EDITOR’S NOTE: To commemorate the end of World War II 75 years ago, the Wisconsin National Guard is publishing stories recounting the role of the 32nd Division — consisting of the Wisconsin National Guard and much of the Michigan National Guard — as it spent more days in combat than any other American unit against a determined enemy and unforgiving terrain. This installment is part five in a series.
Part 5: The Red Arrow pierces another unbreakable line
As 1944 drew to a close, New Guinea was finally behind the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division. The Philippines, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s long-awaited return, lay ahead.
Determined to prevent the U.S. from liberating the Philippines, Japan engaged in the decisive naval Battle of Leyte Gulf in late October — a battle Japan lost, at great cost to its navy.
When the 32nd Division became the first U.S. Army ground unit to take offensive action against the Japanese in 1942, they were one of only two divisions in theater. But now seven U.S. Army divisions were on hand for the Leyte campaign, and the 32nd was initially held in reserve. Lack of available transport ships kept them from landing on the centrally located Philippine island until Nov. 14, 1944. By the time they arrived, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita commanded the Japanese ground forces in the Philippines. Though he doubtless understood that Japan was no longer capable of winning the war in the Pacific, Yamashita was committed to fighting the war as long as he had men and weaponry.
The 32nd Division replaced the 24th Division, which had been driving the Japanese back along Breakneck Ridge and had captured high ground north of the village of Limon. The 128th Infantry Regiment was ordered to capture Limon, beginning the operation Nov. 22. The effort required “bitter, close hand-to-hand fighting,” according to the official U.S. Army history of the campaign. The Japanese built fighting positions in road banks and at the base of trees and under logs, taking advantage of the turns and bends of the path to target advancing Red Arrow Soldiers. The steep terrain and density of U.S. troops reduced the effect of artillery and mortar fire. The 128th Infantry achieved their objective within a few days, though Japanese counter-attacks continued until mid-December.
By Dec. 21, 1944 the fight for Leyte was largely over, despite a fierce effort by the Japanese, who had been ordered by the emperor to destroy enemy ground forces. Japanese troop losses were staggering — 56,263 killed, and 392 captured. The Red Arrow, after 36 days of combat, forced a passage through the mountains from Pinamopoan to the Ormac Valley.
While the 32nd Division waited to begin their final campaign, they learned that Capt. Herman Bottcher, whose heroics as a staff sergeant during the Buna campaign earned him a battlefield commission, was killed on Dec. 31, 1944.
Luzon — the largest and northernmost of the Philippine islands, and home to the capitol Manila — would be the next target for the Red Arrow. While capturing Manila was the obvious prize of this campaign, Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, commander of Sixth Army, waited until the 32nd Division and 1st Cavalry Division had arrived on Luzon Jan. 27, 1945 — 18 days after U.S. forces made a surprise amphibious assault at Lingayen Gulf — to avoid overextending his forces in the drive to the capitol.
Yamashita had 150,000 troops at his disposal on Luzon, including 110,000 combat troops, though U.S. military planners revised their estimate of enemy strength to 235,000 troops.
When the 32nd Division arrived, Krueger’s Sixth Army was already advancing on Manila. The Red Arrow’s 126th Infantry Regiment initially stayed behind as part of the Sixth Army reserve, though it would rejoin the division. The remainder of the division advanced northeast, along river valleys and the mostly unimproved Villa Verde Trail which connected the Lingayan Gulf to the Cagayan Valley in northeastern Luzon, traversing the Caraballo Mountains.
Much like parts of the Leyte campaign and the Buna campaign, the 27-mile Villa Verde Trail would restrict the 32nd Division to narrow lanes of advance, exposing Red Arrow Soldiers to well-camouflaged Japanese fighting positions from a flanking ridge north of the trail referred to as Yamashita’s Ridge.
“Repeated visits to this front had made me fully cognizant of the tough conditions facing the 32nd Division, but I was confident it would overcome all difficulties successfully,” Krueger would later write of the 32nd Division’s thankless task.
