The United States and its allies achieved total victory and unconditional surrender from the Japanese on Aug. 15, 1945 – Victory over Japan Day. While the formal surrender took place aboard the U.S.S. Missouri several weeks later on Sept. 2, the war was over, bringing years of fighting to a close.
For the millions of U.S. service members who had stormed the beaches of the South Pacific or Normandy, flew sorties in hostile skies, froze in foxholes outside of Bastogne, or swatted mosquitoes in the jungles of New Guinea, VJ Day was especially sweet. Hostilities had ended in Europe several months before.
The Second World War was among the 32nd Infantry Division’s finest hours, and it spent more days fighting the Japanese than any other division in the war. Made up of National Guardsmen from Wisconsin and Michigan, the 32nd had been trained to fight a mechanized war in Europe – a far cry from the jungle warfare that defined its campaign in the Pacific.
The men of the Red Arrow were untrained in jungle warfare when they arrived in Australia in May 1942, awaiting orders to New Guinea. The 32nd became the first American infantry unit ordered into combat for the American counter-offensive in the Pacific, and elements of it became the first troops ever airlifted into combat, when they were flown over the Owen Stanley Mountains in New Guinea.
The Red Arrow ultimately fought in six major engagements and four campaigns totaling 654 days of combat – more than any other American division during World War II. The unit’s combat operations took them from the Buna Campaign and several other operations in New Guinea to the Philippines and ultimately to the Japanese home islands in the weeks following VJ Day.
All told, Soldiers of the Red Arrow earned 11 Medals of Honor, 157 Distinguished Service Crosses, 49 Legion of Merit Awards, 845 Silver Stars, 1,854 Bronze Stars, 89 Air Medals, 78 Soldiers’ Medals, and 11,500 Purple Hearts.
While these feats sound impressive, the 32nd paid dearly for its gains in the Pacific. In the Buna Campaign alone, the division of 9,825 men, suffered roughly the same amount of casualties, two-thirds due to illnesses like malaria, dengue fever, jungle sores, rotting feet, ringworm and dysentery. Buna proved to be one of the most desperate and brutal campaigns of the war.
The division was instrumental in re-taking the Philippines – living up to its nickname earned the First World War – “Les Terribles.”
Even though the war ended with VJ Day, the 32nd remained in Japan as an occupying force until 1946, when it was finally inactivated and sent home to Wisconsin and Michigan.