The Montana National Guard Goes to War

More than a year before the United States entered World War II, the Montana National Guard was inducted into the regular Army. The Montana men formed the backbone of the 163rd Infantry Regiment of the 41st Division. They were stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and they were immediately dispatched to guard the Olympic Peninsula beaches from Japanese invasion.
In March 1942, the men of the 41st Division boarded the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth for the long trip to Australia, becoming some of the first American troops deployed overseas during the war.
Because of the strict censorship rules in effect, few Montanans knew where the National Guardsmen had gone until a letter from an Australian citizen appeared in Montana newspapers, praising the good conduct of the Montana National Guardsmen, and claiming that “a finer lot of well-behaved young men never represented any country.” After months of training in Australia, the 41st Division celebrated Christmas of 1942 aboard a troop ship bound for New Guinea. The men from Montana were about to see their first combat in the malarial jungles of New Guinea. They were headed for the northern coast of Papua, and the final stages of the bloody Buna-Gona campaign. The 163rd Combat Team occupied positions in the jungle only a few yards from veteran Japanese soldiers along the Sanananda Trail. The soldiers from Montana endured constant sniper fire, short rations and tropical disease as they began to learn the art of jungle fighting. As much as 10 inches of rain fell in one night, and the soldiers often waded hip-deep in the water.

Montana National Guard
American soldiers patrol the deadly swamps of Sanananda

Gen. Robert Eichelberger, commander of the 41st Division, called it “a completely savage and expensive battle.” He said, “the 163rd had to do most of the nasty job of obliterating the enemy in a series of scattered skirmishes. The defeated Japanese would not give in.”
The 163rd found itself facing the main Japanese force, several thousand men hidden in the dense jungle of the Sanananda Trail. In an engagement on Jan. 5, Company B, made up primarily of men from Poplar, lost eight dead and suffered three wounded, the first Montana men of the regiment killed in action.
During the next three weeks of intense fighting the regiment lost 923 men, felled either by disease or Japanese bullets, but the last Japanese strongholds were eliminated one by one.
After more training in Australia, the 163rd landed at Aitape on the northern coast of New Guinea, on April 22, 1944. Completely surprised, the 1,000-man Japanese garrison fled from the combined firepower of the destroyers and carriers just offshore. The troopers from Montana moved in and found food still cooking in Aitape village. The 163rd easily seized the airstrip, but the Japanese repeatedly tried to take it back.

Montana National Guard
The malarial jungles of New Guinea proved nearly as deadly as the Japanese.

The fiercest fighting of the Aitape operation came on April 27, 1944 when a platoon of men from Billings blocked the Japanese escape at Kamti and repulsed a bayonet charge by 200 Japanese coming in from three sides. They won a unit citation for extraordinary heroism.
Only a few weeks after seizing the airfield at Aitape, the soldiers of the 163rd stormed Wakde Island, 450 miles to the west. Although Wakde was only two miles long and a mile wide, it contained 100 Japanese pill-boxes and bunkers, as well as 12 fortified caves which were invisible from the air. Hampered by intense heat and a tangle of blasted coconut trees, it took the 163rd two days of fierce fighting to clear the island.
On May 31, 1944, two battalions of the 163rd were pulled out of the Wakde area and rushed to the island of Biak, where the other elements of the 41st Division had landed four days before.

For the men of the 163rd, Biak was perhaps their fiercest battle of the war. The island held more than 11,000 veteran Japanese soldiers and Marines. The former National Guardsmen were met by heavy fire from Japanese airplanes, artillery, machine guns, and mortars. The fighting was often hand-to-hand, the terrain was inhospitable, and the water on the island was foul-tasting and nearly undrinkable. Most of the supplies which reached the front-line soldiers had to be packed up the steep ridges on the backs of weary soldiers.
As the Americans captured the high coral ridges, the Japanese retreated to three underground strong points. The island of Biak was honeycombed with caves which the Japanese had thoroughly explored and improved upon. It took almost two months of vicious fighting before the Americans overwhelmed the final 1,000 Japanese holding the Ibdi Pocket.
The 163rd Infantry was nearly worn out after several months of almost continuous fighting without replacements, but the men from Montana were part of the most decorated Army division in the Pacific, and were needed for the planned invasion of the Philippines.
In February 1945, while other elements of the U.S. Army swept through the Philippine island of Luzon and captured Manila and Corregidor, the 163rd left Biak, bound for the Southern Philippines.
The men of the 163rd Infantry had now spent three years overseas. While there were still many veterans from the old Montana National Guard left, their numbers had been diluted by the hundreds of replacements who had arrived after Sanananda, Aitape, Wakde, and Biak.
On March 10, 1945, after the invasion beach was softened up by naval gunfire and a B-24 strike, they landed on the Zamboanga Peninsula of Mindanao, where they fought Japanese Marines for the next three weeks.
In early April the regiment attacked the Japanese-held island of Jolo, in the Sulu Archipelago, halfway between the island of Borneo and the Philippines, where 2,600 Japanese waited. Three weeks of hard fighting ensued before the island was secured. The regiment spent the summer of 1945 mopping up south-central Mindanao, then resting and regrouping for the expected November landings on Kyushu, Japan. On Sept. 6, the Second Battalion of Montana’s 163rd Infantry landed at Hiro, Japan (near the flattened rubble of Hiroshima), where they were put to work destroying Japanese military equipment at the Kure Naval Base.
The 163rd Infantry Regiment, like the rest of the 41st Division, was deactivated without fanfare at the end of 1945. The unit that had begun as the Montana National Guard contained barely 20 percent Montanans at the end of the war, more than five years after the Montana National Guard had been inducted. Fifty-nine Montanans died while serving with the 163rd Infantry Regiment during World War II.
This article was originally published as part of the Missoulian’s Greatest Generation series in 2001.


