Remembering the war in New Guinea - 32nd US Infantry Division

Remembering the war in New Guinea
32nd US (Red Arrow) Infantry Division (Overview text)
Module name: Units (United States perspective)
This page was contributed by Mr Damien Fenton (Australian War Memorial)

32nd (Red Arrow) Infantry Division

The original 32nd Division was created in 1917 from National Guard regiments drawn from the states of Michigan and Wisconsin. As part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) the 32nd served on the Western Front for the last four months of the First World War, seeing extensive action in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in October 1918. In November all divisions of the AEF were instructed to choose a divisional insignia to be worn by all units under their command. The 32nd's commander, Major General William Haan, chose a red barred arrow to symbolise the Division's success in piercing the German lines and thus the 32nd acquired its alternate name the "Red Arrow" Division. With the war's end the 32nd was demobilised and disbanded in May 1919 but was later reconstituted in 1924.

Throughout the inter-war years that followed, the 32nd existed largely on paper and although its regiments did come together for summer field camps, the training received by most of its citizen-soldiers progressed little further than the local drill hall. Even the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe in September 1939 failed to inject any urgency into this training routine. However this complacency disappeared with the fall of France in June 1940. That August, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the mobilisation of eighteen National Guard divisions including the 32nd Division.

The 32nd then spent the next 16 months training in Louisiana. In July 1941 the official designation of the Division was changed to include the word "infantry" in its title. Six months later it was reorganised as a triangular division, losing one of its infantry regiments in the process. The resulting organisation remained in place largely unchanged until the end of the war:

Organisation of the 32nd Infantry Division, January 1942

Division Headquarters

Headquarters Company
Military Police Company
32nd Signal Company
32nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop

126th Infantry Regiment
127th Infantry Regiment
128th Infantry Regiment

Division Artillery Headquarters
Headquarters Battery
120th Field Artillery Battalion
121st Field Artillery Battalion
126th Field Artillery Battalion
129th Field Artillery Battalion

107th Engineer (Combat) Battalion
107th Medical Battalion
107th Quartermaster Battalion

In early February 1942 the Division gained a new commander, Major General Edwin F. Harding, and an intensified effort to bring it up to combat readiness began. The 32nd had been earmarked for deployment to the United Kingdom and soon after Harding's appointment the Division moved to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, to complete its establishment and equipment and prepare for transport across the Atlantic - a process expected to take three months. These plans were thrown into total disarray when, on the morning of 25 March, General Harding received an order telling him that the 32nd was now required for service in the Pacific and that his entire Division was to be ready for embarkation from San Francisco in three weeks time.

These orders were carried out but at great cost to the Division's preparedness. The 107th Engineer Battalion had already left for Europe and had to be replaced by forming a new engineer battalion, the 114th, from scratch. The Division was also short 4,788 enlisted men and had to pick up 3,000 replacements barely out of basic training in California. Equipment was also a problem with the Division having to make do with whatever was immediately available from depots in San Francisco. For example, not a single M1 carbine (ideal for jungle fighting) could be found and the infantry was left with nothing but their longer, heavier and thus more cumbersome, M1 Garand rifles.

On 14 May 1942, the 32nd Infantry Division arrived in Port Adelaide, South Australia. The Division established two camps (Woodside and Sandy Creek) near Adelaide and had just begun to settle in when, in July, it was moved to Queensland. This time the Division was concentrated in a single location, Camp Cable, approximately fifty kilometres south of Brisbane. Again there was little time to put in place a proper training regime before the Division faced further disruption. On 13 September, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the 32nd Division to Papua. This resulted in the Divisional Headquarters and two regimental combat teams (RCTs), based around the 126th and 128th infantry regiments respectively, being deployed to Port Moresby between 15 and 29 September 1942.

The 2nd Battalion, 126th Regiment, was immediately committed to a flanking march over the Owen Stanleys to support the Australian counter-attack over the Kokoda Track. Two weeks later the entire 128th RCT was airlifted to Wanigela to join the Australian 18th Brigade in spearheading the planned coastal advance on Buna. The harsh reality of the New Guinea climate came as a terrible shock to the inexperienced soldiers of the 32nd. Completely lacking in jungle training their field craft was appalling and hundreds of men were quickly struck down with malaria, dengue fever or dysentery. Their rate of advance was far below that of their Australian allies and by the time they made contact with the outlying Japanese defences around Buna at the end of October most units were in a badly weakened and dispirited state. The rest of the 126th RCT had by then joined the 128th in front of Buna and in its first divisional action the 32nd was tasked with capturing the Japanese stronghold while the 7th Australian Division a
ssaulted the Japanese bastions of Gona and Sanananda on its left.

