When World War II came to the United States the 41st Infantry Division (41ID) would play a crucial role in the Pacific Theater. The 41st Division served overseas longer than any other division (45 months) and was one of the first units to be sent overseas. The 41st Division fought in more campaigns than any other division and killed or captured more Japanese than any other infantry division in the entire war (McCartney 1948). On December 31, 1945, at midnight, the 41st Infantry Division was deactivated in Kure-Hiro Japan (McCartney 1948). The 41st Infantry Division fought in New Guinea and the Southern Philippines (Westerfield 1992). Lessons learned by the 41ID were incorporated and sent throughout the army, especially about training, and the employment of new tactics such as amphibious landings- the most difficult of all military deployment strategies- lessons that were later put to use in the both Pacific and Europe.
A nickname for the 41ID gained during World War II was “The Jungleers.” They earned it after the 163rd Regimental Combat Team, one of three Regimental Combat Teams assigned to the division, fought for seventy-six continuous days in combat against the Japanese at Salamaua. The overlooked battles of the 41ID are important because it is where the American Army blunted the Japanese advance in the Pacific. Although not much is known or has written about the 41ID, it accomplished amazing deeds in its almost four years of combat. The brave men who fought in the division accumulated an incredible record of achievements. There is a significant legacy here.
The campaigns of the Central Pacific carried out by the Navy and the Marines are forever etched in the national memory with the names of battles like Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Peleliu being synonymous with Marine courage and tenacity. The Army’s considerable role in the defeat of Japan was shadowy, almost anonymous – a real irony, because the Army did the majority of the ground fighting in the war against Japan (Catanzaro 2002).
The 41ID’s combat in the Pacific is the story of fighting two kinds of war. One is a war of attrition across the harsh landscape of the islands of New Guinea and the Philippines. The other is a war of classic maneuver, with General MacArthur using the ocean as a highway to bypass Japanese strong points and seize beachheads to attack inland as he and his army steadily made their way to the Philippines and finally to Japan. This portion of the Pacific Theater is less well known, but it is just as important. The remorseless Allied advance across the Southwest Pacific forced the Japanese to divert precious material like planes, ships, and men who might otherwise have reinforced their crumbling Central Pacific front (McManus 2008).
The campaigns of the 41ID are an important part of history. One example is the battle of Buna, New Guinea, fought from July to December 1942. It was the Allies’ first major land victory over the Japanese in World War II. The battle began in mid-summer 1942 but for many months had little coverage in the American press. Guadalcanal received the headlines during this same period. Not until late in 1942 did Americans become fully aware of the bitterness of the struggle for Buna, summed up in Time magazine on December 28, 1942, “Nowhere in the world today are American soldiers engaged in fighting so desperate, so merciless, so bitter, or so bloody,” (Campbell 2007). This would be a description that could be used to describe the division’s march across the Pacific in their war of attrition with the Japanese. How did the 41st Infantry Division, a National Guard Division, contribute to the success of the Southwest Pacific Campaign of World War II? This question can be answered by looking at the 41ID’s campaigns and how they applied the lessons from these battles as a learning organization.
At the tactical level, the U.S. Army in the Southwest Pacific Zone (SWPZ) part of the Pacific Theater engaged an experienced and determined enemy, who at the start of the New Guinea campaign had not been defeated in over a decade of continuous conquest. The 41ID improved dramatically in almost four years of active operations against an experienced and fanatical enemy. How the 41ID fought, learned and evolved is the subject of this book. This is a topic that is largely unexplored, especially in contrast to the American Army in the European Theater of Operations (ETO).
Most history books that talk about the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) focus on broad themes of the war against Japan. The same books tend to address the importance of naval and air superiority in the Pacific and other factors that shaped strategy in the PTO. The Army fought a very different war, a war in which they encountered a severe introduction to jungle warfare against an experienced enemy. In one example, The Army Field Service regulations specified, “All troops must be thoroughly acclimated before initiating operations.” The men of the 32nd Infantry Division (32ID), a National Guard unit that was to the first unit to fight in New Guinea, was not ready for the jungle. New to jungle warfare, the division lacked even the basics for survival, prompting one military historian to label the soldiers of the 32nd the “guinea pigs” of the South Pacific. The troops of the 32nd Division weren’t issued any of the specialized clothing that later became de rigueur for the war in the South Pacific. For camouflage, their combat fatigues were hastily dyed before they left Australia. In the rain and extreme humidity, the dye ran and clogged the cloth, causing men to develop horrible skin ulcers (Campbell 2007). The men of in the 41ID heard these stories in Australia as they were preparing to deploy to New Guinea and made changes in their issuing of the proper equipment and uniforms. This small example of learning and adapting would become a trait of the 41ID.
The men of the 41ID at the operational level learned how to make the most American material advantage and seized the initiative by keeping the enemy off balance with a series of audacious amphibious landings and a new strategy. The new strategy was built around the very instrument of warfare that the Japanese used to declare war on the United States – the aircraft carrier. The strategy involved “hitting them where they ain’t,” (Johnston 1943). Rather than attacking the fortified Japanese on every island, the Allied forces would pass them while advancing on the Japanese Empire.
