The Bushmasters: Arizona's Fighting Guardsmen By Joe Patrick "On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. By the end of June 1940, France had fallen to the Germans as well. Although the United States remained officially neutral in the growing conflict, President Roosevelt ordered all units of the Arizona National Guard to active federal duty on September 16, 1940. After hard training at Fort Sill, Okla., and Camp Barkley, Texas, the 158th was detached from the 45th Division as a "stand alone" unit. Authorized to add units as needed in order to operate independent of divisional support, if necessary, the 158th Infantry was later redesignated the 158th Regimental Combat Team (RCT). Earning the Nickname On December 7, 1941, officers of the 158th called their men to formation and told them that a place called Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had been bombed by the Japanese and that the unit had orders to move out for its fourth war. By January 2, 1942, the 158th RCT, moving under secret orders, was in the Panama Canal Zone to guard all parts of the vital canal against sabotage. That mission involved constant training in the art of jungle warfare. It was in Panama that the 158th acquired its nickname of "Bushmasters" from a deadly snake that inhabited the jungles there. The RCT's insignia became a snake coiled around a machete, and its motto was the Spanish word cuidado ("take care")--a reference to avoiding the snakes and also an admonition to enemy soldiers who would later encounter the unit's troops. The 158th stayed in Panama exactly one year. Then the unit was summoned--by name--to help General Douglas MacArthur in his campaign to return to the Philippines. On January 2, 1943, the Bushmasters walked up the gangplanks of transports and headed for the southwestern Pacific. January 16 saw them encamped at the Coomben Racetrack at Brisbane, Australia. In March, the 158th was moved to Port Moresby on the island of New Guinea, where the 32nd and 45th divisions of Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger's Sixth Army had already defeated the Japanese at Buna, Gona, Lae and Sanananda. At Milne Bay, on New Guinea, the 2nd Battalion of the 158th (2/158) was assigned the task of acting as the security force around Krueger's Sixth Army headquarters. Some of the Bushmasters were depressed; it seemed to them as if they would never see real combat. But that was about to change. On December 12, the 2nd Battalion was designated the reserve element for the upcoming invasion of New Britain Island. Jungle Combat On December 15, 1943, U.S. Army troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Julian W. Cunningham landed at Arawe on New Britain. On December 21, with Japanese resistance stiffening and with growing evidence of enemy preparations to counterattack, Cunningham called for reserves. Accordingly, on Christmas Day, the pride of Safford, Ariz.--Company G of the 158th--was shipped to Arawe to support the Texans of the 112th Cavalry Regiment. At about that same time, Company B was leaving Milne Bay aboard a slow Sydney Harbor ferry boat, bound for Finschhafen. From there, three PT-boats escorted the company to Cape Merkus Peninsula, where it, too, landed at Arawe. They were joined a short time later by the rest of 2nd Battalion, under the command of Lt. Col. Fred Stofft of Tuscon, who would later be adjutant general of Arizona. After several weeks of heavy fighting, Cunningham launched an offensive on January 16, 1944, employing the 158th RCT, the 112th Cavalry and the 1st Marine Division's 1st Tank Battalion. Later that same day, reports came in that the Japanese were withdrawing. At Gilnit on February 20, Cunningham's troops made contact with Marines who had landed at Cape Gloucester. New Britain had been secured. At the same time, the Japanese air and naval base at Rabaul to the east was effectively neutralized, eliminating a longtime threat to Australia and to the flanks of the Allied forces as they advanced along the northern coast of New Guinea. Replacing the losses suffered on the Arawe Peninsula, the 2/158 was refitted at Finschhafen. The 1st and 3rd battalions, brought in from Woodlark and Kiriwina islands, were subsequently reunited with the 2nd, bringing the RCT up to full strength. Task Force Tornado After a short rest period, the 158th was combined with the South Dakota 147th Field Artillery to create Task Force Tornado. That force was sent to relieve the 163rd RCT of the 41st Division, which had invaded and taken Wakde Island on May 18, and was now engaged in a grueling drive to take Sarmi on the mainland of Dutch New Guinea. The 158th disembarked at Toem on May 21. Under the command of Brig. Gen. Edwin D. Patrick, Task Force Tornado unwittingly advanced into a trap. Initially surprised by the American landing at Wakde, Japanese Lt. Gen. Hachiro Tagami had recalled the scattered elements of his 36th "Tiger" Division and amassed a force of 11,000 troops. Only half of them were combat troops, but those combat troops included first-rate army soldiers and members of the Naval Guard detachments--well-trained, 6-foot-tall Japanese who were often mistakenly referred to as marines by Americans. Tagami planned to encircle Task Force Tornado with two pincers that would meet at the Toem-Arara beachhead. With their headquarters and supply dumps overrun, the Americans would be stranded in the jungle. On the morning of May 23, the 158th crossed the Tor River and advanced on the Maffin airstrip--only to be stopped by the Japanese. On the following day, the 3rd Battalion of the 224th Infantry and a company of the 223rd Infantry launched a banzai charge against the dug-in Bushmasters, but the Japanese were repulsed with heavy losses. The 158th resumed its advance on May 25, and by that evening their toughest objective lay before them--a coral ridgeline whose rain forest was dominated by a single towering tree that earned it the misleading name of Lone Tree Hill. Over the next several days, the 158th made agonizingly slow progress, occasionally capturing a foothold, sometimes pulling back to avoid being caught in one of Tagami's flanking maneuvers, sometimes