They wore a blue and gray yin-yang symbol on their shoulders and helmets. The blue and gray represented the Union and Confederate background of the states from which the men came. The 29th Division had been in England since 1942. The 29th impressed the generals in training enough to be picked for the first wave of the D-Day assault. The generals weren’t worried about the beaches anyway. The navy and air force would destroy any defenses before the men got there. The tough battles would be inland.

John McConnell landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day plus one, June 7th. The 175th was the reserve regiment. They had waited offshore as other two regiments of the 29th landed on June 6th. The day after D-Day Omaha Beach was still not secured. Machine gun and sniper fire came in on the men and landing craft exploded when they hit underwater mines. The shore was covered with metal remnants from the invasion. Bodies floated in on the tide and littered the shore. The dead were 29th Division men. Men who had trained two years to fight and died within minutes. They lay in contorted forms in their own blood. The only thing the men of the 175th could do for their comrades was try not to step on them.

The helmet John McConnell wore through the war

The helmet John McConnell wore through the war

In Normandy, the nineteen year old from Moundsville was thrown into small towns like Gruchy and Isigny.  He fought his way across the Aure River. As the army advanced from the shore towns to the hedgerow country, the terrain changed to sunken lanes and massive walls of brush that blocked out the light. Dead cattle lay bloated in the sun alongside bodies of soldiers. The Germans waited in the hedgerows until the Americans were at point blank range before opening fire. The 29th took heavy losses; some companies losing almost every man within weeks of the invasion.

29th Division men rest during the battle for Brest, France

29th Division men rest during the battle for Brest, France

John learned how to act in combat. He learned the hard way: making assaults on towns and flanking farmhouses through open fields under machine gun fire. He learned to kill or be killed. He survived. By July he was promoted to Private First Class and took part in the attack on St. Lo. He fought in the French port of Brest in September. By October he was a Staff Sergeant, one of few original men left. The kid whose brothers used to tease him about being a brat was a squad leader. The “brat” now commanded men in battle.

On November 19th, 1944, the 29th Infantry Division was fighting through West Germany. The 175th was attacking the town of Schleiden. John’s Company C gave fire support to other 175th men who moved forward with chemical mortars and tanks. The enemy was not eager to surrender. It had taken two days of killing before Schleiden was in U.S. hands. The town was no different than the dozens of small towns the 29th had gone through in six months of fighting. It cost the lives of friends and exterminated those of the enemy. The shattered streets and smashed houses held mangled bodies or death from a hidden enemy. Schleiden was no different from the towns before and the towns after. They all smelled of death.  For Staff Sergeant McConnell, Schleiden was the last fight. After six months at the front he was labeled a non-battle casualty and was sent to a hospital off the line.

GI's advancing in towns walk by dead comrades

GI’s advancing in towns walk by dead comrades

When the war was won, John went back to Moundsville, West Virginia. He got married and took a job at Columbia Southern Alkali. America was entering a new age of prosperity but John McConnell had a hard time settling down. Maybe he had trouble at home or perhaps he could not forget what he had seen and did as a nineteen year old in Normandy, Brest, Northern France and the Rhineland. In 1952, at age twenty seven, John McConnell hanged himself.

A picture of John's captioned "My Squad"

A picture of John’s captioned “My Squad”




The war was almost over. Germany in March 1945 was cold and crisp, with a pale gray tint over the ruined countryside. It was quiet as Lieutenant Hecker’s jeep drove down the road. Europe was a hulk of shattered cities. The Third Reich was in ruins, its soldiers surrendering by the thousands to the American Army, but still Germany fought on. Lieutenant Hecker rode with his men, Private First Class William L. Piper and James Wardley.  They had been together through Northern France, the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Now they drove in the enemies heartland. Hecker knew the end of the war was in sight. He knew all they needed to do was stay alive a little longer. What he didn’t know was his jeep was driving toward a buried land mine.

