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 is the fourth installment in the series.
Part 4: The Red Arrow returns to the fight
After four grueling months, the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division had driven the Japanese from Buna in Papua New Guinea. They learned jungle warfare the hard way, and at great cost. In addition to the dead and wounded, nearly 8,000 Red Arrow Soldiers suffered from malaria. The men needed to be healed in body and spirit to continue the fight.
By April of 1943 the entire division had returned to Australia. There the Red Arrow would recuperate, integrate replacement Soldiers into their ranks, and incorporate the hard lessons of Buna into their training.
The Division gained a new commander — Maj. Gen. William Gill, who would lead the Red Arrow for the remainder of their time in the Pacific Theater. His first task was to reforge a division that had been broken by disease and brutal fighting.
“It was a long, hard pull,” Gill would write 10 years later. “Many times during this period, I must confess that I had grave doubts as to whether the division would ever come back. But they did, and magnificently, as their victories in succeeding campaigns prove.”
While the Red Arrow recovered, the fight against the Japanese continued. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander-in-chief of the Southwest Pacific Area, was ordered to establish air bases roughly 300 miles east of Buna, on Woodlark and Kiriwina islands. He was also ordered to occupy western New Britain approximately 200 miles north of Buna, and to seize Huon Peninsula and Madang north of Buna along the coast. MacArthur also launched Operation Cartwheel, a series of amphibious landings designed for more strategic strikes against Japanese forces, cutting off enemy supplies and avoiding costly frontal assaults.
In six months the Red Arrow was once again ready for combat, and began moving toward its new objective: take the airstrip at Saidor, secure the surrounding area and trap a Japanese division. The terrain at Saidor was as challenging as Buna. By this time, due to Allied success in preventing large-scale reinforcement, the Japanese had adopted a fighting withdrawal strategy.
The 126th Infantry, which made the bulk of Michaelmas Task Force, had spent nine weeks training for amphibious landings. The Jan. 2, 1944 beach landings were unopposed, and the airfield area was quickly captured. The Red Arrow Division was better supplied and better prepared for this campaign, but unrelenting rain, dangerous rivers and impenetrable jungle hampered their efforts to prevent the determined Japanese from escaping.
The 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry and other Red Arrow units took part in the landing at Yalau Plantation, roughly 30 miles west of Saidor, on March 5. The landing itself was unopposed, though subsequent patrols met Japanese resistance. By mid-April, U.S. and Australian forces controlled the area. The Saidor and Yalau Plantation operations benefitted from longer training, improved supplies and tactical air support, and naval gunfire.
MacArthur also was aided by allied forces deciphering the Japanese military code, which provided advance knowledge of Japanese troop movements as well as the ability to mislead the enemy with false information. This allowed the 24th and 41st Divisions to land unopposed at Hollandia on April 22, 1944, roughly 450 miles west along the coast from Saidor.
The next day, much of the 32nd Division’s 127th Infantry and the 126th Field Artillery Battalion landed at Aitape, both to capture Japanese airstrips there as well as to block Japanese troops from Wewak from reinforcing Japanese troops in Hollandia. The 128th Infantry remained in Saidor, and the remainder of the division supported Gen. Walter Krueger, commander of the U.S. Sixth Army, as Alamo Force reserve.
The Japanese had not abandoned Aitape, however, and soon were harassing American troops along the Driniumor River with mixed results. While the 128th Infantry was withdrawing from its reconnaissance mission as part of a broader effort to thwart a Japanese push toward the airfield, Staff Sgt. Gerald Endl of Fort Atkinson, Wis., a member of Company C, would posthumously receive the Medal of Honor for single-handedly engaging the enemy, preventing the capture of 11 wounded Soldiers by the Japanese on July 11, 1944.
By Aug. 1 the Japanese forces, estimated at about 4,000 troops, were suffering from exhaustion, starvation and disease. They launched four days of poorly coordinated suicide attacks against 32nd Division troops. The battle for Aitape officially ended Aug. 25.Aitape was Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s costliest campaign since Buna, with 440 Soldiers killed, more than 2,500 wounded and 10 missing. But the Japanese had retreated, and the Tadji airfield was safely in Allied hands as a staging area for further operations.The New Guinea campaign was drawing to a close for the 32nd Division, but one more chapter remained: Morotai, an island roughly 600 miles from Aitape and midway between New Guinea and Mindinao, the southernmost of the Philippine Islands. Deemed suitable for an air base and light naval base, the Allies attacked Morotai on Sept. 15, 1944. The 32nd Division’s 126th Infantry Regiment, 120th Field Artillery Battalion, and elements of the division’s engineer, quartermaster, ordnance, signal, medical and military police units were part of the effort.The 31st Division succeeded in taking the lightly defended island from the Japanese, leaving the 126th Infantry to establish posts along the shore and surrounding islands. Subsequent Japanese counterattacks could not dislodge Allied troops.The United States was in the final 12 months of World War II, and MacArthur was mere weeks from fulfilling his promise to return to the Philippines. The Red Arrow Division would spend 654 days in combat in the South Pacific — more than any other division during World War II. The Philippine island of Leyte awaited.