15th Regiment, United States Army

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 4/07/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10353
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The U.S. Army's crack 15th Regiment arrived in 1938 at Fort Lewis, where it would serve and receive training to maintain its reputation as one of the best regiments in the military. While there the regiment became proficient in amphibious operations. A detachment from the regiment trained in winter warfare at Mount Rainier and developed tactics and equipment designs. The regiment fought in eight major World War II campaigns. With sixteen Medal of Honor awards, it led regiments in that medal for extraordinary heroism. 15th Regiment Medal of Honor recipients include famed combat veteran Audie Murphy (1925-1971) as well as Victor Leonard Kandle (1921-1944) of Puyallup.

The Famed 15th Regiment

The 15th Regiment arrived from China to a huge greeting at the Tacoma docks on March 24, 1938. It was a celebration resembling those of World War I's returning veterans. The transport USAT Grant docked with 808 enlisted men and officers of the famed U.S. Army 15th Regiment aboard. Also on board were 417 wives and children. The latter included Lieutenant Edwin J. Messinger's (1917-2003) newborn daughter Diane Grant Messinger (b. 1938), given the ship's name for her middle name. As the transport pulled up to the dock, ships in the harbor, train locomotives, and factories blew their whistles. Overhead, 91st Observation Squadron planes flew in formation. A dirigible also flew above the waterfront. An army band played. The official welcoming party included Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955), Tacoma mayor George Smitley (1872-1956), and Major General Thomas E. Merrill (1875-1943), the Fort Lewis commander. The 15th Regiment would be stationed at Fort Lewis in new barracks under construction. As one of the best regiments anywhere, its assignment helped turn Fort Lewis into a premier training and readiness installation. Influential army leaders such as Brigadier General George C. Marshall (1880-1959) lobbied for Fort Lewis. The presence of the 15th Regiment at Fort Lewis was one of the main reasons then-Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) requested an assignment to Fort Lewis.

The 15th Regiment was organized on May 3, 1861, during the Civil War and had a distinguished record in that war. It fought in the Indian Wars and in the Philippines. In 1900 the regiment was dispatched to Peiping (now Beijing), China, to protect American and other delegations during the Boxer Rebellion. With this accomplished the regiment went back to the Philippines for further battles there. In 1906 the 15th Regiment returned to the United States for service at the Presidio in Monterey, California. This stateside duty lasted only until 1912 and a return to China, where the regiment worked to protect Tienstin and keep open the railroad and transportation routes. It did this in cooperation with troops from Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. The 15th's superior efficiency earned it the nickname "Can Do." It was considered one of the best regiments, not only in the U.S. Army, but of all military regiments. Surviving photographs of the regiment in China show a very sharp unit. Noticeable in the photographs are a distinctive sleeve insignia -- the "Chung" patch for those who could speak Chinese.

The 15th Regiment spent 26 years in China, an extremely long overseas assignment. Among the regimental commanders in China was Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall who was the executive officer 1924-1927, but who largely ran the regiment. Marshall proved effective at keeping the regiment at a high state of readiness. He made sure that the officers learned Chinese and encouraged enlisted soldiers to attend the classes. In 1937 Marshall became commander of the 5th Brigade, 3rd Division, at Vancouver Barracks. He later became Army Chief of Staff, General of the Army, and, after the war, Secretary of State.

The 15th Regiment at Fort Lewis

After the 1938 dockside welcome, the 15th Regiment moved into 200 pyramidal tents at Fort Lewis. Under construction were 19 semi-permanent barracks. They were finished in June 1938. Also, the regimental headquarters complex of offices and barracks was nearing completion. The local communities had located off-post housing for the married officers and enlisted men. Almost immediately the regiment went into training mode. During the remainder of 1938 and through 1939, the regiment trained in field maneuvers. In January 1940 the regiment became part of the 3rd Division and accompanied the division to large maneuvers at Fort Ord, California. These maneuvers included amphibious landings. In March 1940 Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower was assigned to the 15th Regiment as the First Battalion commander and regimental executive officer. He increased the training tempo.

The regiment returned to Fort Lewis in May and then employed lessons learned in a mock landing on "Taongi Island," an imaginary island reached by crossing Muck Creek. To provide more realistic amphibious operations, the regiment established an Amphibious Training Camp on Henderson Inlet, eight miles north of Olympia. A pier, administrative buildings, barracks, and mess hall were constructed. The 15th Regiment operated this training facility, which was used by the entire 3rd Division. It was equipped with 40 landing craft and other boats. The first amphibious exercise took place in November 1940 with soldiers loading into the landing craft, moving out, and then returning to the pier to unload. On December 1, 1940, a full-scale landing was carried out with the nine 3rd Division battalions. The attacking forces loaded at Henderson Inlet and conducted a landing on a gravel beach on the north side of McNeill Island. They moved inland a few hundred yards to a defined point. The 3rd Division had amphibious techniques as its primary training mission and received instruction from the Amphibious Corps Pacific Fleet, a Navy-Marine headquarters in San Diego.

In addition to developing landing skills, the regiment established a ski patrol in October 1940. Captain Paul Lafferty (1910-1992), former University of Oregon ski coach, headed the experimental detachment of 40 skiers. His executive officer and lead ski instructor was Lieutenant John B. Woodward (1915-2003), a former University of Washington ski racer. During a two-week period in the winter of 1940-1941, the men skied various sides of Mount Rainier, crossing six glaciers. They also tested ski equipment for combat use, including a motorized snow toboggan. This early testing and development of equipment and techniques demonstrated the capabilities of mountain troops. At Fort Lewis, on November 15, 1941, the 1st Battalion, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment was established. The 87th would train at Mount Rainier before going to Camp Hale, Colorado, in late 1942 and becoming part of the 10th Mountain Division.

