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.
Part 2: The Red Arrow maneuvers toward war
Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French commander of allied forces during World War I, offered a grim prediction upon hearing the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended the first world war: “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”
Many factors combined to create the environment that led to the Second World War. Germany resented bearing full responsibility for war reparations, an economic hardship further aggravated by the Great Depression. Japan became more militaristic, creating unrest in Manchuria in the early 1930s and outright war with China in 1937. A significant defeat in a battle against Mongolian and Soviet forces in 1939 led Japan to focus its imperial ambitions southward. The Philippines, then a U.S. commonwealth, were of vital strategic value to Japan’s South Pacific expansion.
The United States returned to its longstanding preference for isolationism after the end of World War I, neither ratifying the Treaty of Versailles nor joining the League of Nations. The desire to avoid wars overseas, combined with a devastating economic depression, resulted in an American military unprepared for war even as a resurgent Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and conquered France in 1940.
After the fall of France, President Franklin Roosevelt called the National Guard to active duty in October 1940 to bolster the Army’s strength. The 32nd Division — formed in 1917 from the entire Wisconsin National Guard and much of the Michigan National Guard — traveled to Louisiana to train for potential combat against a mechanized European enemy. The 3rd and 4th Army Maneuvers, conducted in Louisiana and the Carolinas, involved up to 400,000 troops in 1941, including one Col. Dwight Eisenhower. The division’s 128th Regimental Combat Team — composed for the maneuvers with elements from the 126th, 127th and 128th infantry regiments, 120th field artillery, 107th Engineer Battalion, 107th Medical Regiment and others — received a letter of commendation for its performance during the Carolina Maneuvers in November 1941.
Maj. Gen. Irving Fish commanded the 32nd Division during the maneuvers. He joined the Wisconsin National Guard in 1903 and served during the Mexican Border Crisis as well as World War I and other military campaigns. But in 1942 Fish was transferred to other assignments due to his age.
By that time, the United States had already declared war on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor as well as Japan’s invasion of the Philippines. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was stationed in the Philippines as commander of U.S. Army forces in the Far East when Japan invaded on Dec. 8, 1941, and would be extracted with his family to Australia the following March. However, a Wisconsin National Guard tank company based in Janesville had been separated from the division and deployed to the Philippines. They, with the remaining American and Philippine troops, would surrender to the Japanese after MacArthur’s departure and endure the horrific Bataan death march.
Still, the Red Arrow had trained for Europe and was expecting to fight the Germans once again. Roosevelt himself had said that to defeat Japan, the United States had to defeat Germany.
Maj. Gen. Edwin Harding took command of the 32nd Division in February 1942. An instructor at Fort Benning, Georgia in the 1920s and 1930s, Harding was part of a group who emphasized new infantry tactics to avoid the massive casualties that resulted from frontal assaults into fortified enemy positions.
Around this time the Army revised its division structure, going from four to three infantry regiments. The Michigan National Guard’s 125th Infantry Regiment was no longer part of the Red Arrow. Also around this time, military leaders from the United States and Britain agreed that the U.S. would have the main responsibility for conducting military operations in the entire Pacific theater. The threat to Australia increased significantly when Japan landed forces on nearby New Guinea, and the U.S. Army selected the 32nd and 41st divisions to support 1 Corps and assist two Australian divisions in driving the Japanese back.
The Red Arrow was at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, preparing to head over to Europe — in fact, its 107th Engineer Battalion was already en route to Ireland — when on March 25, 1942 it learned it had three weeks to arrive in San Francisco to deploy to Australia. The division was still short 1,800 men despite gaining 3,000 Soldiers fresh from basic training. It was also short on equipment, and had little training on what new equipment it did receive. Most importantly, the division had received no jungle warfare training. But MacArthur — now commander in chief of the Southwest Pacific Area — and the United States had no other options.
The 32nd Division departed San Francisco on April 22 and arrived at Port Adelaide, Australia on May 14. Valuable training time was diverted to building barracks, mess halls and other required facilities. Several weeks later the division moved halfway across the continent to another training camp near Brisbane. At this point, the Red Arrow had been on the move for five of the seven months the United States had been at war.
The Red Arrow renamed their new location Camp Cable after Cpl. Gerald Cable of Service Company, 126th Infantry, who was killed when his transport was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during the move from Adelaide to Brisbane. Cable was the division’s first Soldier killed by enemy action in World War II.
The Red Arrow’s overall readiness was not lost on Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger, 1 Corps commander, or on MacArthur.
“I told MacArthur and [his] chief of staff that I thought the 32nd Division was not sufficiently trained to meet the Japanese veterans on equal terms,” Eichelberger wrote in his book Our Jungle Road to Tokyo. He wrote that division leaders were very aware of these deficiencies. However, the Japanese — making their way from Buna, New Guinea toward Port Moresby, from where they could launch attacks against Australia — were not inclined to give the Americans the time needed to prepare for the fight.
MacArthur toured the 32nd Division training area in September, and spoke to their officers.
“The last time I saw your outfit was on the battlefield in France,” Macarthur said. “It had just completed one of the finest actions that the World War saw. I wasn’t a member of it, but I took a peculiar pride in it because at that time half of it came from my beloved section of the country. … I have every confidence that in this war, in the fight in which we are going to be very shortly engaged, you will carry out in full the old traditions.”
The Red Arrow would neither see nor hear MacArthur offer similar encouragement during their inaugural campaign.
On Sept. 7, Eichelberger and Harding addressed the entire division.
“The thing to keep constantly before us — the thing we want to aspire to — is that this outfit be recognized as an outfit of killers,” Harding told his men. “Men who fight to the finish, men who endeavor by all precautions and all preparations in training to preserve their own lives and take away as many of those of the enemy as we can.”
Eichelberger told the 32nd Division that they would be in action before long. Less than a week later, MacArthur ordered the Red Arrow to Papua New Guinea, where they would take part in the first U.S. ground offensive against the Japanese. Five days later, a regimental combat team built around the 126th Infantry flew from Brisbane, Australia to Port Moresby, New Guinea — the first major airlift of combat troops in the war. A week later they were joined by a regimental combat team built around the 128th Infantry.
The 32nd Division’s 654 days in combat during World War II — more than any other division in the war — would begin with the campaign to drive the Japanese out of Buna.