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.

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100th Infantry Battalion colors

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.

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.

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Nisei soldiers in training

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.

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.

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100th Battalion envelope sent from Masatsugu Riyu to his sister

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 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.

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100th Battalion on review

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.

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.

For More History on Japanese Americans in WWII Check Out

Going for Broke: Japanese American Soldiers in the War against Nazi Germany

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