AUSTIN, TX, UNITED STATES
Story by Spc. Christina Clardy
36th Infantry Division (TXARNG)
AUSTIN, Texas – The 36th Infantry Division commemorates the 100th anniversary of entering World War I and the 75th anniversary of entering World War II in 2018, by remembering the unit’s history, honoring its service members and paying tribute to its fallen heroes. Members of the Texas Military Forces Museum’s Living History Detachment honored those historical Soldiers by reenacting a World War II battle during the Texas Military Department Open House, Apr. 21-22, 2018 at Camp Mabry in Austin.
“History is about people – the sacrifices that people have made,” said Gill Eastland, a history enthusiast and re-enactor with the Texas Military Forces Museum’s Living History Detachment. “Without those people, without their lives and deaths, we would not have our history. They deserve to be honored and remembered for that.”
The 36th Division was created by the U.S. War Department in Washington D.C., July 18, 1917, with the publication of General Order Number 95. Eight days later, men from the Texas and Oklahoma National Guards began to muster at Camp Bowie in Fort Worth, for federal military service. Thus, the “Texas Division” was born.
World War I
After initial and extensive training, the division boarded ships and trekked across the Atlantic Ocean to join the fight against the Central Powers in Europe. The division consisted of two infantry brigades with two infantry regiments each, an artillery brigade with four regiments and four specialized support regiments.
“The U.S. entered World War I in April 1917,” said Eastland. “But the war in Europe had already gone on for two years at that point.”
Jumping into the war mid-fight, the division endured 24 days of combat during the Meuse-Argonne offensive as part of the French 4th Army in the north east of France. This offensive was part of the final Allied offensive push of World War I and was later recognized as the largest American campaign of the war with more than 1.2 million American soldiers.
“For the European Armies, most of the war was fought in trenches,” said Eastland. “But most of the American troops spent more time fighting across open ground trying to overtake different enemy positions.”
Eastland continued, “And although our experiences weren’t the same in length of time or location as say the French or British, we suffered a tremendous amount of casualties such as frontal assaults against machine guns and artillery fire both incoming and outgoing.”
After fighting through the Argonne Forest, the “Texas Division” with the French 4th Army, operating on the left flank of the U.S. 1st Army, engaged German forces in heavy combat near the village of St. Etienne on Oct. 9-10, 1918. Several hundred German soldiers and officers were captured, including their artillery resources.
Upon discovering that the Germans were tapping their telephone communications, the solution from 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 71st Infantry Brigade, was to use one of the more than 26 Native American languages known by Soldiers within the unit to encode Allied communications and disperse the code talkers throughout units along the Aisne River. With the Germans unable to decode their communications, the 36th and their French counterparts made significant advances on the Western Front, putting much needed pressure on the German Forces.
On Nov. 11, 1918, an armistice was signed and “The Great War” came to an end.
“As a percentage of troops engaged, World War I was more deadly than World War II for the U.S. military,” said Jeff Hunt, director of the Texas Military Forces Museum and commander of the museum’s Living History Detachment. “We lost more people more quickly in a smaller physical space in World War I than we did in the Second World War.”
After the war, the division returned home to Texas where it was demobilized and became an all Texas National Guard unit. The division suffered more than 2,500 casualties in World War I, including 466 killed in action. Two of its members earned the nation’s highest award for valor in combat, the Medal of Honor.
“This year, 2018, is the [36th Division’s] 100th anniversary for [entering] World War I,” said Eastland, who is a re-enactor for both World War I and World War II. “World War I was called ‘The Great War’ and those who fought in it, those who sacrificed in it and those that gave their lives in it deserve our remembrance and our respect.”
World War II
Nearly 25 years later, as the U.S. prepared for the possibility of joining the Allied Forces in World War II, the “Fighting 36th” was again mobilized into federal military service. The division spent the next two years undergoing rigorous training at the new Camp Bowie near Brownwood, Texas, at Camp Blanding, Florida, and at Camp Edwards, Massachusetts, to include the newly formed Ranger training provided by British Commandos.
“The men that went to war with the 36th Division in World War II mobilized Nov. 19, 1940 and didn’t come home until late 1945,” said Hunt. “There were no tours of duty; you were in for the duration. You came home when one of three things happened: you won the war and the Army was done with you, you were so badly wounded or crippled that the Army could not fix you and keep you in the ranks or you were killed.”
