96th Infantry Division

Written By Matthew J. Seelinger

Major General James L. Bradley commanded the 96th Infantry Division from its activation for World War II on 15 August 1942 through the end of the war. (National Archives)

Organized in the final weeks of World War I, the 96th Division never joined the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) fighting the German Army on the Western Front. It would not be until the next world war that the 96th saw combat, this time battling the Japanese in the Pacific Theater on Leyte in the Philippines and during the brutal battle for Okinawa less than 400 miles away from the Japanese home islands.
The 96th Division was constituted in the National Army on 5 September 1918 and organized on 20 October at Camp Wadsworth near Spartanburg, South Carolina. With the end of combat coming less than a month later on 11 November after the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Germany, the AEF did not require any additional divisions, and as a result, the 96th remained stateside and was demobilized on 7 January 1919 at Camp Wadsworth.

The 96th Division shoulder sleeve insignia was approved by the Army on 14 February 1927. The blue and white squares represent the states of Oregon and Washington, the division’s original home.

The 96th Division was reconstituted a little over two years later on 24 June 1921 and organized on 7 October in the Organized Reserves, with its headquarters at the New Post Office Building in Portland, Oregon. This would serve as the home of the division’s headquarters until the 96th’s activation for World War II. The division was allotted to the Ninth Corps Area and assigned to XIX Corps, with its home area in the states of Oregon and Washington. In an effort to encourage esprit de corps, the officers of the 96th adopted the nickname “Columbia Division” after the Columbia River that formed the border between the two states of its home area. The organization of the 96th Division resembled the Army’s “square” divisions of World War I, with two infantry brigades, each comprised of two infantry regiments, and a field artillery brigade. The 96th’s two infantry brigades were the 191st (381st and 382d Infantry Regiments) and 192d (383d and 384th Infantry Regiments).

Soldiers of the 383d Infantry Regiment, 96th Infantry Division, look for enemy snipers shortly after landing on Orange 2 Beach on Leyte Island, Philippines, 20 October 1944. (National Archives)

The division’s 171st Field Artillery Brigade was comprised of the 361st and 362d Field Artillery Regiments, along with the 321st Ammunition Train. The 96th also included a number of support elements, including signal, engineer, medical, and ordnance units. During the interwar years, the 96th conducted monthly and annual drills, usually at Camp Lewis (redesignated Fort Lewis in 1931), the division’s training and mobilization center, in Washington. Most of the time, the division trained with units of the 3d Division and took part in Fourth Army and Ninth Corps Area maneuvers; in some instances, soldiers of the 96th filled out the 3d Division and the National Guard 41st Division to bring them up to full strength for field exercises. Along with unit training, the four infantry regiments assigned to the 96th rotated responsibility for conducting Citizen Military Training Camp duty annually at Camp Lewis.

Antitank gunners from the 383d Infantry Regiment fire a 37mm gun into Japanese-held caves near Yuza, Okinawa.

On 15 August 1942, with the United States now at war with the Axis powers, the 96th was ordered into active military service at Camp Adair, Oregon, and redesignated the 96th Infantry Division. The 96th was also reorganized as a “triangular” division that eliminated the division’s infantry and field artillery brigades. In addition, the 384th Infantry Regiment was relieved from the division and the field artillery regiments were reorganized into four field artillery battalions—the 361st, 362d, and 921st (105mm howitzers), and 363d (155mm howitzers). The division was rounded out by various support elements, including the 321st Engineer Combat Battalion and medical, ordnance, and quartermaster units.
Under the command of Major General James L. Bradley, the 96th underwent a period of intense training, including participation in the IV Corps Maneuvers in September 1943.

Riflemen from 2d Battalion, 381st Infantry, cautiously advance across the summit of the Yaeju.

Bradley placed the division’s infantry and marksmanship training under the direction of the 96th’s assistant division commander, Brigadier General Claudius M. Easley, a sharpshooting Texan considered one of the Army’s crack shots. Easley’s emphasis on marksmanship led to a new nickname for the 96th—“Deadeyes.” In the spring of 1944, the 96th Division was brought up to full strength with the addition of hundreds of soldiers, including a large contingent of former cadets from the inactivated Army Specialized Training Program. Later that spring, the War Department designated the 96th an “amphibious” division, with the specialized mission of conducting amphibious landings against hostile shores. As a result, the Deadeyes conducted several practice landings on beaches in southern California over the next several weeks.

Brigadier General Claudius M. Easley (arm raised), the 96th Infantry Division’s assistant division commander, speaks with soldiers of the 382d Infantry, 15 June 1945. Easley was killed in action on Okinawa.

By 18 July, the entire 96th Division began staging at Camp Stoneman for eventual departure from the San Francisco Port of Embarkation. The division’s departure, however, was delayed when a massive explosion of munitions destined for the war in the Pacific devastated nearby Port Chicago on 17 June, killing some 320 men, most of them enlisted African American sailors. All medical personnel from the 96th were rushed to the scene of the disaster, soldiers lined up to donate blood, and the 381st Infantry was alerted for possible police duty. On 21 July, the Deadeyes began shipping out for Hawaii and jungle training on Oahu before its first combat operations against Japanese-held Yap in the western Pacific. Not long after beginning its deployment to Yap, the 96th was informed that the operation was canceled (Yap would be bypassed and isolated by American forces). Instead, the Deadeyes learned that their baptism of fire would come with the American landings on Leyte Island and General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines, scheduled for 20 October.