The American attack was a complete failure. The 32nd Division was condemned to spend the next two months fighting in the swamps surrounding Buna before it finally fell. The 127th RCT was committed to the battle in mid-December but this injection of fresh troops was not enough and, much to MacArthur's chagrin, the veteran Australian 18th Brigade had to be brought in to support the final drive on Buna. After its capture on 2 January 1943 the 127th RCT was attached to the 7th Australian Division for operations west of the Girua river while the rest of the Division mopped up Japanese stragglers and prepared for relief by elements of the 41st Infantry Division. Total battle casualties for the 32nd's operations in Papua were 2,520 of which 586 were killed. Far more telling than these losses were the casualties from disease and sickness which amounted to a staggering 7,336.

The poor performance of the 32nd Division at Buna was not surprising given the circumstances surrounding its first combat deployment. It was neither trained nor equipped for jungle warfare and it was certainly not ready for offensive operations against what turned out to be some of the strongest Japanese fortified positions in the South Pacific. Another factor was the complete lack of adequate fire support. Due to supply and transport difficulties only a single 105 mm howitzer was deployed in support of the American infantry at Buna - three other howitzers from the same battery made it as far as Port Moresby while the rest of the Division's four field artillery battalions remained behind in Queensland. Despite these handicaps MacArthur felt that poor leadership was to blame for the 32nd's failings and had General Harding relieved of his command. A number of regimental and battalion commanders were also dismissed.

Shortages of shipping meant that the last of the 32nd's units did not return from Papua until early April 1943. In the meantime the new divisional commander, Major General William H. Gill, was appointed and the slow process of rebuilding begun. The 32nd spent the next six months at Camp Cable being brought back up to strength and undergoing intensive and uninterrupted training of the kind it had so badly lacked prior to Papua. The hard-won lessons learnt there were incorporated into all aspects of the Division's operational doctrine and organisation. The 32nd Infantry Division that returned to New Guinea in October that year did so a far more confident and effective formation than the one seen at Buna.

This was reflected in the performance of those elements of the Division that took part in the regimental amphibious operations at Saidor (2 January-10 February 1944) and Yalau Plantation (5 March-14 April 1944). These operations were designed to cut off Japanese forces retreating from the Huon Peninsula and allow the construction of a forward airfield at Saidor while the 5th Australian Division advanced up the coast from the south. The American task force (built around the 126th RCT) succeeded in establishing the airfield but was not strong enough to set up an airtight cordon and consequently a large number of Japanese managed to slip past. Nevertheless the task force's performance was noted for its aggressiveness and efficiency, particularly in regard to its fighting patrols - always a sound indicator of morale and ability. The Americans remained in the area until the Australian advance had linked up with them.

In the meantime the 127th RCT had been assigned to support the 41st and 24th infantry divisions in their amphibious assaults against Hollandia and Aitape. These landings were carried out on 22 April 1944 against minimal Japanese opposition and the 127th went ashore at Aitape the following day. The lack of Japanese resistance allowed MacArthur to quickly increase the tempo of his operations and he ordered the rest of the 32nd Division, bar the 128th RCT which MacArthur was using as a corps reserve, forward to Aitape to take over from the 41st. By the end of May this movement had been completed and with the return of the 128th RCT from corps reserve in early June the 32nd was deployed as a complete division for the first time since Buna.

With these landings the Japanese 18th Army, under the command of Major General ADACHI Hatazo, had been effectively isolated at its base at Wewak some 150 km south of Aitape. On 11 July ADACHI, in an effort to break out of this strategic encirclement, launched a desperate offensive against the 32nd Division's positions around Aitape. The bulk of the fighting centred on the Driniumor River to the south of Aitape where the 32nd had established a defensive line along its northern bank. After nearly three weeks of withstanding repeated Japanese assaults against this line the 32nd Division counter-attacked on 31 July. The Japanese, already weakened by the losses suffered in their own attacks, were driven back and ADACHI ordered his surviving forces to withdraw. American attempts to complete the victory by cutting off the 18th Army's line of retreat failed in the face of fanatical Japanese rearguard actions. Nevertheless the Japanese had lost approximately 9,000 men and the Americans were in firm control of Ai
tape and its airfield. As the fighting died down offensive operations around Aitape were formally ended on 25 August and units of the 43rd Infantry Division arrived to relieve those of the 32nd.