Norbert A. Hecker

Norbert A. Hecker

Norbert A. Hecker was a not a soldier by trade. He hadn’t planned on knowing things like range, targeting and trajectory. He was a clerk who compiled reports on factory labor costs and production. When  he graduated college he thought he would be behind a desk not leading men into battle. He entered the army in 1942, and was assigned to the 8th Infantry Division’s 28th Field Artillery code named “Gunshot” .

Lieutenant Hecker was a Forward Observer. His mission was to report where artillery strikes landed and find new targets to attack. Forward Observers had a short life span on the front lines.  It wasn’t just the enemy that was dangerous, if the observer made a mistake and the coordinates were wrong, or someone else was careless, the called in artillery could land short, right on him.

When the 28th Field Artillery sent out fire, they radioed “Gunshot on the way!”. “Gunshot on the way” was friendly artillery that stopped the advancing waves of enemy armor and infantry, “Gunshot on the way” took out gun emplacements slaughtering pinned down American GI’s. It was that call that could make the winning difference on the battlefield. It was men like Norbert Hecker who brought the gunshot down on the enemy. He knew men were counting on him, that he must complete his mission at all cost. His radio calls could mean dozens or hundreds more men going home alive. It was men like Norbert Hecker who made small towns all over the United States proud of their boys.

Lieutenant Hecker in Dress Uniform

Lieutenant Hecker in Dress Uniform

In Hecker’s home town of Menasha, Wisconsin, the local paper followed news about its 1,384 residents serving in the World War. The daily paper got the residents atuned to where its boys were fighting and what they were doing. It gave folks the little picture they wanted to see of the big show; the news about the boys they used to see on the streets and in church. The paper spread news of men and women who had been promoted or seen action in big battles. When a local boy got a medal for heroism, the whole town knew. They also heard when a man was wounded, or when a someone’s son would not be coming home.

If Norbert Hecker and his men had been walking, they would have been safe. The mine in their path was a teller mine; a circular, anti-tank device filled with five and a half kilograms of TNT. It had a high pressure fuse and needed a vehicle to set it off.

Hecker’s jeep exploded when it ignited the weapon.  James Wardley, by some miracle, was unhurt. Bill Piper, was wounded but alive. They found Hecker covered in blood with his eardrums blown out. But he was breathing. The three men helped each other up.  Hecker’s helmet had a huge dent on the top from the exploding debris. Their jeep was destroyed and two of them were wounded. Hecker put his helmet back on, looked at his men, and they continued to the front.  The war wasn’t over yet. Until it was finished, Norbert Hecker would see his mission to the end.

Norbert A. Hecker's wartime mementos.

Norbert A. Hecker’s wartime mementos.

The dent on Lt. Hecker's Helmet

The dent on Lt. Hecker’s Helmet

Eating like there’s a War on


On December 11th 1941,  rubber tires were the first item to be rationed in the United States.  By 1943 almost all consumer goods were rationed including typewriters, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, silk, Nylon, fuel oilww1645-33_500, stoves, dairy products, margarine, processed foods, dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal.

In 1942, people at home were encouraged to limit themselves to  2.5 pounds of meat per week or 130 pounds a year. By 1943 meat was rationed and became scarce. Beef in particular was in short supply. The law of the markets clashed with government regulations. Military necessity took precedence for supplies, but the civilian market was hampered by poorly conceived Government Price Administration regulations. Beef, for example, was priced too low for meat packers to make a profit. Meat growers had a supply available but could not get it packed for the consumer. Available meat was not worth the effort of packing for the prices allowed.

A black market for meat not inspected by the government appeared. Farmers who slaughtered their own animals also exempt from the rationing quota.

Meat that did reach the consumer was used to get the maximum benefit  from the limited supply. People were reminded not to waste anything. Special wartime recipe books were written to help families cope with the lack of ingredients and smaller available amounts.

