There’s this thing in the Army where the Active Component is always looking down its nose at the Reserve Component, specifically the National Guard. Why? Because the National Guard is part-time, of course, “weekend warriors” and all that. But also because the Active Component has some real fears that it can never actually live up to the incredible history that the National Guard has and is suffering from a rather embarrassing inferiority complex.
You’re probably at this point saying, “ASO, you’re off your rocker on this one, the National Guard has never saved anything other than discount beer.”
Let’s go back and take a look, shall we?
Okay, so it’s 1744, and New England has suffered attacks and raids from the French forces from what now is Canada for over fifty years. The central base of the French is Louisbourg, a massive walled fortification on Cape Breton that provided a good defense to the inner harbors of New France and was strong enough that it could not be attacked from the sea. Now there had already been multiple colonial wars between England in France that had spilled over into their colonies. In these wars, British and French Regulars fought each other, augmented by their provincial forces and Native American allies. It was sort of an article of faith for the English that the colonial militias could not mount a sustained campaign by themselves; they were only considered effective if paired with Regulars.
New England was pretty ticked off about the constant raids from New France and the lack of support from the Crown to do anything about it. So Massachusetts Governor William Shirley decided to take care of things himself. He talks with his neighboring colonies and everyone agrees to pitch in: Massachusetts provides the bulk of the expedition, with about 3,200 militia from Massachusetts and Maine, while Connecticut and New Hampshire pitch in about 500 militia each. The other colonies provide cannons or funds and hey presto! There’s a suddenly a militia expeditionary force of over 4,200, commanded by Sir William Pepperell from Kittery, Maine, heading out on board their very own militia fleet of 90 ships in March of 1745.
They reach New Breton in May of 1745 and conduct a link-up with a Royal Navy force. Then they conduct an amphibious landing on May 11, covered by light infantry from Gorham’s Rangers. After some skirmishing with French defenders, the main force is able to land over 2,000 troops on the landward side behind the fort. The French retreat inside the fortress and the siege begins. Now, sieges are things that are supposed to be done by professional armies, not by untrained provincials. And yet, the tough New Englanders kept building batteries, constructing saps, and generally doing the whole siege thing wicked well. After several attempts by the French to force the militia off the point, they surrender their fortress on June 28 when they realize that there is no longer any hope of reinforcing it.
New England went nuts with celebration while London and Paris couldn’t believe their collective ears that an untrained militia force had conducted an amphibious assault, siege, and reduction of a proper European fortress. However, the rejoicing was short-lived, because in 1748 England traded Louisbourg back to the French in exchange for the Indian city of Madras that the French had captured. Figures.
The Formation of the Continental Army
Alright, we all know that the militia kicked off this whole American Revolution thing in 1775 with the running battles of Lexington and Concord. And then we all know how the militia – those undisciplined yokels – completely wrecked the British at Bunker Hill. But the thing is, they were far from undisciplined yokels. Because of the Colonial Wars, many of the militia regiments across New England had more combat experience than the British Regulars that they were facing.
Not only that, New England had united by April 23, 1775 to field what was called the New England Army. Nearly 20,000 soldiers had assembled around Boston to form this force. The fundamental basis for this force was from the longstanding militia regiments. In the New England tradition, each county was responsible for providing a regiment. During the chaotic early days of the revolution, a portion of each regiment was retained at home for local defense while the rest of it was sent off to the main Army outside Boston. So when George Washington arrived, he found that the basics needed for the creation of a Continental Army were right in front of him.
On June 14, 1775, the Continental Congress voted to create a Continental Army, authorizing colonies outside New England to raise ten companies of riflemen – partially a ploy to get the Middle Atlantic colonies to start committing troops. At the same time, it basically made all the colonial organizations then at Boston part of the Continental Army. Essentially federalizing the militia – not for the first or last time, either. Congress appointed generals for the new Continental Army, and the majority were drawn from the militia.
Now, it would take time to grow a professional standing force – not until 1777-1778 could you say that the Continental Army was more than a part-time force, since enlistments kept running out, occasional desertion (run home, plants crops, return to the Army, run home, harvest crops, return to the Army) was rampant, and the Continental Congress was having a hard time actually paying anyone. But the seeds were there, and because of the pre-war militia system, we were able to actually field an army.