On May 24, 1941, the 15th Regiment left Fort Lewis for large-scale maneuvers in California. These maneuvers included amphibious training as well other combat skills. In July the Fort Lewis units returned for more training there.

One of the Most-decorated Units in World War II

On February 15, 1942, the 15th Infantry Regiment was assigned the duty of defending the Washington coastline from Seattle to Canada. In May 1942 orders arrived for the regiment to move to Fort Ord. The soldiers received additional training to become combat ready. In September the regiment was sent to Camp Pickett, Virginia, to await overseas shipment. On October 24, 1942, the 15th departed from Norfolk, Virginia, as part of the 3rd Infantry Division, bound for French Morocco. The regimental combat actions were Fedala, North Africa, with an assault on November 8, 1942; Licata, Sicily, on July 10, 1943; Salerno, Italy, September 18, 1943; Anzio, Italy, landing January 22, 1944; Southern France operations August 15, 1944; entering Germany on March 13, 1945, and arriving in Austria on May 5, 1945. The regiment spent 31 months in combat.

During World War II the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, earned 16 Medals of Honor. This was more than most divisions. 15th Infantry Regiment Medal of Honor recipients include Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated and famous army soldiers. Another Medal of Honor went to Victor Leonard Kandle of Puyallup. The 3rd Infantry Division had 38 Medals of Honor, the most of any division. This heroism came at a high cost; the division lost 4,922 killed in action and 636 who died of wounds. These were the highest losses of any division. The 15th Regiment suffered 1,633 killed in action and 419 missing in action.

First Lieutenant Leonard Kandle earned the Medal of Honor in early October 1944, near the French city of LaForge. At LaForge, elements of the 15th Regiment were halted by powerful German defenses. Kandle led a reconnaissance patrol into enemy territory. The patrol quickly took five German prisoners and located the main defensive position. Kandle then rushed the position and captured it. He next destroyed a machine gun position and led his patrol in the destruction of a second machine gun. Probing further, Kandle discovered a fortified house. While his patrol established a base of fire, he rushed the house, kicking down the front door. He forced all 32 German soldiers to surrender. The patrol actions resulted in the killing or capture of three officers and 54 enlisted men, and the destruction of German positions that had held up a battalion attack. Lieutenant Leonard Kandle was killed in action two months later without knowing he had received the Medal of Honor.

Victor Leonard Kandle was born at his grandmother's homestead near Roy, land that is today a training area on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He attended school in McKenna and Yelm. He moved with his family to Puyallup and graduated from Puyallup High School in 1939. Kandle then attended Beutel Business College in Tacoma. Not having an automobile, he often walked the eight miles to the college. In September 1940 he joined the army and had basic training at Fort Lewis. During field training, he recognized his grandmother's homestead. After training at Fort Lewis, he attended officer's candidate school and was commissioned before joining the 15th Infantry Regiment. He is buried at the Epinal American Cemetery in France. A road on Joint Base Lewis-McChord is named Rice-Kandle in honor of the Rice and Kandle families.

Captain Emil S. Bitar (1913-1943) of Raymond, Washington, was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism on August 4, 1943, near San Fratello, Sicily. Captain Bitar led Company E, 15th Infantry Regiment, in an attack against a strong enemy hill position held by an estimated force of battalion strength. Captain Bitar's company came under intense fire, losing many men. Despite being wounded, Bitar led his remaining troops through a minefield to within 150 yards of the enemy position where he was mortally wounded. His unit continued on to destroy the strongpoint. A Joint Base Lewis-McChord street is named in his honor. He was a graduate of Raymond High School and Washington State University. Emil Bitar also earned a University of Washington law degree and practiced law in Raymond before entering the army on June 16, 1941.

Service in the Korean War and Beyond

The 15th Regiment served in Korea with the 3rd Infantry Division. The regiment fought in eight major campaigns in that war. During the Korean War regiment soldiers earned three Medals of Honor. Colonel Edwin J. Messinger, who had arrived with the 15th at Tacoma in 1938, returned to Fort Lewis in 1950 to serve in the 2nd Infantry Division. He went with that division to Korea and was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses for valor. After the war he was appointed commandant of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He retired a Lieutenant General.

In 1957 his daughter Diane, who was born on the USAT Grant, married Lieutenant (later brigadier general) Gerald Galloway Jr. (b. 1935). Elements of the 15th Regiment served in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991, and later in operations in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Sources: James R. Warren, The War Years: A Chronicle of Washington State in World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000); C. James Quann, WSU Military Veterans: Heroes and Legends (Spokane, Washington: Tornado Publications, 2005); Donald G. Taggart, History of the Third Infantry in World War II (Washington, D.C.: Infantry Journal Press, 1946); Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Education of a General (New York: Viking Press, 1963); "'Can Do' Troops Settle at Fort Lewis," Tacoma News Tribune, March 24, 1938, p. 1; "Bursting Bombs, Resounding Whistles Great Gallant 15th," The Seattle Daily Times, March 24, 1938, p. 8; "New Buildings at Fort Lewis," The Tacoma Times, June 11, 1938, p. 8; "Fort to Honor War Heroes," The Oregonian, May 17, 1950, p.10; "Skier Rita Visits Army Skiers," The Seattle Daily Times, January 9, 1941, p. 21; "Troop Trains Leaving Fort," The Seattle Daily Times, May 24, 1941, p. 3; "17 Yanks of 2nd Div Presented DSCs in Ceremony at Front," The Stars and Stripes, June 1, 1951, p. 3.

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