It is disappointing that the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II – a major milestone marking the conclusion of humankind’s most titanic conflict – went largely unnoticed amidst the unrelenting dread of 2020. Perhaps this year, we can pay adequate tribute to the war’s end – particularly given that so many WWII veterans are leaving us. In any case, the importance of these anniversaries remains: they are an immovable point on the calendar that essentially forces society to pause and reflect, to remember what happened, to consider the cost, to appreciate the sacrifice, and to learn at least some small part of the history.
This includes the history of America’s National Guard in the Second World War.
It’s unfortunate that the contributions of the Guard and its experience in WWII have gone relatively uncelebrated. The reasons for this are many – the most prominent being that the National Guard’s history in the war has been simply subsumed by that of the U.S. Army. To some, delineating the service of the National Guard from the U.S. Army may be a distinction without a difference, a tidbit of military esoterica that is inconsequential in the final grand scheme. After all, the National Guard is a reserve component of the U.S. Army and – since 1947 – the U.S. Air Force.
But the National Guard in WWII was invaluable, particularly when considering the traditional American model of the citizen-soldier and the nation's pre-war attitude regarding standing armies.
To start, from the standpoint of organization, the National Guard was vital in helping America establish a wartime footing. The activation of the National Guard throughout 1940 and 1941 was instrumental in transitioning the U.S. Army from an antiquated and undermanned service – that essentially marked time in isolationist America – into a highly lethal, modern, tough and efficient combat force. In essence, the nation responded to its constitutional intent to “raise an Army” at the inception of WWII by mobilizing the Guard. In late 1940, General Jacob Devers, who would eventually go on to command 6th Army Group in Europe, clearly summed up the importance of the National Guard in building the U.S. Army, "The 300,000 National Guardsmen doubled our military strength." The lesson from WWII only underpins the value and need for healthy reserve forces today – forces that are able to quickly and cost-efficiently surge to address a national defense imperative.
The ability of the War Department to “man, train and equip” the services at the beginning of the war would have been significantly hindered, with even deeper readiness gaps, without the National Guard to provide substantial ranks of patriotic personnel to augment the regular U.S. Army. At the same time, the activation of the National Guard – President Roosevelt called the entire National Guard into active status shortly after the German invasion of Poland in 1939 – sent a strategic signal that reassured our allies in a time of crisis.
Once the shooting started, National Guard units and soldiers served their country with unquestioned valor, courage and commitment. Guard units earned their battle stripes in every combat theater – from the torrid tropics of the Pacific to the grinding deserts of North Africa, to the charnel sands of Normandy, to the bitter frozen Bulge. Some of World War II’s most infamously bloody battles were fought, at least partly by elements of the National Guard – from Sicily and Anzio to the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.
In fact, the first U.S. Army forces to execute offensive combat operations in the war were National Guard units – and they fought with great distinction. The 164th Infantry Regiment from North Dakota – which was one of several Guard units that formed the core of the newly established “Americal Division” of the U.S. Army – saw combat on Guadalcanal in early 1942. The 164th, along with the 132nd Infantry Division from Illinois, both arrived in Guadalcanal in early October of 1942, engaging the enemy well before any other U.S. Army unit in any theater of the war.
On D-Day, the 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division – a unit composed of Guardsmen from several states, including Virginia and Maryland – was in the first wave of allied troops that hit Omaha Beach. The 116th, after missing its landing zones and losing most of its tank support, faced the blistering German fire that raked the shore as waves of Americans struggled to gain a foothold. Company A of the 116th – all from Bedford, Virginia – lost nineteen men on the morning of June 6th, a particularly painful tragedy in a day of suffering that devastated their hometown. Another soldier from Bedford also died at Omaha Beach, raising Bedford’s sacrifice at Normandy to twenty. Today, Bedford is the site of the National D-Day Memorial.
The National Guard had other notable claims as well. For example, the first enemy prisoner of war detained by U.S forces – a commander of one of Japan’s “midget submarines” that had infiltrated Oahu during the attack – was captured by a Hawaii National Guard soldier from the 298th Infantry on December 8th.
And, the National Guard was one of the only components representing the U.S. Army in the Battle of Iwo Jima. The 147th Regiment from Ohio – a unit that had curiously operated on “independent” status throughout the Pacific due to bureaucratic shuffling – dueled alongside the Marines in grueling and terrible combat against fanatic and entrenched Japanese. The 147th also participated in operations on Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa.
World War II wasn’t the first time that the U.S. mobilized its National Guard forces to rapidly build an army to fight abroad. As America prepared for The Great War, 27 Guard units from across the nation came together to become the 42nd Infantry Division – known as the “Rainbow Division” – a famous unit with a distinguished record of service that carries on today.
And of course, World War II certainly wasn’t the last time that the Guard would be activated to fight the nation’s wars, either – the National Guard has honorably carried America’s battle flag in Korea, Vietnam, in Desert Storm, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. This year, the Guard has supported comprehensive public health efforts, executed multiple natural disaster responses, and helped mitigate widespread civil unrest. At the height of mobilization in June, roughly 90,000 Guardsmen and women were deployed across the country, representing an all-time record for Guard personnel on orders to support domestic operations. Additionally, National Guard troops also continue to serve under active duty Title 10 authority in support of combat operations overseas. The U.S. may be executing a continuing phased drawdown of forces in Afghanistan – but the National Guard is still there, armed and in harm's way.
But it was in World War II, the idea of America’s citizen-soldier was most prominently, consistently, and widely put into practice. And the National Guard truly embodied this concept, with ranks filled by hometown boys – such as those from Bedford, Virginia – who raised their hands and mustered in.
The history of the National Guard in the Second World War is interesting, inspirational, and important – all at once. And the individual stories of compassion, grit and bravery under fire would fill tomes. Over the course of the war, the Guard sustained tens of thousands of casualties, and Guardsmen were decorated with scores of commendations for their service and sacrifice, including hundreds of Silver Stars and multiple Medals of Honor. In total, no less than eighteen different National Guard infantry divisions participated in the Second World War.
Activating the National Guard to perform combat operations in theaters abroad is sometimes fraught with political controversy – particularly to fight in wars that do not engender great support from the citizenry. But regardless of conflict – whether a just and noble cause like WWII or an unpopular war like Vietnam – once the call to arms is made, Guardsmen and women do their duty for cause and country.
This is the history of our National Guard in war.
Connor Martin is a US Marine veteran and policy analyst in Washington DC.