In the fall of 1941, the 2nd Battalion of the 131st Field Artillery became the first American unit to fight on foreign soil in World War II after it was detached from the division and sent to the Pacific Theater. At the fall of Java in the Indonesian Islands, the service members of this unit became prisoners of the Japanese. Their fate was unknown for the rest of the war and the unit became known as “The Lost Battalion.” Many of those captured worked on the Burma Railway or were detained in prisoner of war camps for the next three and a half years.
The rest of the division landed in North Africa in the spring of 1943, and continued training in preparation to enter combat in Europe. In September 1943, a massive invasion, codenamed Operation Avalanche, combined the U.S.’s 36th and 45th Infantry Divisions, and Britain’s X Corps as they kicked off the Allied Forces’ Italian campaign.
More than 450 U.S. and British warships, transports, support vessels and landing craft cruised into the Gulf of Salerno off the eastern coast of Italy in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 9th. The transports carried 100,000 British Commonwealth troops, 69,000 American Soldiers, and 20,000 vehicles of various types. The 36th made an amphibious assault landing at Salerno, Italy, making it the first U.S. division to land on the European continent in World War II.
The division encountered heavy German opposition pushing north through Altavilla, Naples, San Pietro and Cassino. The division took heavy losses attempting to breach the Rapido River, Jan. 20-22, but was harshly repelled by the German 15th Panzer Grenadier Division. In those 48 hours the 36th Division sustained 1,681 casualties out of the 6,000 men who took part: 143 were killed, 663 were wounded, and 875 were missing.
“Typically [the casualty rate] was 1500 to 2500 casualties a month killed in direct enemy combat during World War II,” said Hunt. “But there were some engagements that had particularly high casualty rates.”
In May 1944, the 36th, nicknamed the “Texas Army,” moved to the Anzio beachhead to reinforce Allied troops there during Operation Diadiem. After weeks of fighting and pushing to cross the German Winter Line, the 36th led a breakout that resulted in the capture of Rome, June 4th.
After the 36th had been fighting nine months in the Italian Campaign, Allied Forces conducted Operation Overlord, also known as “D-Day,” into Normandy in northern France. Soon after, the “Arrowhead Division” moved up into Southern France for Operation Dragoon. The 36th then moved up through the Rhone River valley, putting pressure on the southern German lines.
The 36th then moved quickly across France to the foothills of the Vosges Mountains and began a harsh winter campaign to take control of the mountain passes. After several months, the vital mountain passes were under Allied control and purged of German blockades.
The Germans launched a counteroffensive attack in December 1944, but were repelled by the “Fighting 36th” in Alsace, France. It was during this time that the division encountered some of the fiercest artillery combat of the war. The “Texas Army” resumed their push across France to the Rhine River valley, encountering heavy German resistance at Hauenau, Oberhofen and Wissembourg. In March 1945, the division assisted in breaching the Siegfried Line and entered Germany. There they liberated the Dachau and Landsburg Concentration Camps, April 1945.
On May 8th, also known as Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day), the division captured the commander of All German Forces on the Western Front, General Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, while based in Kitzbühel, Austria.
In more than 400 days of combat, the division suffered nearly 19,500 casualties with 3,131 Soldiers killed in action. The unit returned home in December 1945 and continued service back in the Texas Army National Guard.
The 36th secured a reputation for great bravery and valor. Seventeen members of the 36th Infantry Division received the Medal of Honor during World War II, which cemented a legacy that is still significant today at home and in Europe.
“The thing that is always most impressive is that combat veterans, in both World War I and World War II, will tell you that they aren’t heroes,” said Hunt. “They will tell you that the heroes are the ones that didn’t come home. The heroes are the ones who are still there or in our National Cemeteries sleeping beneath the white stone crosses and stars of David.
“They didn’t want to go to war,” continued Hunt. “They didn’t want to be there. They would have rather have been home going about their lives. But their country needed them so when their country called, they stepped up. They did the job and they paid the price. For those that died and for those that lived, they will all always be true heroes.”
The Texas Military Department, in conjunction with the American Heroes Air Show, presented its annual public Open House and Air Show on Camp Mabry in Austin, April 21-22. During the event, the Texas Military Department showcased its civilian and first responder partnerships with operations demonstrations, air-to-ground missions, and historic reenactments including the Texas Military Forces Museum’s Living History Detachment, which gave an adapted re-enactment of the 36th Infantry Division’s December 1944 St. Marie pass engagement in Southern France.