In addition to the enemy’s excellent defensive posture, the trail itself provided challenges of its own. The winding path made it difficult to keep units supplied, and some troop strength was required to protect communication lanes to the rear. The division’s 114th Engineer Battalion worked to transform approximately 20 miles of the trail into passable road — known as “Little Burma Road” — earning a position near the top of Yamashita’s “must destroy” list.
Under the circumstances, the 32nd Division’s progress was “slow and bloody,” Krueger recalled, “and demanded the utmost of valor and fortitude on the part of our troops.”
In mid-April, Krueger would reassure Maj. Gen. William Gill, 32nd Division commander, that he understood the Red Arrow was doing the best it could. However, the division could expect no additional assistance. Gill would rotate the 127th and 128th Infantry regiments on the trail while the 126th advanced along the Ambayang River valley below. The 126th would later be attached to the 25th Division, and play a role in clearing the Villa Verde Trail. At one point, battlefield attrition brought the 128th Infantry Regiment down to approximately 1,500 men, roughly half strength.
In May, the 32nd Division had reached the bulwark of Yamashita’s defenses on the Villa Verde Trail. Sometimes referred to as the Kongo Fortress, the Japanese considered it impenetrable. After a fierce five-day assault, the Red Arrow’s 127th and 128th Infantry regiments overwhelmed the Japanese defenses and eliminated resistance by May 27. Meanwhile, the 126th Infantry Regiment captured the high ground north of the Villa Verde Trail the following day. The U.S. now controlled the trail.
“The 32nd Division has accomplished its mission,” Gill wrote in a general order commemorating the victory. “The enemy has been destroyed and the Villa Verde Trail secured. A passage has been forced through the Caraballo Mountains from the Central Plain to the entrance of the Cagayan Valley, thus hastening the completion of the Luzon Campaign.
“After 120 days of fierce hand-to-hand combat over terrain more difficult than any yet encountered in this war, the ‘Red Arrow’ again pierced the enemy’s line,” Gill continued. “You have crushed completely another of the enemy’s so-called impregnable defenses, brilliantly concluding the Division’s fifth campaign in the Pacific Theater.”
Gill went on to praise the officers and enlisted men of the 32nd Division, saying he looked forward to the division’s continued success “into the heart of Tokyo.” But that pride masked a dissatisfaction with higher command. After the war, he would compare MacArthur and his staff with shoppers who overspent on a meager purchase: “The Villa Verde Trail cost us too high in battle casualties for the value it received.”
CBS war correspondent William J. Dunn reported on the exploits of the 32nd Division from the heart of Kongo Fortress.
“Two and a half years ago down at Buna on the flat coastal plain of eastern New Guinea, I saw this same division fight the first big-scale attack ever staged by American troops in the southern Pacific,” Dunn said. “It was the 32nd that started us on an entirely new type of warfare — jungle warfare — at Buna and taught us how to beat the [Japanese] out of their foxholes and pillboxes. Now the 32nd is just about to complete a four-months campaign of an entirely different sort — a mountain campaign over ranges as rugged as I ever saw in New Guinea, China or Burma — a campaign as different from Burma as black from white.
“Maj. Gen. William H. Gill has a right to be proud of his fighting 32nd.”
Gen. Joseph Stilwell, a veteran of Allied campaigns in China and presently in charge of ground troop training, visited the division in June and acknowledged the difficulty of the Red Arrow’s victory.
“This was as tough as anything could be,” Stillwell said. “Terrain doesn’t come any worse. In Burma it was thick, impenetrable jungle, and here it’s cliffs seemingly impossible to scale and the worst sort of mountain terrain. Burma or this sector — it’s a toss-up.
“The Division has a splendid record which will be very hard to beat,” Stillwell said.
The Luzon Campaign officially ended July 4, 1945, though the 32nd Division continued active operations against Japanese forces until Aug. 15, and though some men hoped to be shipped home, most anticipated their next mission would be to invade Japan itself.
When World War II officially came to a close, the Red Arrow Division had spent 654 days in combat in the South Pacific — more than any other division during World War II.