161st Infantry Regiment, Washington National Guard

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 2/01/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10021
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The 161st Infantry Regiment is a unit of the Washington National Guard that has served in U.S. military operations since World War I.  Washington's National Guard began with the formation of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments in 1886 and 1887. The two regiments were combined and in 1917 the unit was renumbered as the 161st Infantry Regiment and assigned to the 41st Division along with National Guard units from neighboring states.  The 161st was called to federal service in World War I and its troops served as replacements. During World War II, the regiment was again federalized and assigned to the 25th Infantry Division. It fought at Guadalcanal, New Georgia, and the Philippines. The regiment's soldiers performed bravely in tough battles on these South Pacific Islands, and many received awards for valor.  The 161st Infantry Regiment was reorganized several times during the Cold War, and its one remaining unit served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.


In 1855 the Federal Government authorized Washington Territory to form militia units to defend against Indian attacks. A more permanent force was created on March 9, 1886, with the formation of the 1st Infantry Regiment of the Washington National Guard.  The 2nd Infantry Regiment followed in 1887. The National Guard units drew upon the militias for their initial troop strength.  

On May 9, 1898, elements of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments were federalized for service in the Philippines. The two regiments were reorganized into the 1st Regiment, Washington Volunteer Infantry. The 1st Regiment saw action in the battles of Manila and Luzon Island and received a valor award for the Battle of Santa Ana. It mustered out of federal service on November 1, 1899, and returned to the Washington National Guard as the 2nd Infantry Regiment.  In 1916 the 2nd Infantry Regiment returned to federal service, guarding the southern border from Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa (1878-1923) and his forces. Villa's troops had crossed the border on March 9, 1916, and attacked Columbus, New Mexico. For three months, the 2nd Infantry Regiment provided border security at Calexico, California.

During World War I the 2nd Infantry Regiment was again federalized on March 25, 1917. That summer the War Department renumbered regiments and the 2nd Infantry Regiment, Washington National Guard, became the 161st Infantry Regiment.  It was combined with elements of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, National Guard, Washington, D.C.  On September 19, 1917, the 161st was assigned to the 41st Division, composed of National Guard units from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota.  Prior to entering World War I, the 41st Division trained at Camp Greene, North Carolina.  It was a square division, so-called because it comprised four regiments: the 161st of Washington, Oregon's 162nd and 186th, and Montana's 163rd. Following training the 41st Division embarked for France, but did not go into combat as a division. Soldiers of the 41st were assigned as replacements and served in other units.  Many fought with the 42nd Division. With the Armistice the 41st Division Soldiers came home and the 161st Infantry Regiment demobilized in March 1919.  

The 161st Infantry Regiment was reconstituted at Spokane, Washington, on September 30, 1919. It was returned to the 41st Division on May 1, 1921. During the 1920s the 161st had its summer training at various National Guard camps and Camp Lewis.  In 1929 Major General George A. White (1880-1941) became the 41st Division commander, which he led for the next twelve years. The division's training and war preparation included maneuvers with active Army units. While the 161st spent much of its effort training it also responded to state crises. In 1935 Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955) used the regiment to maintain order during a strike by sawmill and lumber workers.  In 1935 the 41st Division, including the 161st Regiment, engaged in a mock battle with elements of the regular Army's 3rd Division led by Brigadier General George C. Marshall (1880-1959).

On August 31, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) issued Executive Order 8530 calling up the 41st Division for one year of active duty to start September 16, 1940. On September 20, 1940, the division assembled at Camp Murray with the 14,000 men living in pyramidal tents on both sides of Highway 99 (today I-5) at Camp Murray and Fort Lewis. Frequent rains turned the division encampment into a sea of mud that troops called Camp Swampy. In the transition to combat, division officers underwent medical evaluations and 100 officers were released for medical reasons.  In February and March 1941 the division moved into its new cantonment, North Fort Lewis.

In June 1941 the 41st Infantry Division participated in the IX Corps maneuvers at Hunter Liggett Military Reservation in California. The division returned to North Fort Lewis on July 2, 1941. Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969), IX Corps Chief of Staff, identified weaknesses to be corrected before the division could be declared combat ready. The 41st started an intense training program. In August the division was renamed the 41st Infantry Division and "fought" the 3rd Infantry Division around the Nisqually River.  Also, the Army reformed square divisions into triangular divisions with three not four regiments. The 161st Infantry Regiment was removed from the division and became a separate unit. On November 23, 1941, the beloved 41st commander Major General George A. White (1880-1941) died. Brigadier General Carlos A. Pennington of Tacoma became the temporary commander. On December 15, 1941, Major General Horace H. Fuller (1886-1966), then stationed at Fort Lewis, assumed command.  

On the evening of December 6, 1941, the 161st Infantry Regiment departed the Fort Lewis railroad station bound for California and then the Philippines to reinforce American forces there. The next morning, as the train arrived at Klamath Falls, Oregon, the troops learned that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. The regimental orders were changed to San Francisco area guard duties.  On December 14, 1941, new orders directed the regiment to Hawaii, where the 161st troops occupied defensive positions. On August 3, 1942, the regiment became part of the 25th Infantry Division.  In November 1942 the 25th Infantry Division departed for Guadalcanal to reinforce American forces there. The 161st became a Regimental Combat Team composed of the 161st Infantry, 89th Field Artillery Battalion, and support units. Colonel Clarence A. Orndorff (1894-1971) of Spokane commanded the regiment.   