beating back the Japanese attacks. Under pressure from an impatient MacArthur, Patrick visited the command post of the 158th's commander, Colonel Prugh "Pop" Herndon, along the Snaky River. Dissatisfied with the situation, he replaced Herndon with a Regular Army man, Colonel Earl D. "Bulldog" Sandlin. Herndon, who had been with the regiment for 22 years and commanded it for 12, wept as he said goodbye to his beloved Bushmasters. Repulsing the Attack With the 1st and 2nd battalions of 163rd RCT withdrawn for MacArthur's planned invasion of Biak (leaving only the 3/163 at Wakde-Sarmi), Patrick pulled the 1/158 back to guard the Toem-Arara beachhead. His prudence paid off, as Tagami's two pincers closed around the rear area. Thanks in part to poor coordination by the two Japanese elements and partly to the dogged courage of the defenders, the Japanese attack, launched on May 30, was a failure. On June 5, components of the 6th Infantry Division arrived at Arara, freeing the 1/158 to join the other two battalions in their continuing efforts to take Lone Tree Hill. Finally, on June 15, the 20th Infantry relieved the 158th. It would take the 6th Division weeks of bitter fighting to finally wrest Lone Tree Hill from Tagami's Tiger Division. By the time they succeeded, the Americans had incurred about 2,000 casualties overall. The Bushmasters suffered 70 dead, 257 wounded and 4 missing. Known enemy losses during that same period were 3,870 killed and 15 taken prisoner. Although still formidable on the defensive, the Japanese 36th Division was no longer an effective offensive force in New Guinea. The surviving division members ultimately withdrew to Tagami's peninsular headquarters at Sarmi, where they remained isolated for the rest of the war. One of the 158th RCT's finest hours was the invasion of Noemfoor Island. Again teamed up with the 147th Field Artillery, and given excellent air support by the U.S. Fifth Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force, the 158th hit the beaches on July 2 and quickly overran its primary objective, the Kamiri airfield. While reinforcements arrived by parachute, the 158th pushed on to take the Kornasoren airfield on July 4. On July 5, organized resistance on the island was broken when a battalion of the 158th, advancing southwest from Kamiri, smashed an enemy counterattack. The Japanese airfields were poor, but Army engineers, aided by the Bushmasters, developed a runway and facilities suitable for four-engine bombers, to support further island-hopping by MacArthur. Luzon Campaign The 158th's greatest campaign still lay ahead. At midnight on January 10, 1945, the 158th RCT, now commanded by Brig. Gen. Hanford "Jack" MacNider and attached to Maj. Gen. Leonard F. Wing's 43rd Division, entered Lingayen Gulf and landed on the Philippine island of Luzon. Among the first dangers the Bushmasters encountered was a 320mm howitzer with a 16-foot barrel that the Japanese had mounted on railroad tracks, firing on the beachhead from a dug-in position between the towns of Damortis and Rosario. The big gun was so well camouflaged that aircraft could not find it. The 158th pushed inland to take Routes 3 and 11 near the DamortisRosario road. At 3:15 p.m. on January 12, an American patrol entered the town of Damortis and captured four enemy fieldpieces and 150 tons of ammunition. Unknown to the Bushmasters, however, they were only six miles from the headquarters of Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yama****a, commander of the Japanese Fourteenth Area Army. As the Bushmasters advanced through a narrow defile, they came under a massive artillery barrage that littered the road with casualties in a matter of minutes. Thereafter, that day was known to the Bushmasters as "Bloody Sunday," and the nearby town was known as "Rigor Damortis." As fighting continued, another noteworthy Bushmaster exploit took place at Cataguintingan. There, Company G, led by Captain Bayard W. Hart, a Cherokee Indian, found the camouflaged lair of the giant howitzer that had been shelling the Lingayen beachhead. The gun was duly captured and 164 of its defenders killed for the loss of only one Bushmaster wounded. Company G was issued a Presidential Unit Citation for that feat. Despite stubborn resistance from Yama****a's troops, the 158th, with the assistance of 29 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers of Marine squadron VMSB-241, finally secured its objectives. The commander of the 158th, General MacNider, later wrote of their efforts: "To be able to say in years to come that you fought along the Damortis Rosario Line with the 158th Regimental Combat Team will give you a proud and well-earned distinction." Opening the Batangas March 12 found the Bushmasters and part of the 11th Airborne Division involved in fierce fighting on the Batangas Peninsula that helped open Balayan Bay and Batangas Bay to American shipping. The 158th lost 45 men securing the peninsula, but the Japanese lost 781. April 1, 1945, was marked by two more D-days, as U.S. Marines landed on Okinawa and the 158th RCT invaded the Bicol Peninsula on southern Luzon. Despite sniper fire, the Bushmasters advanced 500 miles inland before they encountered their first roadblock. Twenty minutes after coming ashore, the troops reported that the beachhead was secure, and General MacNider came ashore to take charge. Legaspi fell to the Bushmasters on that same day. The heaviest fighting took place farther inland on April 3, but after a series of sharp engagements, Japanese opposition collapsed, and mopping up operations were quickly completed after April 4. When it was finally withdrawn from Luzon, the 158th's casualties totaled 226 killed, 1,046 wounded and 20 missing. The 158th RCT was scheduled to spearhead the invasion of the Japanese home islands, but the atomic bomb strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki compelled the Japanese to surrender on August 14, 1945. With the great odyssey over, the 158th was deactivated at Utsunomiya, Japan, on January 17, 1946." Joe Patrick writes from Tombstone, Ariz. For further reading, try Bushmasters: America's Jungle Warriors, by Anthony Arthur.