Monday, December 24, 2012

TFH 12/24: Red Arrow Heroes of Christmas Eve, 1942

The 32nd Infantry Division was comprised of Army National Guard units from both Wisconsin and Michigan when it was first organized 1917. The division served with the active United States Army in France for combat during World War I. The 32nd was the first Allied division to penetrate the Imperial German defenses of the Hindenburg Line in October, 1918. The Red Arrow on their division patch symbolized that, and they were thenceforth known as the "Red Arrows". For their tenacity on the battlefield, they were also nicknamed by our French allies "Les Terribles." Whatever enemy position the 32nd was given to attack, they always penetrated the defenses like an arrow. The division was demobilized in 1919 after the war's end.

After the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940, the Army felt that the United States' entry into World War II was only a matter of time and eighteen National Guard divisions, the 32nd among them, were federalized and called up in September and October of 1940. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 32nd was originally going to be one of the first American units sent to Europe, but it was decided to send them instead to Australia and use the Red Arrows in the South Pacific. Even though they were understrength and undertrained, they were sent to fight in the New Guinea campaign beginning September 13, 1942.

The division's unpreparedness was evident in combat. By November 1942, the 32nd's commander had been relieved and the division had taken heavy casualties. They were learning to fight in the South Pacific's jungles the hard way; by doing it.

As Christmas 1942 approached, the Red Arrows were still locked in back-and-forth combat with the Japanese in the Battle of Buna-Gona. On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1942, two Wisconsin citizen-soldiers with the 32nd's 127th Infantry Regiment earned our Nation's highest honor for their combat heroism above and beyond the normal call of duty that also cost them both their lives.

First Sergeant Elmer J. Burr, born on May 11, 1908 in Neenah, had joined the Wisconsin National Guard in 1928. He saved the life of his company commander by smothering a grenade explosion.

Sergeant Kenneth E. Gruennert was about one month past his 22nd birthday (born November 19, 1922) and hailed from Helenville. He enlisted and became a Guardsman when he was sixteen years old. Gruennert attacked a Japanese pillbox solo, paused to bandage his own wounds, and was struck down when he single handedly attacked a second enemy fortification.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (A-F):


Rank and organization: First Sergeant, U.S. Army, Company I, 127th Infantry, 32d Infantry Division. Place and date: Buna, New Guinea, 24 December 1942. Entered service at: Menasha, Wis. Birth: Neenah, Wis. G.O. No.: 66, 11 Oct. 1943. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty. During an attack near Buna, New Guinea, on 24 December 1942, 1st Sgt. Burr saw an enemy grenade strike near his company commander. Instantly and with heroic self-sacrifice he threw himself upon it, smothering the explosion with his body. 1st Sgt. Burr thus gave his life in saving that of his commander.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (G-L):


Rank and organization: Sergeant, U.S. Army, Company L, 127th Infantry, 32d Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Buna, New Guinea, 24 December 1942. Entered service at: Helenville, Wis. Birth: Helenville, Wis. G.O. No.: 66, 11 October 1943. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty. On 24 December 1942, near Buna, New Guinea, Sgt. Gruennert was second in command of a platoon with a mission to drive through the enemy lines to the beach 600 yards ahead. Within 150 yards of the objective, the platoon encountered 2 hostile pillboxes. Sgt. Gruennert advanced alone on the first and put it out of action with hand grenades and rifle fire, killing 3 of the enemy. Seriously wounded in the shoulder, he bandaged his wound under cover of the pillbox, refusing to withdraw to the aid station and leave his men. He then, with undiminished daring, and under extremely heavy fire, attacked the second pillbox. As he neared it he threw grenades which forced the enemy out where they were easy targets for his platoon. Before the leading elements of his platoon could reach him he was shot by enemy snipers. His inspiring valor cleared the way for his platoon which was the first to attain the beach in this successful effort to split the enemy position.

Both First Sergeant Burr and Sergeant Gruennert's remains were repatriated to the United States. Both men rest in their Wisconsin birthplaces. Burr in the Oak Grove Cemetery in Neenah; Gruennert in the Evergreen Cemetery in Helenville.

The 32nd Infantry Division was deactivated to National Guard service in 1946 and eventually disbanded in 1967. The division's heritage, along with the "Red Arrows" nickname, is carried forward by today's 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) of the Wisconsin Army National Guard. The active battalion of the 127th Infantry Regiment, 2-127 Infantry, serves with the 32nd IBCT. In their federal role, the 32nd IBCT deployed to Iraq during 2009-2010.

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