Nineteen Clemson ROTC officers served together in World War II as members of the “Red Arrows.” The first infantry unit to go on the offensive against the Japanese, they fought until the very end, the morning the peace treaty was signed.
In early 1942, only weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 13 freight trains and 25 passenger trains left Fort Devens, Massachusetts, carrying some 10,000 soldiers with the Army National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Division, the “Red Arrows,” bound for Australia and the Pacific Theater. It was the first American division to deploy as an entire unit from the United States to the front lines — a first of what would be many firsts for the Red Arrows.
Lt. Clinton Blackmon ’41 (second from left) with other officers of Red Arrows Division in Australia, 1942 (courtesy of Clinton R. Blackmon family collection).
Aboard those trains were 32 officers who had been commissioned by the four South Carolina peacetime Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at The Citadel, Wofford College, Presbyterian College and Clemson College. Nineteen of them were Clemson alumni from the classes of 1934-1941, with nine from the class of ’39 alone.
The South Carolinians had been thrown into the 32nd — normally a Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard unit — as the U.S. military hastily gathered itself to strike into the heart of its new enemies.
Such a large group of officers from one school in the same unit was unusual, but many of the 19 officers from Clemson would go on to distinguish themselves as leaders and help carry the Red Arrows through the next four years of combat — beginning with one of the most devastating battles of World War II.
From Australia, the division, under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, moved into the rain-soaked jungles of Papua New Guinea, where it charged into the Battle of Buna on Nov. 16, 1942, making it the first infantry unit to go on the offensive against the Japanese.
The battle was a brutal nine-week trial by fire. Amid the haste to take the fight to the enemy, the logistics of transporting food and other supplies to the front lines were being worked out even as the bullets were flying. The fighting itself was a test of wills over unforgiving, waterlogged jungle terrain in oppressively humid weather with temperatures that could reach 122 degrees.
The combination of dreadful climate, poor diet and stress created the perfect storm for disease, and soon malaria was taking men out of the battle five times faster than the enemy. Eighty-five percent of all Allied soldiers contracted the disease, which necessitated keeping the sick in the fight unless they were completely incapacitated.
U.S. Army Lieutenants Timothy Barrineau ’39 and Frank Cheatham ’40 in Port Moresby, New Guinea, Dec. 1942 (photo courtesy of Simon Cheatham).
“Despite catastrophic losses of more than 90 percent, they managed to secure the Army’s first land victory over the Japanese — slightly sooner than the contemporary action on Guadalcanal wrapped up,” said Joe H. Camp Jr., author of 32 Answered: A South Carolina Veteran’s Story, a book about the South Carolina soldiers who found themselves in the Red Arrows.
The Battle of Buna either broke men or hardened them to war. The ones who made it through were toughened for the fight and carried their experiences into subsequent campaigns. Several of the lieutenants from Clemson not only survived Buna, but were forged into exemplary leaders there.
“Two Clemson ’41s — Lt. J. Ernest Cottingham and Lt. Ben G. McKnight [who earned a posthumous Silver Star] — were killed in that first combat at Buna. The Clemson men who managed to survive that first campaign — those not killed or permanently precluded from further combat duty by malaria — stayed on with the Red Arrows in subsequent campaigns all the way to the Philippines and in doing so actually formed the core of the unit leadership for the war,” said Camp.
Nearly all the Clemson men who survived the Buna campaign were elevated from platoon to company commanders because of their actions there, and several continued to lead Red Arrow soldiers until the end of the war.
The sheer amount of time the unit was in theater is staggering: over 13,000 hours of combat, or 654 days — more than any other U.S. Army division.