Little Round Top
Fast forward to 1863, when this whole American experiment is in trouble. Two armies clash at Gettysburg in July, and on the second day of the month, the battle hangs in the balance as Confederate assaults threaten to overwhelm the blue lines in the Pennsylvania hills and woods. Two Confederate regiments from Alabama are able to push around the left flank of the U.S. Army and strike right at the exposed left flank, where one single regiment stands in their way: the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
Now, the 20th was not a militia organization. It was composed of volunteers from around Maine. It brought 386 men to the fight that hot afternoon on Little Round Top. But 120 of those men were new to the regiment, but not new to the military. They had come from the 2nd Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which had been inactivated in 1863 because the majority of the men had signed two-year enlistments. Save for these 120 men, who had signed for three years, and now found themselves in this new outfit.
While the 20th was not a militia organization, the 2nd most definitely was. It was formed out of the existing volunteer militia companies from Bangor, Maine and the towns outside of it. It was the first regiment from the state to see combat, taking part in the Battle of Bull Run in 1861 where it was one of the few U.S. units not to hightail it back to D.C.
During the fighting on Little Round Top, the extra 120 rifles in the ranks tipped the scales in favor of the bluecoats, allowing them to keep fighting even after taking 125 casualties. Without the additional firepower, it is unlikely that the 20th could have held on as long as it did. The 2nd also brought an unlikely asset with them: seafarer-turned-soldier, Sergeant Andrew Tozier. As a sign of his trust in these additions to the regiment, the 20th’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Joshua “Bayonets” Chamberlain made Tozier the regimental color bearer. At one point in the fighting on Little Round Top, Chamberlain recalled looking through the smoke and seeing Tozier standing alone – the color guard shot away – with the colors in the crook of his arm, loading and firing his rifle. The regiment reformed on the colors and – bereft of ammunition – attacked with the bayonet, driving the confused Alabamans down the hill. Tozier would later receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery. The National Guard had come in at just the right time once again.
World War I
When the U.S. entered World War I, the Regular Army numbered around 130,000 men. In military power, the U.S. ranked somewhere around 35th in the world. Suffice it to say, we were not ready to enter the most lethal war in human history to that point. What the U.S. did have, however, was a very strong National Guard, which fielded 17 divisions that would eventually go to France (as opposed to the seven Regular infantry divisions that took part in combat operations). And since many of the Regular units were made up of mostly new recruits, the Guard could actually boast more veteran soldiers in their ranks, who had either come off active duty to join the Guard, had participated in the Mexican Border call-up of 1916, or were veterans of the fighting in the Philippines at the early part of the 20th century.
Out of the first four divisions in France, two were National Guard – with the Guard’s 26th Division from New England being the first full U.S. division in France. While the 1st U.S. Division was the first to see combat in the late fall of 1917, the 26th Division was not far behind in February of 1918. The 42nd Division (from twenty-six states) would quickly follow, as would the 32nd Division, from Wisconsin and Michigan, and then the 37th, from Ohio. Without the Guard, the U.S. would not have been able to get enough troops into France to help the allies stabilize their lines after the German Spring Offensives of 1918, and then to counterattack. It was the Guard that enabled the U.S. to be able to hold the line long enough for the divisions formed of selective service draftees to enter the mix and begin the great push to end the war in the fall of 1918.
Throughout the war, the German general staff would rate eight U.S. divisions as “superior;” six of those were National Guard divisions. ‘Nuff said.
Guard Tanks the First to Fight in WWII
Ever hear of the 192nd Tank Battalion? Probably not. Mainly due to its not existing for very long. But what an existence it had. See, in 1941, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall could tell that Bad Things were in the offing, specifically in the Pacific. So he routed as many of the Army’s available M-3 Stuart Light Tanks as he could to the Pacific. But where to find available units? The National Guard, of course. One unit was the 194th Tank Battalion of the California National Guard, and the other was the 192nd Tank Battalion from, well, from National Guards all over the place. Company A came from Janesville, WI, Company B from Maywood, IL, Company C from Port Clinton, OH, and Company D from Harrodsburg, KY.