For those who would like to try, here are some wartime recipes. (Click on them to enlarge)

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Super Heroes


In 1944 Frederic E. Ray was twenty four years old. As a kid he took up drawing. He collected works of his favorite illustrators, and copied them until his sketches began to look like them. By the time he was twenty he was getting paid $35 dollars a week at Detective Comics (later shortened to its initials DC) working on titles such as Detective Comics, Batman, and Superman .

Fred spent most of his work doing cover art, working with legends like Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, and Jerry Robinson, who made Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. His first work on Superman came with “Superman’s Christmas adventure” in 1940 and Fred Ray’s most conspicuous contribution was to reshape the “S” emblazoned on the Man of Steel.

Fred Ray

Fred Ray

Fred Ray's first Superman cover

Fred Ray’s first Superman cover

In January 1942, the USA faced a challenge on a scale the world had never seen before. People needed heroes, patriotism stirred in Americans and their cartoon characters answered the call. In Superman #14 Fred Ray drew one of the classic covers of the Golden Age of Comics. The cover is black, Superman stands in front of a red,white and blue shield, a vanguard for the tanks and planes that follow. On his calling arm, the eagle of freedom.

In 1942, Comic book heroes left the crime filled American underworld and went overseas to take on the Axis powers. For the duration of the war, they would fight alongside the men in the trenches, in the air and on the seas.  Fred Ray, like so many other young men, served in the armed forces. He took his sketchbook with him, capturing the world around him. Everyday things that photographers weren’t around to see:  Military Police men, soldiers waiting for a train, leather-clad Air Force men chatting with a woman in service while they get their papers. The color of each object labeled so he would know what to paint it later.

When the war ended, Fred Ray came home and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on the GI Bill. He returned to DC Comics and drew for Tomahawk and other western and historical series. As the war years drifted further into memory, Fred’s style and interest changed. His work left the comics and he wrote books about American history and illustrated for historical periodicals.

For Fred Ray, the war, like his contributions to the Golden Age of comics was only one part of his life. Something for which he didn’t ask or receive much credit for. He didn’t dwell on the past although his life’s work was made of drawing it.

Fred’s wartime sketches, drawn in the present of a young man in his twenties gives us a look into a world away from the Supermen of comics, into the reality of everyday people. People doing ordinary things in extraordinary times, doing what they needed to do, in a world at war.


The Phantom Renegade


The crest of the "Phantom Renegade"

The crest of the “Phantom Renegade”

The first puffs of flak appeared at 20:00 hours, thirty minutes to target. The explosions were far away and sporadic. There were no enemy fighters, just the drone of four-engine bombers and their P-51 and P-38 escorts in the long summer evening. It was six miles southwest of Paris. Across the English Channel, thousands of ships and men sat ready for the largest seaborne invasion in history. They would land four days later, on June 6th. In the sky above France, a B-24 Liberator, named the “Phantom Renegade” was making its way toward the war.

 When he was twelve Charles W. “Bill” Getz rode his bicycle out to Smith Field in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. From nine he had an interest in aviation. Being older he wanted to make it a bigger part of his life. Bill washed aircraft, sold tickets and did anything that gave him a reason to be there. The local pilots paid him by taking him into the air. When they felt he earned it they would allow him the control stick and let him guide the plane as it soared above Indiana.

 The boy was more than just a blind eyed enthusiast. His mind was logical, decisive and calculating, soaking up new information. Skills that would later serve him working with the first computers, in the fledging ballistic missile project, and earn him a PhD. 

 There was also an attraction to disclipine in him.   When other boys wanted to be sports stars or cowboys, Bill wanted to be a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Everything from that point in his life would direct him to that end. He talked his parents into sending him to a military boarding high school in Chicago. To pay for tuition, he waited tables, did kitchen work, and cleaned and delivered laundry at the school. He worked the manual telephone switchboard on weekends and traveled in summer with the school commandant, finding new recruits. When the war started he got signed permission from his parents to enlist. He soloed at seventeen, and was a commissioned officer at eighteen.

