The Road to Rome led the 100th from the landing beaches in Salerno to one of the most discussed engagements of WW2: the Battle for Montecassino.
Landing at Salerno
After months in training on the mainland, the 100th Battalion finally sailed for Europe in August 1943. They entered combat near Salerno on 29 September as part of the 133rd Regiment, 34th Division.
From the disembarkation area, the 100th moved north-east in poor weather. During the advance, the battalion suffered its first casualty. Sgt Shigeo (Joe) Takata was killed by a piece of shrapnel to the head. He received the first Purple Heart for what would become the battalion’s tag line: The Purple Heart Battalion.
The Volturno river was the first major waterway the 100th had to get across, which they did near Sant’Angelo d’Alife. They had to wade through the icy waste-deep water since the bridge had been blown.
The valley on the other side was heavily defended and the securing of the town and surrounding heights would see the 100th lose another 19 men to lethal fire.
Throughout late October and early November, the 100th kept moving north, but the bad weather and continued resistance had made their progress since crossing the Volturno river slow. An 8-day break in Santa Maria Oliveto brought some welcome rest as well as winter clothes!
Battle for Montecassino
To get to Rome and capture the city, the Fifth Army had to break through the Winter Line. This defensive system blocked the entrance to the Liri Valley, the gateway to the capitol.
The 34th Division was moving from the mountains at the head of the Volturno Valley, with the French mountain troops covering their right flank and the American 36th Division to their left.
The 133rd Regiment would advance through the hills between Cerasuolo and Castelnuovo. The 100th was positioned to the left and tasked with taking the La Croce hill north of Cerasuolo.
Once in control of their targets, the idea was to turn south again, towards the Abbey of Montecassino. The site was long suspected of being used by the Germans as an observation post.
The second battle for Montecassino was largely a continuation of the first, only this time it was up to the New Zealand 2nd Div. to attack from the ridges to the north, as well as across town from the south to open up the Liri valley and the highway to Rome.
German artillery aimed with great precision strengthened the idea that they used abbey as an observation post. It was therefore the key to breaking the Gustav Line.
A bombing raid was requested on 11 February and executed on the 15th. Unfortunately, this was a day before the monks could get the civilians out through a safe passage negotiated with the Germans. A total of 1,150 tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs hit, reducing the abbey to rubble.
We now know that the Germans had agreed to not use the abbey for military purposes. Only after the bombing did the paratroopers of the 1st Parachute Division turn it into a fortified observation post. A move that made the breaking of the Gustav Line even harder.
The third Battle for Montecassino was relatively short, mainly due to the persistent winter weather between 15 and 23 March. Fording the swollen Garigliano river downstream was not an enticing prospect. Instead, the Allied devised an attack along the Rapido valley to clear the bottleneck between Monastery Hill and Cassino town.
The defending troops managed to regroup more quickly than expected after the initial bombing and to make matters worse, shelling damage hampered the Allied advance when the rain started filling up craters and shell holes.
The New Zealand and Indian Divisions managed to take some key points, but the crucial attack on the German reinforcement route had failed. With both Divisions facing exhaustion, the attack was halted on 23 March.
As the D-Day landings in Normandy were nearing, the plan was to keep as many German troops committed to Italy as possible.
Under the latest plan, the bulk of the British 8th Army and US 5th Army to the far left of the Gustav Line, to have both attack along a 20-mile front between Cassino and the Gulf of Gaeta.
The Americans would attack along the coast and up Highway 7. The French to their right would attack from the Garigliano bridgehead into the Aurunci mountains. Finally, the Brits would advance up the Liri valley. On the far right of the front, the Polish had taken position in the mountains behind Montecassino. Their aim was pinching out Cassino by isolating the monastery and push around it into the Liri valley, where they would link up with the British.
After a heavy bombardment just before midnight on 11 May, all 4 sectors were on the move. It would take another 6 days with casualties mounting – especially in the Polish sector – before the Germans finally gave up on Cassino and fell back onto the Hitler Line. On May 25, Polish and Canadian troops breached this defensive line, clearing the way north to Rome.
Two days prior, a 2-pronged attack was launched from the Anzio beachhead. The German 10th Army in full retreat was about to be cut off. Surprisingly, Gen. Clark changed the orders and moved the path of VI Corps from Valmontone towards Rome, not wanting the Brits to arrive there first…
Road to Rome – Anzio
With the Allied advance at the Gustav Line stalled since December, a landing at Anzio was meant to move things along.
The underlying idea was to pull German troops out of the Gustav Line to give the Allied a better chance at breaking through.
The operation had three possible – and to the military planners acceptable – outcomes. If the Germans didn’t pull troops out of the Gustav Line, then the landings at Anzio (Operation Shingle) would threaten the capture of Rome, cutting off troops further south.
If however they had enough troops available to defend both the Gustav Line and the Anzio beachhead, it was still considered a worthwhile effort, because it would keep the additional forces away from another front.
Operation Shingle started on 22 January 1944, but all was not going well at Anzio. The battle turned out long and costly in manpower, so by late February the need for reinforcements was pressing. On 26 March, the 34th Division landed at Anzio Harbor, with the 100th still attached. Over the following weeks, replacements from the 442d Combat Team came in, bringing the battalion nearly back up to strength.
On 2 June, the 100th advanced under heavy mortar fire over hilly terrain towards Lanuvio. The unit kept pushing north for the next 36 hours, while casualties once again mounted, but by mid-afternoon on June 4 a road sign indicated that Rome was only ten kilometers ahead. At that point, the 100th received orders to halt and await transport… They would not be granted the honor of entering the capitol first.