Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The attack on Pearl Harbor thrust West Michigan's own 126th Infantry into war

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, West Michigan's own 126th Infantry had been on active duty for more than a year, training in Louisiana as part of the great call-up of the National Guard for training purposes.

Only now, the training was over.

The 126th on parade while training in Louisiana
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, plunging the 126th Infantry into war for the fifth time in its short history. The regiment was ordered to establish security around vital installations in the Louisiana and Texas areas to guard against any sabotage attempts. It was the First Regiment in the Red Arrow Division to be placed on war duty. This second tour of duty as “homeland defense” continued on until the regiment left in February.

In late December, the Thirty-second Division was notified that it was being designated as part of Force Magnet and would be heading to Northern Ireland. The division was given priority for replacements and distribution of equipment. It was estimated the division would sail for its destination sometime around July 1942. Two months later, the Thirty-second Division was reorganized into a more modern triangular division centered on three infantry regiments (Michigan’s 125th Infantry was detached from the division and assigned to a coastal guard mission). Other changes included the reorganization of the existing artillery regiments into battalions.

Monument to the 126th Infantry located at Camp Grayling, Michigan
The Thirty-second Red Arrow Division was among the first units ordered overseas after Pearl Harbor along with the Thirty-fourth and Thirty-seventh. On February 1, 1942, under command of Colonel Lawrence A. Quinn, the Grand Rapids Guard moved to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and underwent replacement of personnel to bring the regiment to full strength. Initially thinking it was staging for service in the European Theater, the Guard was surprised to hear on March 25 that plans had changed and the division was being sent to Australia to face the Japanese. In April the regiment boarded troop trains and headed to San Francisco, California, where it was billeted in the San Francisco Cow Palace. There the regiment picked up a number of replacements that had just completed basic training.

On the eve of departure from San Francisco for Australia, Colonel Quinn addressed the regiment:
Officers and men of the 126th Infantry, we are about to depart on a most important mission.  One not only of national and international, but also of world importance.  Our path will not be smooth.  On the contrary it will be beset with many obstacles; we shall suffer many hardships; we shall face many grave dangers.  Many of us will pay the supreme sacrifice.  Such is the duty of a soldier; such is the responsibility and privilege of every citizen.  It is fitting and proper on such an occasion to ask Divine strength and guidance.  We will now be led in prayer by our Regimental Chaplain. 
This formation may prove to be a very important incident in the history of this grand, old outfit.  We may never again have an opportunity to parade as a Regiment. For the past year and a half we have been working hard—training in marksmanship, musketry, maneuvers, marches; learning to shoot straight, march far and well, and to maneuver fast and cleverly; learning to care for our health, our arms and our equipment under all conditions.  It has not been easy.  There have been difficulties.  But difficulties make opportunities.  We have made mistakes.  But we have tried not to make the same ones a second time. 
At this moment we parade here—not a perfect organization; not a perfect war machine; not a perfect team—but rather a diamond in the rough.  We have much to do in the way of training to attain the goal we have set for ourselves—a rugged, powerful, hard-hitting, fast maneuvering infantry team.  At every opportunity we shall carry on with our training. 
But what we lack in perfection we more than make up for in esprit de corps, determination, team play, loyalty, devotion to duty and country, and plain unadulterated intestinal fortitude. 
In a few hours we shall be on our way.  Our destination is a secret; and, except for curiosity, is unimportant.  What is important, however, is the fact that we are on our way to meet the enemy.  War is a grim business.  It is a killer business.  To some peoples in some parts of the world it is an old business.  But to us it is new.  In battle you go forth to kill or be killed—there is no half way point. We must school ourselves to accept this.  As we approach closer and closer to the sound of the guns we must develop that killer instinct, which is so necessary to success on the field of battle. 
Should you experience difficulty developing this desire to kill—you have but to recall what we are fighting for:  Our homes, our loved ones, our freedom, the right to live as we please.  Our country was founded on such principles; our forefathers fought, bled and died to retain them, as did this Regiment in 1861, 1898 and 1918.  In the future, if necessary, our children will fight for them. Today, now, it is our privilege and duty to do so. 
Our Nation and our loved ones are depending on us; they have placed their faith, their hope; their trust in us.  Let us resolve here today that we shall not fail them. 
On April 18, 1942, the 126th boarded the S.S. Lurline, a luxury liner that had been converted to transport duty, and four days later sailed for the South Pacific. There, it would be the spearhead of General Douglas MacArthur's road back to the Philippines.

Brief summary of the 126th Infantry's service during World War II. 
By the end of the war in 1945, of all the divisions under General Douglas MacArthur’s command, the Thirty-second “Red Arrow” spent more combat time, earned the most Distinguished Unit Citations (14), won the most Medals of Honor (11, three of which were members of the 126th Infantry), and paid the highest price in killed and wounded (7,268).  Throughout it all, the Grand Rapids Guard's 126th Infantry was there every step of the way.

Pfc. Dirk Vlug of the 126th Infantry returns to Grand Rapids as a hero 
after receiving his Medal of Honor from President Truman

Note: Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the governor mobilized a company of Michigan State Troops at the Grand Rapids Armory to guard the Kent County Airport, where it remained until June 1942. The Troops were volunteers organized to stand in for the 126th Infantry and other units from around the state that had left for the war. Many of them were veterans of World War I.

Source: Britten, David G., Lieutenant Colonel. Courage Without Fear: The Story of the Grand Rapids Guard. Xlibris, 2004