Prisoners of War in Montana

Today’s Missoulian carried an article by Perry Backus of the Ravalli Republic on two Bitterroot Valley residents who are compiling information on the German prisoners of war (POWs) who worked on local farms in Montana during the summers of 1944 and 1945.

Montana's Home Front During World War II
Montana’s Home Front During WW II

Finding enough labor to work the sugar beet fields was a recurring nightmare for farmers, sugar companies, and government officials during World War II. At first community volunteers from young to old, augmented by high school and college students, worked to bring in the critical harvest of sugar beets. Later, thousands of Mexican workers were brought to Montana each summer, as well as a few hundred Jamaicans, but the state faced a continual shortage of farm labor throughout the war years. Farmers were relieved during the spring of 1944 when the Federal government announced that as many as 7,000 German prisoners of war would be sent to Montana (actual numbers were probably lower).

Some of the prisoners of war in Montana wound up at the farm owned by Homer and Betty Bailey in the Bitterroot, and their daughter Mary Lyn has been compiling information about the little-known prisoner of war camps. You can read the Ravalli Republic article here. Mary has received numerous responses to the article and is interested in hearing from anyone who has memories or knowledge of the German prisoner of war camps.

Typically, temporary camps for the prisoners were built at sugar beet refineries and on local farms. Many of the camps were built for 250 prisoners, with two American officers and 30 enlisted men to guard them. Usually these were tent camps, surrounded by barbed wire fences with guard towers and searchlights. The farmers and sugar beet companies were responsible for constructing the camps. Many of the Germans had served with the Afrika Corps in North Africa before being captured. They received a voucher for 80 cents per day that could be used to purchase personal items. They could work no more than eight hours per day, excluding breaks, meals, and transportation, and were accompanied everywhere by armed guards. Local residents were not supposed to speak to the prisoners. Wheat farmers also used prisoners, and when the 1945 beet harvest was complete, 250 Germans were sent to the Bitterroot to pick apples. A small number of Italian prisoners worked near Billings, and both Italian and Japanese detainees at Fort Missoula also helped with the sugar and apple harvest. Marvin Costello of Stevensville, 14 years old at the time, remembered “The prisoners all seemed so young, not much older than me…They acted like they were all pleased to be safe as POWs after what they had probably been exposed to in the war.”

Mary Lyn would like to organize a gathering to bring together those who remember the Germans prisoners. She can be contacted at 406-360-6279 or You can also leave a comment here.

Montana's Home Front During World War II
Montana’s Home Front During WW II

Montana History Calendar 1930s

• January 29, 1933 – Amelia Earhart piloted a Ford Trimotor around the Helena Valley.

• July 15, 1933 – Going-to-the-Sun highway was dedicated.

• March 2, 1933 – Montana Senator Thomas Walsh died on his way to Washington D.C. to take an appointment as the U.S Attorney General.

• October 1933 – Construction began on Fort Peck Dam.

• 1934 – A four-and-a-half month long peaceful strike by the International Mine, Mill and Smelter workers revived union activity in the state.

• 1935 – The Montana Highway Patrol was formed.

• May 6, 1935 – President Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration.

• October 1935 – A series of earthquakes killed four people and caused $4 million in damage to buildings, including Helena High School.

• December 15, 1935 – Bill Holt was named to replace Gov. Frank Cooney, who died in office.

• November 23, 1936 – Fort Peck Dam was the featured cover story of the first issue of LIFE magazine.

• Jan. 4, 1937 – Roy Ayers was sworn in as governor.

• June 12, 1937 – Two–and–one–half inches of rain and hail in one hour ruptured an irrigation canal and caused a major flood in downtown Billings. The Burlington railroad tracks washed out, and the Midland Empire fairgrounds suffered hail damage. The Billings Gazette called it “the greatest catastrophe in the city’s 54 year history.”


• January 10, 1938 – A Northwest Airlines flight crashed near Bozeman, killing 10.

• April 22, 1938 – The U.S. Government transferred Lewis and Clark Caverns to the state of Montana. The area would become the first state park in 1941.

• April 1938 – Kerr Dam near Polson became operational.

• June 19, 1938 – The Milwaukee Road “Olympian” derailed near Miles City, with 47 dead and 75 injured.

• Sept.22, 1938 – A major landslide at the Fort Peck Dam construction site killed 8 men.

• July 12, 1940 – Missoula smokejumpers Earl Cooley and Rufus Robinson made the first parachute jump on a fire.

• Sept. 11, 1940 – Fire destroyed the Northern Hotel and damaged 13 other Billings businesses.

• Sept. 16, 1940 – The National Guard was inducted into the Regular Army.

• Sept. 25, 1940 – Congress passed the first peacetime draft.

Learn more about Montana History Calender 1930s and the state’s history during the war years.

Montana's Home Front During World War II
Montana’s Home Front During World War II

Montana History Calendar 1941

Montana History Calendar 1942

Montana History Calendar 1943