The Pacific: General Beightler and the Buckeye Division

The Pacific: General Beightler and the Buckeye Division

Recently the HBO Network aired the multi part series The Pacific, about World War II Marine combat in the Pacific Theater of Operations.  It has been compared to the series Band of Brothers about the US Airborne forces in Europe during World War II.  Both were based on specific historical units and the real soldiers and Marines of those units.  This has brought new interest and insight to American forces and especially Marine combat operations in the Pacific during World War II. But to be fair the Marines were not the only American forces fighting in the Pacific during World War II.  Ohio had its own National Guard division, the 37th Infantry Division, the Buckeye division, fighting in the same Pacific theater of operations.  Major General Robert Beightler commanded the 37th from its call up in 1940 till its final combat operations in the Philippines in 1945.

H 84348. Guidon of the 37th Division Transportation, 37th Infantry Division from the collections of the Ohio Historical Society.

It should not be forgotten that the 37th Tank Company from Port Clinton was sent to the Philippine Islands before the war started and fought as part of the 192nd Tank Battalion in the battles from December 1941 to April 1942. They were stationed at Fort Stotsenburg and fought the first tank battle fought by the United States Army.  They were forced to surrender with the American and Philippine forces and endured the Bataan Death March. The article that follows originally appeared in the Ohio Historical Society publication, Preview, in 1996. The history of the Thirty-seventh Ohio National Guard Infantry Division dates from July 17, 1918, when the unit received its official authorization and designation from the Federal government several months after America’s entry into World War I.  The story of the division during World War II begins in 1940, shortly after Adolf Hilter’s conquest of Western Europe in the spring and summer of that year.  President Roosevelt and Congress decided it was time to organize (and reorganize) America’s national defense establishment, which at the time was in a sorry state of repair.  On September 26, 1940, Ohio Governor John W. Bricker received a telegram from the secretary of war ordering the Thirty-seventh into Federal service effective October 15, 1940.  The Thirty-seventh first received the name “Buckeye Division” because its constituent battalions and regiments were Ohio National Guard units.

Major General Robert Sprague Beightler (1892-1978), one of the preeminent divisional commanders of World War II, joined the National Guard in 1911, enlisting as a private in Company E, Fourth Ohio Infantry. He served under Black Jack Pershing in the Pancho Villa campaign and later fought in France during World War I. In the 1920s and 1930s Beightler, who had trained as an engineer, worked in a variety of capacities for the Ohio Department of Highways and the United States War Department. And in 1940, with war looming just over the horizon and at the behest of the governor of Ohio, he asumed command of the 37th Infantry Division.  From the Beightler Collection at the Ohio Historical Society.

The first Buckeye Division troops left Ohio for Camp Shelby, Mississippi, on October 16, 1940, and the rest of the Thirty-seventh followed a few days later.  On arrival the troops had to build much of the camp themselves before they could even begin training exercises.  About nine thousand soldiers went to Camp Shelby from Ohio, and in the succeeding months they were joined by ten thousand selectees sent from the state to bring the division to full strength.  Intense training and maneuvers followed throughout much of 1941. In December 1941 after the United States entered the war, the Buckeye Division stood by for transport to the Philippine Islands.  But it became apparent that the Philippines could not be defended, much less reinforced; and the Thirty-seventh was send to Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, where it soon received orders for the South Pacific, setting sail from San Francisco on May 26, 1942, bound for New Zealand and the Fiji Islands.  On board four ships were the bulk of the division’s chief combat units – the 145th and 148th Infantry regiments and the 135th, 136th, and 140th Field Artillery battalions.  Major General Robert S. Beightler, a Marysville, Ohio, native and a descendant of naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry, led the men of the Buckeye Division.

A brave soldier. General Beightler presenting the Silver Star to a GI of the 37th. More than nine hundred Buckeye Division troops one this military decoration, awarded for gallantry in action. Seven won the Medal of Honor.  From the Beightler Collection at the Ohio Historical Society.

The Thirty-seventh trained on Fiji and several other South Pacific islands until July 1943, when the Buckeye troops saw their first action during combat operations on New Georgia in the Solomon Islands.  The Thirty-seventh went into the line to relieve the Forty-third Infantry Division, which was about to disintegrate as an effective force, and then proceeded to pummel the Japanese army until the middle of August, a running battle that cost the division 206 killed and 928 wounded.  Although its casualties were high, the Buckeye Division’s long period of training (as well as Beightler’s policy of expending materiel rather than men) had paid off during the dense jungle fighting on New Georgia – as they would in later campaigns.

J Haas

Stay Tuned for more information about the Buckeye Division and Ohio in the Pacific Theatre.

The second half of this article will be posted Wednesday, May 19, 2010.


Posted May 17, 2010

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