The 192nd reached Manila in the Philippines in November of 1941, which just is not a great time to be in the Philippines because Bad Things are about to happen. The Japanese invaded in December, and the 192nd was ordered to counterattack. On December 22, elements from Company B made first contact with the Japanese 4th Tank Regiment, who were equipped with the Type 95 light tank. Both sides were equally matched when it came to armament – having a 37mm main gun – but the M3 was gas powered while the Type 95 was diesel. Predictably, the first U.S. tank that took a direct hit cooked off because of the gas. In the first tank engagement of the U.S. in WWII, the results were inconclusive. The U.S. lost one tank while the remainder took several hits and were able to draw back – until being destroyed by Japanese aircraft later that day, because of course.
The 192nd and 194th would fight on as long as they could, trying to support the beleaguered U.S. infantry units. On April 9, 1942, the U.S. garrison surrendered. The officers and men of the 192nd would spend the rest of the war trying to survive. Most did not. Of the 593 men that arrived in Manila in 1941, 328 would not survive to see the end of the war.
34th Division in North Africa
At the outset of World War II, the 34th “Red Bull” Division (from North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota) was rated as one of the most combat-ready elements of the U.S. Army – unsurprising because Midwesterners just like to fight. When the U.S. entered WWII, the 34th Division was quickly shipped to Ireland in order to help secure Britain from German attack, as part of a previously established war plan. The first elements reached northern Ireland in January of 1942.
While in northern Ireland, the commander of the 34th, Major General Russell Hartle, was tasked with forming a commander unit. He assigned his aide Captain William Darby to head up this new unit, which would eventually become the 1st Ranger Battalion. 281 men from the Red Bulls transferred into this new unit, forming the core of it. That’s right, Big Army, you don’t even get to claim the Rangers as your own; it was a National Guard thing.
The 34th Division formed part of the Eastern Task Force during Operation Torch, landing in Algiers on November 8, 1942. From then on, the division would be on the attack until the end of the war, amassing 517 days of front line combat – second only to the 654 days of the 32nd Division in the Pacific, also a National Guard outfit. Without the ability to rapidly deploy the Guard as part of the initial war plan, the U.S. could not have projected power so quickly into two theaters of war.
29th Infantry Division on D-Day
The amphibious invasion to break open Fortress Europe in 1944 was one of the most ambitious military operations in U.S. history. The toughest objective would be the landing at Omaha Beach. This mission was given to the 1st Infantry Division – veterans of fighting in North Africa – and the Virginia and Maryland National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division.
On June 6, 1944, two regimental combat teams (three battalions of infantry, augmented by engineers, field artillery, and armor) hit Omaha Beach. One was the 16th RCT and the other was the 116th RCT of the Virginia National Guard. As the day wore on, both units struggled to gain a beachhead, suffering horrendous casualties. Alpha Company of the 116th was almost completely wiped out, leaving a gaping hole in the community of Bedford, Virginia, where most of the men were from. For this reason, the decision was made to build the National D-Day Memorial here. Combat engineers from the 121st Engineer Battalion – nominally the D.C. National Guard, but in actuality composed mostly of engineers from the Ohio National Guard that day – worked feverishly to create breaches in the enemy defenses.
By mid-morning, troops from Companies B and F, 116th RCT joined with Ranger elements to gain the heights, and soon small parties of GIs worked their way through the maze of enemy bunkers and defensive positions, knocking them out one by one. By nightfall, the Big Red One and the Blue and Gray Division had punched a hole in the Atlantic Wall – Regulars and Guardsmen, fighting side by side.
Iraq and Afghanistan
So remember that time we did the whole invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the whole Iraq thing in 2003? Well, the invasions went pretty damn well, all things considered. Then came that really awkward occupation part that got kinda messy. Well anyways, the National Guard played a role in the invasion, but where they really came to the forefront was in supplying units during the occupation.
See, the way the Army is set up, there’s simply not enough Active soldiers to conduct rotations through Iraq and Afghanistan, support missions around the rest of the world, train, and get a few days to see their families. So that’s why all of a sudden the Guard became one of the keys to fighting the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Guard units have filled every role, from combat to combat support, in both theaters. Simply put, OIF and OEF would have been impossible without the National Guard.
Which is why in 2014, when General Ray Odierno (now retired, then the Army Chief of Staff) disparaged the service of the Guard in OIF/OEF – and was then followed by more Active officers voicing similar opinions – it felt like a slap in the face. Not just to those of us who supported those operations, but to the hundreds of years where the Guard has more than carried its operational weight.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.