 B-24 pilot Charles W. Getz (photo courtesy of Bill Getz)

B-24 pilot Charles W. Getz (photo courtesy of Bill Getz)

By nineteen, he was commanding a crew of ten men—four officers including him and six enlisted men. The officers first met in a cow barn turned barracks in Salt Lake City, Utah, and they met the enlisted men on the train ride to crew training. They were a group of teenagers and guys in their early twenties. A few months ago they were civilians, kids in high school or college. Lieutenant Getz would turn them into a team of warriors. They were assigned to the 852nd Bomb Squadron of the 491st  Bomb Group. In Pueblo, Colorado they got their airplane, a brand new B-24J Liberator serial # 42-110186.

The Getz crew decided they didn’t need the frivoulous names and naked ladies other men painted on their planes. His crew wanted a coat of arms and a motto. Proper crests had latin, but no one knew any. Instead they pieced together French from a dictionary. They named the ship “Le Simulacre Renégat” which was supposed to mean “The Phantom Renegade”, the motto: “L’esprit Des Ceux Que Nous Animous” was meant to be “In the spirit of those we love”. Their crest bore a cross, and a bottle of moonshine, since spirits could be either holy or drunk, a 50. caliber machine gun, and a bomb to symbolize the weapons of war. The coat of arms decided, Bill had patches printed on white leather for the crew.

 A month after he turned twenty years old, Bill was flying lead position in the low element of the 852nd Bomb Squadron, 491st Bomb Group. The Phantom Renegade was one of thirty seven 491st B-24’s sent out. It was their time first over enemy territory. The mission was easy, as simple as running to the store for a bottle of milk: an airfield in Bretigny out of range of the flak guns guarding Paris. The 489th Bomb Group was in front. They had flown their first mission three days previously. Now they were leading the seventy-seven B-24’s of the 95th Combat Wing into battle.

The crew of the Phantom Renegade: standing left to right: Voyles, Getz, Crow  front row left to right: Picariello, Turnipseed, Howser, Souter, Hawks. (photo courtesy of Bill Getz)

The crew of the Phantom Renegade: standing left to right: Voyles, Getz, Crow
front row left to right: Picariello, Turnipseed, Howser, Souter, Hawks.
(photo courtesy of Bill Getz)

At 20:30 hours, the sky was black with exploding shells. The 489th had missed the turn at the Initial Point planned to take everyone around the flak batteries protecting Paris. Instead they were taking the direct approach, leading everyone into one of the biggest anti-aircraft concentrations in Western Europe. The 489th opened their bomb bays as they began their bomb run. Bombers were getting hit, pieces flying off; B-24’s exploding in mid-air, their debris falling 19,000 feet to the ground below.

 If Bill Getz was the worrying type he would worry about what a flaming piece of metal would do if it hit the 500 pound bombs and gasoline the Renegade carried. He might worry that enemy fighters would swarm their formation. He might worry his crippled plane might spiral into the clouds without a trace and all his parents would get would be a “missing in action” telegram.

 But Bill Getz wasn’t planning on War Department telegrams or getting shot down. He had faith in himself and his crew. They had discipline, discipline he spent a quarter of his life learning.  Second Lieutenant Getz was a commisioned officer before he could vote or buy a beer. He knew his men would follow his instructions without question. His instinct and training told him a crew with disclipine was a crew that would make it home. The only thing that ran through Bill Getz’s mind on a mission was flying his plane in formation and mentally reviewing what to do if an emergency arose. He knew with focus, discipline, and preparation he’d be o.k.  He figured that whatever happened,if the Renegade got hit, he would be able to assess it and decide the best, logical course of action.