This led to Japanese commanders adapting as well with new defensive techniques along with the determination of their soldiers so when they engaged Allied forces, it negated much of the effect of the overwhelming Allied firepower. In time, Allied units, with the majority of the soldiers being American, had to close with the enemy using infantry small-arms along with tanks and demolitions to destroy a tenacious foe. The 41ID did this by improving on lessons learned in previous battles and incorporating them in their techniques and training plans in between campaigns. This would save the lives of thousands of American soldiers as the 41ID would become better at applying new tactics and weapons against the Japanese.
There is a gap in the literature of the historiography of the operations of the U.S. Army in the SWPZ. Most of the great works of World War II talk about strategic issues and the joint nature of warfare but give little detail of how the Allied forces were in a constant state of learning and how ground units trained, improved and fought the enemy more effectively as the war dragged on. Other histories give a proper accounting of combat conditions but offer almost no examination of how U.S. Infantry Divisions took advantage of the significant resources that the U.S. had in men and material at the tactical level and how the American Army in the SWPZ assimilated lessons of hard-earned experiences in future battles as the war progressed. Some books used in this study, such as Eichelberger’s History of the Buna Campaign December 1, 1942 – January 25, 1943, are based on official unit records and personal interviews of participants of the battle, including a few 41ID soldiers. The report gives geographical information, a tactical background of both the Allies and the Japanese, and insight to how the military operation was conducted and reports by the general staff.
There is an extensive collection of first person accounts used as secondary sources of literature that give brave accounts of battles by platoons and companies. These include such first person chronicles as “With the 41st Division in the Southwest Pacific” by Francis Bernard Catanzaro, who served as a rifleman in the 41ID, and Paul C. Wilson’s “The Sunset War,” describing Wilson’s service in the division throughout the war. In the book “Touched With Fire” by Eric Bergerud describes the fighting in the South Pacific at the platoon level but ignores the middle levels of command of battalions and regiments. A book that highlights the fighting on New Guinea is Lida Mayo’s “Bloody Buna,” which provides detailed viewpoint of a specific battle but does not talk about how lessons were learned from the battle in later combat. Along with this learning process, there was a method of disseminating lessons as they were learned. None of these works talk about how leaders compiled teachings in hard-won knowledge and how this knowledge was used to develop new training programs to win future battles and overcome considerable challenges.
This book adopts as a model The GI Offensive in Europe: “The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-1945” by Peter Mansoor, which evaluates the U.S. Army combat performance in the march across Western Europe in 1944 and 1945. There is a theory that the Allied victory in World War II resulted from the overwhelming weight of American resources in men and material. Mansoor gives recognition to the American infantryman who fought against a capable and resolute enemy. By examining how the basic army fighting unit was recruited, trained, organized, commanded, and deployed throughout the long three years that America fought in Europe and by analyzing the purpose of the American infantry in action, it can be described how the military worked to man its expanding army despite an inadequacy of means and an abundance of operations competing for them (Mansoor 1999).
Mansoor talks about the how the Army developed new techniques and tactics as it fought through Western Europe. In Europe and the Pacific, the GIs faced an unwavering enemy who tested their abilities in various and gritty conditions. By taking a more concentrated approach than Mansoor and looking at the 41ID rather than an entire Army (several divisions) of several million soldiers this book will look at the 41ID’s time at war. I’ll start from its mobilization stateside, through its training at Fort Lewis, Washington and Camp Hunter Liggett, California through its years in combat in the SWPZ to its final act in the occupation of Japan where the division was deactivated.
Focusing on one organization shows the measure of which Army Forces operating in SWPZ were driven to adapt and learn. How – and in what situations – did the 41ID learn? How did the 41ID incorporate its lessons as it fought other campaigns? By looking at the performance of the 41ID, we can examine how the division met a broad range of tests over time and while at war. This thesis explores the process of learning by the 41ID. Through a study of its historical combat record, we can see the division’s ability to learn, to become determined and to strengthen its chances of success by applying what it learned to become a more effective combat unit. American military leaders were rationally and intellectually prepared to understand and react to the lessons of the war as the conflict progressed.
Doctrine changed the 41ID as an organization, and the division was capable of absorbing and acting on new information as it arrived fresh from the field. In the case of the 41ID, the use of combined arms warfare in the arrangement of organic artillery and naval bombardments to subdue the enemy as it advanced. In the use of tanks, anti-tank weapons and infantry weapons to confront the enemy directly, we begin to see the marriage of war machines matched with the ingenuity of the American GI to overcome the Japanese through organizational learning.
The methodology used in this capstone looks at an organization (the 41ID) and its performance in battle. Using organizational learning, the 41ID was able to identify problems and come up with solutions. These lessons were captured, absorbed and used and in each campaign, the 41ID undertook, the division became more efficient and better. The 41ID altered its training regimes after each campaign with the veterans of the last campaign teaching new recruits what they learned. Part of this learning is organizational, and another part is cultural. The degree of flexibility to learn was not found in the Japanese Army as it was in the American Army.
The experience of the 41ID in the SWPZ is more than an exciting tale of a decorated division in World War II. Most importantly, this book tracks the evolution of a military organization as it trained, fought, and learned lessons in blood that allowed it to adapt to save the lives of the unit’s men while destroying the enemy as it marched across the Pacific.