TBT: No finer Division

 From Illinois Digital Archives, Illinois State Library - General
Collection: Record of the Illinois National Guard (33rd Division)
and Illinois Naval Militia.

Soldiers in the Illinois National Guard’s 33rd Brigade Combat Team wear a circular shoulder insignia which features a gold cross against a black background. This simple design got its start from Illinois soldiers who served our nation overseas a century ago. It has been worn on battlefields from World War I to Afghanistan, by troops who earned accolades from some of the most celebrated generals in American history. It marks the proud history of the 33rd Division of the U.S. Army.

Some stories about the origin of the insignia go all the way back to the Philippine insurrection at the turn of the 20th century. What is known is that it became the official insignia of the 33rd Division in 1917 during the early days of America’s involvement in World War I.

When America entered the Great War on April 6, 1917, the United States Army was woefully understrength and unprepared for the kinds of titanic battles which had been fought on the western front in France and Belgium for nearly three years. Desperate for trained manpower which could form the nucleus of the combat force then being pondered, the War Department began activating units of the National Guard of the 48 states.

It just so happened that Illinois’ National Guard included regiments which had gone into action in Mexico the year before, making them some of the few American soldiers with any kind of combat experience at that time. Their commander then had been General John J. Pershing, who now was organizing and taking command of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) bound for France.

Three months after the declaration of war, things began to happen very quickly. On July 18, regiments of the Illinois National Guard were re-designated into the newly-created 33rd Division. A week later, they were formally called into federal service and nine days after that they were dispatched to Camp Logan, outside Houston, Texas, to be trained for war. As units began arriving in Texas, they were organized into their new division and brigade formations. For example, the 3rd and 4th Illinois Infantry regiments were combined with a detachment from the 5th Illinois to become the 65th Infantry Brigade.

Major General George Bell, Jr., became the division’s first commander in late August. All throughout the fall, more soldiers joined the division as additional National Guard troops reached the training facilities and as National Army troops who had trained in Illinois were assigned to the 33rd. While in Texas, the Illinois guardsmen were trained by a former West Point football coach named Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The slow but steady training and buildup of the AEF continued month after month, and the 33rd finally sailed for France a year after the declaration of war in May 1918. Four companies of Illinois troops were detached and assigned to an Australian division which went into combat on July 4, 1918, near Hamel, France. The attack, the first made by the 33rd in World War I, was a success. It was there that Corporal Thomas Pope of the Illinois National Guard earned the Medal of Honor for charging a German machine gun nest before it could fire on the men of his platoon.

More troops of the Golden Cross arrived in France and joined the British in an offensive along the Somme River. In September, the 33rd shifted to the southeast, where the division would become part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the largest battle the United States Army had ever fought up to that time. The seven-week offensive, named for the nearby Meuse River and the Argonne Forest, would ultimately crack the German lines and end the war.

The 33rd went on the attack on the opening day of the offensive, September 26. The Illinois troops drove the Germans back to the river, then attacked across the Meuse in cooperation with American and French forces, continuing to drive the Germans back throughout October. On November 11, 1918, they received the news of the armistice which ended the war.

General Pershing offered a simple tribute to the soldiers of the Golden Cross: “The 33rd Infantry Division was still advancing when hostilities ended with the armistice.”

Following the end of hostilities, the Golden Cross Division arrived back in Illinois nearly two years after the first soldiers had left for training in Texas. For service in World War I, Illinois soldiers in the 33rd earned nine Medals of Honor and 194 Distinguished Service Crosses. In the course of four months of war, 887 men of the 33rdgave their lives and 5499 were wounded, including Corporal Pope who was gassed the day after his action in the battle of Hamel.

With the postwar demobilization of the Army, the 33rd was deactivated. But having learned the lesson of 1917, the War Department was determined to not be caught as unprepared as it had been when America entered the conflict. The 1920 National Defense Act created a National Guard and Organized Reserve within the War Department, and the 33rd Division was re-organized within this new system. During the inter-war years, the division had another senior training instructor who was destined for greatness: Colonel George C. Marshall.

As storm clouds of war gathered again in 1941, the 33rdwas called into federal service on March 5 to begin training for the possibility of American involvement in another world war. December 7 found the 33rdat a training camp in Tennessee, from which they were rapidly deployed for “anti-sabotage” duty at important plants and facilities across Tennessee and Alabama. Soon it would deploy even farther from home.

While the 33rd had crossed the Atlantic in the First World War, it would head across the Pacific in the Second. Some regiments were detached from the division and went into action in the Pacific as part of the Americal and 37th Divisions. Other units, not part of the Illinois National Guard were added to the 33rd during the course of the war.

In 1944, the 33rd was deployed to New Guinea and then to the Philippines, where it joined General Douglas MacArthur’s command, fighting on the principal island of Luzon in February 1945. Grinding down the Japanese in fierce fighting, the 33rd fought over the rugged landscape of Luzon through March and April, finally capturing the Japanese headquarters at Baguio on April 26. In so doing, the 33rd helped liberate Manuel Roxas, who would go on to serve as President of the Philippines after that nation’s independence in 1946. Roxas would later write to thank the soldiers of the 33rd for their “effective and generous assistance” in his liberation. A stone monument featuring the Golden Cross of the 33rd was put in place near Baguio not long after the battle.

After the war, the division’s commander, Major General P.W. Clarkson would write, “No unit ever failed to take its objective. No unit was ever behind schedule. Casualties were remarkably light. The members of the 33rd had learned to be smart fighters.”

In the division’s official history from World War II is included a letter from General MacArthur: “No finer Division has ever fought than the 33rd. Its record is long and honorable and fills all Americans with pride and gratification. My confidence in it during the vicissitudes of campaign was complete and it never failed me.”

With the end of the war in September 1945, the 33rd joined the occupation forces in Japan, where it was stationed until 1946. “Even the most homesick were willing to take added months of overseas service now that they were to land as conquerors instead of invaders,” reads the division’s history of its landing in Japan.

The division was on occupation duty until it was deactivated on February 5, 1946. During its service in World War II, three soldiers of the 33rd Division earned the Medal of Honor, one of them posthumous. In total, 396 soldiers of the 33rd were killed in action in World War II, and another 2,024 were wounded.

After the war, the 33rd went back to the Illinois National Guard. The end for the 33rd Division came in 1968 with a restructuring and re-organization of the National Guard. However, both the Golden Cross and the “33rd” name carried on through a series of re-organizations over the decades. The latest, a 2005 reconfiguration of the force structure of the entire Army led to the creation of the 33rd Brigade Combat Team, which continues to carry on the proud tradition and history of the Golden Cross today. This new 33rd was deployed in 2008 and 2009 to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. More Illinois National Guard troops continue to serve there, including a group who returned home just this summer.

The achievements of the Golden Cross are just part of the long and proud history of the Illinois National Guard and Illinois service members in general. From the early frontier forts before statehood, to the frontiers of freedom in the Global War on Terror, Illinoisans have stood ready to defend our great nation and all the freedoms and liberties we cherish.