B-24's flying through flak

B-24’s flying through flak

But going through a field of flak is not logical, it’s random. You don’t know when or where the flak will hit you, or how badly. Whether the shell will expode far away or right in the cockpit. The only certainty is you will get hit and the rest is up to chance. In Bill Getz’s rational mind, chance was the deal breaker. It threw all the logic out the window and replaced it with sheer terror. He knew the reality of reaching an escape hatch, burdened down with heavy flying clothing, in a spiraling or burning B-24 was very small. But Bill Getz didn’t dwell on it. He was an optimist.

 The 489th could not find the target. Clouds were seeping in, obscuring the airfield. Only three quarters of the planes could drop their bombs. The 489th headed to a secondary target, farther north.

Clouds from the nose of  the Renegade (photo coutesy of Bill Getz)

Clouds from the nose of the Renegade (photo coutesy of Bill Getz)

 The 491st began their bomb run. The distant rumble of exploding flak drew closer. Four miles below, the Germans were shooting at them. The muffled rumble of anti-aircraft guns shook the whole bomb group as the planes flew straight and level, unable to deviate from their course. Cordite filled the cold air, flak edging closer to the formation with each explosion. The Renegade went into a dive. The engines whining as the plane dove, gaining speed. Everything not screwed down went to the ceiling. Bill Getz looked to Co-Pilot Johnny Crow who had jammed the stick forward. Crow pointed his left thumb skyward. A B-24 fell on them, its cockpit shattered, a flaming hole of metal and pipes in the wing where an engine had once been. The drone of the dying bomber grew louder and louder. In the top turret, Marion Turnipseed let out a scream as he saw the approaching wreck. Then it was silent. The burning bomber missed them, clearing the Renegade by a few feet before it trailed down into the clouds. Bill Getz rejoined formation and continued the bomb run.

A B-24 hit by flak, breaks up.

A B-24 hit by flak, breaks up.


It was getting darker. Cloud cover prevented most of the 491st from dropping their bombs as well. They followed the 489th to the secondary target at Creil. The 489th again chose the most direct route, this time over Paris. The blacked out Champs-Élysées and Eiffel Tower stood as dark beacons in what was once The City of Light. Through the shadows of the veiled city lights flickered as flak batteries brought their sights upon the bombers, ripping into their formation. Orange flashes of exploding shells illuminated the twilight sky. The flak followed them over Paris, all the way to Criel and bombs away. The 489th again deviated from the flight plan and led the formation home over the heavily defended areas over Beauvais, Rouen and Dieppe.

 By the time the 491st returned home, the green and brown patchwork fields of England were fading into the darkness. Flying over Selsly-Bill, they could see the supply depots and thousands of ships that lay in the harbors waiting for the invasion of Europe. As the Renegade taxied to the hardstand, her engines sputtered and died. Of the B-24s of the 95th Combat wing sent out, two crash landed, and fifty nine suffered damage, one severe. Sixty one out of seventy-seven planes were damaged. Five were shot down, with fifty men, a loss of seven percent. It didn’t take much analysis to realize that seven percent losses on each mission gave an individual crew no statistical chance to complete the thirty missions required  for a tour of duty in 1944.

The Phantom Renegade comes in for a landing (Photo courtesy of Bill Getz)

The Phantom Renegade comes in for a landing (Photo courtesy of Bill Getz)

 Some men decided they were on borrowed time and decided to enjoy what they had left. Bill Getz was not one of those men. He held onto his optimism. He was focused on the job he had to do and the discipline he needed to accomplish it. He flew again on June fourth, and completed two more missions on the sixth, D-Day. The pace of the war was quickening, attacking the enemy relentlessely as they retreated deeper into the Reich. There was talk it would be over by Christmas. The 491st flew combat at an exhausting  pace after D-Day. Bill Getz finished his tour of duty on August 10th,1944, flying thirty-one missions in sixty two days. The second fastest record in the entire 8th Air Force. He could go home, a combat veteran of the toughest theater of the air war.