Capture of Guadalcanal and the Northern Solomons  

The 161st Regimental Combat Team arrived at Guadalcanal in early January 1943 and took up defensive positions around the airfield.  The 161st entered the attack phase on February 6, 1943, with an assault on Japanese forces in a jungle redoubt called the Matanikau River Pocket.  Here Japanese troops employed skilled camouflage and well-defended positions to take a heavy toll on the attackers. The assault lasted from January 10 to January 21, when the resistance was overcome. Next the 161st attacked Japanese forces at river crossings and moved on to Doma Cove on February 8, 1943, seizing the cove and linking up with the Americal Division at Tenario village.

That action ended the battle for Guadalcanal, and the 161st and other 25th Infantry Division units went into training, recuperation, and reorganization.  An ill Colonel Orndorff returned to Spokane and resumed civilian life as an attorney. Colonel James Dalton II (1910-1945) became the 161st commander. The 161st next took on the neutralization of the remaining Solomon Islands. At New Georgia tough resistance from defenders at the Munda airport required additional attack forces. The 161st landed on New Georgia on July 21, 1943, and attached to the 37th Infantry Division.  

On July 26, while supporting the 37th Infantry Division attacking Bibilo Hill, the 161st came under heavy fire from a ridgeline, later called Bartley's Ridge.  The name honored 2nd Lieutenant Martin D. Bartley (1921-1943) of Yakima, who was killed attacking the ridge.

First Lieutenant Kenneth P. French (d. 1943) displayed leadership and heroism at this ridge. French grew up in Pullman, Washington, graduating from Pullman High School and attending Washington State College from 1937 to 1939. In 1937 he joined the 161st Regiment as an enlisted man, and in August 1941 he earned his officer's commission. First Lieutenant French led a squad assigned to capture a strategic position on Bartley's Ridge.  They faced a dug-in enemy and two 75mm guns that laid deadly fire on them. Lieutenant French loaded up with grenades and rushed the two guns, running through a hail of enemy fire.  He destroyed both guns before collapsing from wounds. His troops then advanced and overcame the entrenched Japanese positions.  First Lieutenant French received posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism.  Today the historic French Theatre at Joint Base Lewis-McChord honors him.  

Captain Charles J. Hastings (d. 1951) of Walla Walla was recognized for his heroism at the hills from July 24 to July 29. He received the Distinguished Service Cross. Captain Hastings was killed in action in the Korean War, on September 1, 1950.  

Once the 161st cleared Bartley's Ridge it had to capture Horseshoe Hill, another well-entrenched position, and a fierce battle ensued. The regiment again displayed heroic action and overcame the enemy on August 1.  The 161st and other units then pushed north and had the island secured on August 25. The regiment went to New Caledonia for training and reorganization. At the New Caledonia camp fifteen Distinguished Service Crosses were announced, seven of them posthumous.  

Liberation of the Philippines    

The 161st Regiment returned to battle on January 17, 1945, at Luzon Island, the Philippines.  Alongside the 27th Infantry Regiment, it had the assignment of capturing three villages. At Binalonan Village the 161st ran into fierce resistance as Japanese forces counterattacked with tanks and infantry.  The 161st defeated the counterattack and captured the town on January 18.  The regiment went on to attack San Manuel where they defeated an entrenched foe. In deadly fighting at San Manuel, Company E of the 161st saw five company commanders killed in four days. Company E received a Presidential Unit Citation for valor. Following this action, Colonel Dalton was promoted to brigadier general and assistant commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division.

After San Manuel the 161st occupied San Isidro village on February 6, 1945. The American forces, including the 161st, then moved north into the mountains and experienced some of the toughest fighting of the war. At Balete Pass many 161st Soldiers fell in the face of intense resistance. Brigadier General Dalton was killed by a sniper. The northern advance took some 90 days and there were heavy casualties. It was the regiment's final battle. With the War in the Pacific victory the 161st Regiment took on Japan occupation duty. The regiment was awarded the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation for valor. On November 1, 1945, the regiment was inactivated and its men returned home.  

The Cold War and Beyond 

On June 17, 1946, the 161st Infantry Regiment was reactivated and returned to the 41st Infantry Division. It went through a number of Cold War reorganizations.

In 2003 the only surviving unit was the 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry, which was assigned to the 81st Armor Brigade, Washington National Guard. The battalion served in Iraq in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom and returned home in April 2005.

Sources: "The 161st WWII Story," Washington National Guard website accessed January 19, 2012 (http://washingtonguard.org/museum/documents/1944.09_Story_of_the_161st_Infantary-WWII.pdf); "The Official History of the Washington National Guard, Vol. 4, Washington National Guard in the Philippine Insurrection," Washington National Guard website accessed January 19, 2012 (http://washingtonguard.org/museum/documents/Fields_Vol_IV.pdf); "The Official History of the Washington National Guard, Vol. 6, Washington National Guard in World War II," Washington National Guard website accessed January 19, 2012 (http://washingtonguard.org/museum/documents/Fields_Vol_VI.pdf); Shelby L. Stanton, Order of Battle: U.S. Army, World War II (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1984); "Bravery Gains Captain DSC," The Spokesman Review, January 8, 1944, p. 2.

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