With the exception of the 121st Field Artillery Battalion, the Aitape operation would be the last time the 32nd Division saw combat in New Guinea. MacArthur was now content to leave the Australians in sole charge of the remaining New Guinea operations so that he could prepare his American divisions for the liberation of the Philippines. In a preliminary move the 126th RCT was briefly attached to the 31st US Infantry Division and tasked with capturing the island of Morotai, midway between New Guinea and the Philippines. This was accomplished on 15 September 1944 against minimal opposition and Morotai was quickly turned into an advanced air and light naval craft base. Meanwhile the rest of the 32nd was moved from Aitape to Hollandia in anticipation of its role in the American invasion of Leyte.

This operation took place on 20 October 1944 and by days' end two entire corps of the US Sixth Army had stormed ashore and begun the drive inland. Bitter fighting ensued and over the course of the next two months an estimated 56,000 Japanese died in the struggle for Leyte. The 32nd had been placed in reserve and did not deploy to Leyte until 14 November when it was assigned to the US 10th Corps and relieved the 24th Infantry Division. It remained in the line until the last organised Japanese resistance on Leyte was broken at the end of December. During these operations the 32nd Division distinguished itself in the battle to force open the mountain passes between Pinamopoan and the Ormac Valley where it came up against, and defeated, one of the most elite formations in the Japanese Army, the 1st Imperial Guards Division.

With the conclusion of the fighting on Leyte the 32nd was given less than a month to recuperate before it was earmarked for the invasion of Luzon. For the first time since its combat debut the Division would begin a major operation with its entire order of battle intact. The last piece in that particular puzzle, the 121st Field Artillery Battalion, had been reunited with its parent division during the final phases of the Leyte campaign. Eight months earlier, on 10 May 1944, the 121st had been seconded to the 41st Infantry Division to support the latter in the operation to seize the island of Biak, off the north coast of Dutch New Guinea. The landings took place on 27 May but the island was not finally cleared of its defenders until 17 August. The 121st remained on Biak until November and finally rejoined the 32nd Division in the Philippines on 16 December 1944.

The initial landings on Luzon were carried out on 9 January 1945 when 68,000 troops of the US Sixth Army carved out a beachhead 15 miles long and 6,000 yards deep in the Lingayen Gulf. After consolidating the beachhead the Sixth Army began its advance southwards towards Manila with Japanese resistance intensifying the closer the Americans got to the Filipino capital. On 27 January the first elements of the 32nd Division disembarked at the Lingayen Gulf beachhead and three days later the Division was committed to action as part of the US 1st Corps. For the next three months the 32nd fought its way through the Carabello Mountains as part of 1st Corp's effort to prevent Japanese forces to the north-east from threatening the Luzon plains and the main American drive on Manila. This offensive officially ended on 1 June and the 32nd was withdrawn to a rest area where it received urgently needed reinforcements. Since landing on Luzon the Division had suffered 3,433 battle casualties and lost a further 4,961 pers
onnel through injury, sickness and disease. However despite these losses the Division's performance in the field had been second to none. Indeed, in postwar interrogations the commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines, General YAMASHITA Tomoyuki, named the 32nd Division as being the best of the American troops encountered by the Japanese on both Leyte and Luzon.

On 30 June the 32nd Division came under the control of the US 14th Corps and Eighth Army. The Eighth Army took over all responsibility for operations on Luzon while the Sixth Army prepared for Operation "Olympic", the first stage in the planned invasion of Japan. "Olympic" called for the invasion of Kyushu by 14 American divisions on 1 November. This would be followed up in May 1946 with Operation "Coronet", the invasion of Honshu, which would be carried out by the US First, Eighth and Tenth armies. In the meantime the 32nd moved to the Cagayan Valley where it remained engaged on mopping up operations until the end of the Pacific War. This came with Japan's unconditional surrender on 15 August and thus the 32nd was spared its intended role on Honshu. Arrangements for the surrender of Japanese forces in the Philippines were not finalized until the 3 September but for the men of the 32nd their war effectively ended on 15 August when an order was received from Eighth Army headquarters to cease all aggressi
ve action, including patrols. On 9 October the 32nd Division left Luzon in a convoy of 31 ships and disembarked five days later at the Japanese port of Sasebo on the island of Kyushu. As part of the American occupation force in Japan the 32nd stayed in Kyushu until the Division was officially inactivated on 28 February 1946.

The 32nd Infantry Division had come a long way since its disastrous introduction to combat around Buna. After those early setbacks the 32nd went on to become one of the most combat experienced and effective American divisions in the whole Pacific theatre. In fact the Division ended the Second World War having spent more days in actual combat, 654 in all, than any other division in the entire US Army. This record was not without its price and the 32nd suffered a total of approximately 14,000 battle casualties over the course of the war.

Further Reading:
H.W. Blakely. 32d Infantry Division, World War II. (Madison, Wisconsin: The Thirty Second Infantry Division History Commission, 1956).

Printed on 06/25/2022 08:56:45 PM