 There were two problems for Bill Getz when he completed his tour, both related to each other. First, he didn’t want to go home. His brother was an Army medical doctor with Patton’s 3rd Army, serving in a field station somewhere in France. Bill didn’t want to be out of the fight while his brother was still in it. This led to a second problem: he didn’t want to fly another bomber tour. He already beat the house and won his life, why bet again? He needed something to do to stay in the European Theater of Operations. He heard about a new group being formed. A scouting force of P-51 Mustangs flying ahead of the bombers. He decided to apply for it.

 It was mid-1944, Europe was still at war and First Lieutenant Charles W. Getz, had just got there.

Shattered Jewels

A boy and his dog

A boy and his dog

Young boys have a fascination with war; a fascination with bravery and glory, with medals and uniforms.  Since Hirohito took the throne, young boys were immersed in the beauty of war. They were taught the greatest glory was to die for the country and for God: the Emperor. They were taught when they fell their spirits would glow as deities in the Yasukuni shrine. It was for the young boys of Japan to fight the “Holy War” to free Asia from its European chains, and place Japan as the rightful leader in the east.

In less than a hundred years, what was once a feudal nation had modernized and joined Europe in the game of Imperialism.  Japan moved from isolation to colonization taking Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria and parts of China. By the twentieth century it established itself as a major power. It was the only non-European nation of the Eight-Nation Alliance to suppress the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. In 1905 it defeated Russia, the first time in modern history for an Asian country to defeat a Caucasian power.

By the 1930’s Japan possessed, arguably one of the most powerful armies and most sophisticated navies in the world. As a nation, Japan moved to an increasingly militaristic stance, crushing any internal voices for peace or freedom.

Girls being trained to use bamboo spears to repel the American invasion

Girls being trained to use bamboo spears to repel the American invasion

In 1937, when Japan’s full scale war started with China, young men of twenty and older were being drafted to fight. The Japanese conscription laws passed in 1873 had many exemptions. It gave first born sons, students and people of wealth a path to buy their way out of servitude, leaving second and third sons of poor farmers to make a large percentage of the rank and file. As the need for manpower grew, boys as young as fifteen were called to active service. By the last year of the war the entire adult male population aged 15-60 and women from 17-40 were given bamboo spears and ordered to resist the coming American invasion.

Like all militaries, soldiers adopted mascots: animals and children being popular. Sometime during the war, a young boy was given a private’s uniform and served as a mascot with his dog. When the mascot was old enough, he would be promoted from a boy to a man and serve not as a good luck charm, but as a soldier, expected to fight to the end with the pure heart of the “100 Million” and die like a “Shattered Jewel”.

The Japanese military perpetrated unspeakable horrors upon the people they subjugated. They in turn suffered heavily. Twenty percent of sailors and one in four soldiers died in the war, around 1.7 to 2 million men in the name of the Emperor.

Starved Japanese soldiers captured on Saipan

Starved Japanese soldiers captured on Saipan

Most of them did not meet the glorious death on the battlefield they were taught to strive for. The majority of Japan’s youth did not die as cherry blossoms falling to earth, sixty percent of the dead met death from disease and starvation; their lives tossed away like petals in the wind. By September of 1945, the war in the Pacific had consumed the lives of thirty five million people.

Homeless Japanese boys after the war (photo credit: Tadahiko Hayashi)

Homeless Japanese boys after the war (photo credit: Tadahiko Hayashi)

Perhaps the young boy in the picture survived the war, or maybe he died a shattered jewel like so many others. Perhaps he was reunited with his family, or became like 123,510 other children in Japan after the war, orphaned and homeless.

The picture offers no clues. It remains a silent reminder of a moment in time; a boy and his dog caught up somewhere in the echoes of war.

God’s Country

100th Infantry Battalion colors

100th Infantry Battalion colors

When the Myna birds began to talk as the morning sun cast glimmers on Mauna Kahalawa, that is when Masatsugu Riyu awoke. He was a truck driver, delivering pineapples on the dirt roads of Maui, Hawaii. Masatsugu was twenty eight and a Nisei (Japanese meaning second generation), the first son of Takejiro and Taki Riyu. His parents had a farm in Waikapu near the city of Wailuku, nestled in the green Ioa Valley. They raised five children in their adopted paradise: three sons: Masatsugu, Kikuo (Melvyn) and Nobuo, and two daughters: Teruko (Carol) and Kiyoko (Eloise). The children were citizens because they had been born in the territorial islands. Takejiro and Taki were not citizens. They were denied the chance for American citizenship when President Coolidge signed the Asian Exclusion acts of 1924.

Masatsugu had been to school. He went until the tenth grade before he began to fulfill his obligation. As the first born, he would head the household one day. It was up to him to sacrifice for the family. He worked so his brothers and sisters could go to school.

By 1941 his siblings, except for Nobuo who was sixteen, were High School graduates. Melvyn was a janitor for the local paper, Eloise a clerk, and Carol, who had married, worked in her in-law’s jewelry store. Their lives were quiet and working class, as much as they could hope for in plantation dominated Hawaii. Someday the Islands would change, when the Hawaiian born Japanese, who made up nearly forty percent of the population, would take a more decisive role in the islands. It had been almost sixty years since the Japanese first came to Hawaii, but they were still the farmers and laborers, unable to rise above their working class status.

In December Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Martial Law was declared and the Writ of Habeas Corpus was suspended. Takejiro and Taki, like many Japanese Immigrants who had been denied citizenship were now classified as enemy aliens. Draft age men of Japanese descent with territorial citizenship were also classified as “enemies”. Arrests of people of Japanese descent went on all over the islands. In the next few months, their West Coast counterparts on the mainland were rounded up and interned.

Nisei soldiers in training

Nisei soldiers in training

The Territorial Guardsmen of Japanese Ancestry petitioned for a chance to serve their country. Masatsugu and more than 1,400 others were formed into the “Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion”. They were men like Masatsugu, who had given up school to bring money in for the family. They were older than most recruits, many in their late twenties and early thirties; a battalion of first born sons and big brothers entering the army so their younger brothers could stay home. In June 1942, they shipped out of Honolulu to Oakland, California, on to Wisconsin in trains with the shades drawn to hide their faces. Some were sent to Japanese Language schools where they would become translators in the Military Intelligence Service, others were sent on a failed training experiment to teach war dogs to locate and find “Japs” by their scent.

By April 1943 the “Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion” was in Louisiana. It had been re-designated the 100th Infantry Battalion. The men called it the “One-Puka-Puka”; “puka” being Hawaiian for “hole”. Masatsugu was a private in Company C. In training, the 100th had been praised by all levels of the army. The 100th knew their country was watching and judging them.They
also knew their performance was being applied to all Americans of their heritage.

The 100th had traveled across the United States: from Hawaii to California, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Louisiana. Masatsugu wrote a letter to his sister Carol, with the units number boldly printed on the envelope. The 100th needed a motto for their battalion colors before they went to war. The men of Hawaii were ready to prove themselves and their loyalty. The training and positive evaluations couldn’t change their faces. The generals didn’t trust the 100th to fight Japan in fear they would switch allegiance or get shot by friendly fire. General Eisenhower didn’t want soldiers with Japanese faces for his upcoming war in Northern Europe either. The only person to give them a chance was General Mark Clark in Italy. The 100th Battalion knew the eyes of America were on them, they knew it would be their chance to show their loyalty to their country. On their flag they added the motto reminding them why their journey began and reminding others of where they stood. They chose: “Remember Pearl Harbor”.

In August, 1943, the 100th Battalion shipped out from New York to North Africa. In Oran, they were attached to the 133rd Infantry Regiment of the 34th Infantry Division, and reached Italy on September 22nd, 1943.

100th Battalion envelope sent from Masatsugu to his sister

100th Battalion envelope sent from Masatsugu to his sister

As summer ended, the 100th Battalion broke out of Salerno moving north towards the Volturno River. Masatsugu had seen action on the Salerno Plains, and in the towns of Montemarano and Benevento. The Battalion had already won its first two Distinguished Service Crosses, a medal for bravery second only to the Medal of Honor, and earned its first Purple Hearts for men killed and wounded. They were proud of what they were doing for their country. When the men had quiet time to think they thought of home, of their parents and siblings gathered around the radio to listen to the war news, hoping to hear something about their sons in the 100th.

In late October, the 100th Battalion along with the 133rd Infantry Regiment, moved into the Volturno Valley toward to the Matese Mountains. By day, the German 29th Panzer Grenadier Division had an unrestricted view of the valley. From the olive orchards of Sant’ Angelo D’ Alife they zeroed in on every lane and field with artillery fire and placed their men so one machine gun could hold back an entire battalion.  The Americans moved on the night of October 20th, following an artillery barrage towards the town of St. Angelo D’ Alife. As the barrage lifted, the men from Hawaii progressed through the valley. Machine guns opened up on the advanced scouts of the 100th killing ten and wounding twenty more, pinning down men with interlocking fire. By daybreak, the 100th and the 133rd Infantry Regiment were spread out over the Volturno River Valley. Tanks attacked their flank and they were trapped by heavy weapons fire. By nightfall of the 21st, the 100th had reached the lower slopes of the Matese Mountains.

100th Battalion men with German prisoners in Italy

100th Battalion men with German prisoners in Italy

The next morning the 100th Battalion made their push around the side of Sant’ Angelo D’ Alife. The Germans threw artillery and mortar fire at them, pinning them down. Tanks again drove toward them. The men pushed through minefields and booby traps to the top of a hill numbered 529 overlooking San’t Angelo D’Alife. It took another full day before the town was in American hands.

America hadn’t trusted the soldiers with Japanese faces. Now they nicknamed them the “Little Men of Iron”. General Clark called them “magnificent” and asked for more troops like them. Already in the US, a new regiment of Nisei’s, the 442nd, was being trained to join the 100th in Italy.

The 100th’s next major battle was Monte Cassino, a fight that would cost the Allies 55,000 casualties. The One-Puka-Puka earned another nickname there, the “Purple Heart Battalion.” When it was over the 1,300 men of the battalion would be reduced to 521. Masatsugu’s Company C went from 170 men to 23. After Monte Cassino the 100th was absorbed into the 442nd. Units of the 100/442nd fought through Italy, Southern France and Germany, becoming the most decorated unit for its size in United States military history.

100th Infantry Battalion on review

100th Infantry Battalion on review

When the men of the 100th Battalion left Hawaii, they were plantation boys, with little education and little chance for a future. When the men came back, they went to school on the GI Bill and left the plantations for positions in professional and executive jobs. By the 1950’s the 100th and 442nd veterans had become involved in island politics and became a powerful political force, continuing their fight for a better life. In 1952, the US government relaxed its immigration laws and finally allowed Takeji and Taki Riyu and others born in Japan a chance to become citizens of the country for which their sons had fought.

Masatsugu Riyu didn’t return to Hawaii until September 1st, 1948.He came back with seventy eight other men, the last of the battalion to return home. It had been six years since he had been on the soil of Maui, where the Myna birds called under the shade of Mauna Kahalawa. His family came from their farm in Waikapu to meet him again. As the war went on, closing with VE and VJ day, and the men from Hawaii came home to start new lives, Masatsugu had lain in Italy where he was killed in action on October 23rd 1943 fighting to take Sant’ Angelo D’Alife. Now his family drove him to Maui Veterans Cemetery where they buried him. Masatugu Riyu was finally back in Hawaii, in the green Ioa Valley of Maui, resting in God’s Country.