After a brief stop in Manus in the Admiralties that allowed the soldiers of the 96th to escape the cramped and sweltering confines of their troop transports and enjoy a swim and a bottle of beer, the Deadeyes began boarding LSTs on 11 October for the voyage to Leyte. The 96th was assigned to Sixth Army’s XXIV Corps and was to land north of Dulag on Leyte’s east coast. After landing, the 96th had the mission of capturing the Catmon Hill mass and gaining control of the Dagami-Tanuan area. Of the six divisions taking part in the Leyte Campaign, the 96th was the only one that had not seen combat. At around 1000 on “A-Day,” 20 October, the first elements of the 96th (less the 381st Infantry, serving as Sixth Army reserve) landed on Leyte after four hours of naval gunfire and air strikes. Facing more resistance from swampy terrain than from the Japanese, the 96th and 7th Infantry Divisions had established within an hour beachheads deep enough allowing vehicles and supplies to be brought in.

Despite the swamps, the 96th made good progress; on 28 October, the 382d Infantry seized a key Japanese supply base at Tabontabon after a three-day fight that inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and opened Leyte’s central valley to Sixth Army. On the following day, elements of the 381st (released from Sixth Army reserve) and 383d Regiments, supported by tanks and artillery, captured the 1,400-foot Catmon Hill that threatened the landing beaches. During November, after battling the terrain and the elements, including a typhoon that struck Leyte, the 96th fought at places such as Dagami Heights, Chalk Ridge, and Alto Peak. The Deadeyes conducted mopping up operations against an ever-elusive but dwindling enemy.

When an attack by 350 enemy paratroopers and elements of two Japanese divisions in Leyte’s central mountains on 6 December threatened to overwhelm two airfield airfields in the Burauen area, 1st Battalion, 382d Infantry, along with elements of the 38th Division, reinforced the 11th Airborne Division, fought to contain and defeat the Japanese assault by 11 December. On 25 December, Leyte was declared secured, although the campaign did not officially end until 1 July 1945. Early the following month, 2d Battalion, 382d Infantry, and 3d Battalion, 381st Infantry, took part in fighting on nearby Samar to clear Japanese troops from that island. While the American victory of Leyte was never in doubt, it did not come without cost to U.S. forces. In all, the 96th alone lost 376 killed, 1,289 wounded, and four missing. Another 2,500 men were knocked out of action from disease or injury. Soon, however, as intense as the fighting could be on Leyte, the 96th began preparing for what became the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific Theater.

On 10 February, the 96th Division was relieved from all tactical responsibilities in the Philippines and began preparing for Operation ICEBERG, the invasion of Okinawa and the Ryukyus Campaign. After intensive training with flamethrowers and demolitions, joint exercises between armored units and field artillery, and two practice amphibious landings in Leyte Gulf, the 96th and the rest of XXIV Corps, now assigned to Tenth Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., departed the Philippines on 25 March. While the 96th took in replacements to help fill its ranks depleted by the fighting on Leyte, the division remained thirty-nine officers and 1,167 enlisted soldiers below authorized strength. On 1 April, Easter Sunday, American forces began landing on the southwestern shore of Okinawa, the main island of the Ryukyus, some 350 miles from the Japanese home islands. The first elements of XXIV Corps began splashing ashore at 0830 at Hagushi, with the 7th Division to the north and 96th to the south. Much to their surprise, Army forces, along with their Marine counterparts to the north, landed without opposition. The Japanese decision to not defend the beaches on Okinawa reflected a deliberate strategy to focus the the island’s defense in the interior, using Okinawa’s terrain of ravines, caves, and escarpments that greatly favored the Japanese defenders.

Reservists of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 96th Infantry Division, wait for a train to take them from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Fort Hunter Liggett, California, for a two-week summer encampment, 25 July 1954. (National Archives)

As the Marines advanced north to clear the northern part of Okinawa, XXIV Corps swung south, with the Deadeyes advancing on the corps’ right; the 382d and 383d Infantry Regiments were forward with 381st in reserve. On 5 April, the 96th faced its first significant enemy resistance along well-fortified high ground, especially along an area known as Cactus Ridge. During the fighting there, 1st and 3d Battalions of the 383d engaged Japanese troops in brutal hand-to-hand fighting five miles north of the town of Shuri, the key to the Japanese defenses of the Shuri Line in the southern part of Okinawa. The next American objective, Kakazu Ridge, proved more difficult; on 9-10 April, the 96th’s attack on the ridge stalled. The Deadeyes then faced repeated Japanese assaults on 12-13 April, with a final attack coming at around 0300 on 14 April that was eventually repulsed with heavy casualties on both sides. The Japanese proved to be successful at night infiltration of American lines, and this would plague American soldiers and marines throughout the battle for Okinawa.

With XXIV Corps reinforced with the arrival of the 27th Infantry Division, the corps attacked south with three divisions abreast, with the 96th in the center and tasked with the mission of capturing Shuri itself. On 19 April, a massive bombardment by twenty-seven battalions of field artillery and naval gunfire, followed by the largest air strike of the campaign, pounded Japanese positions. The artillery and aerial bombing, however, did little to weaken Japanese resistance and the American advance south was largely blocked for more than a week. The Deadeyes were able to push forward through the enemy defenses, using flamethrower tanks and demolition teams in what Lieutenant General Buckner termed “blowtorch and corkscrew” methods, and take Tanaburo Ridge. From 26-29 April, the 96th attacked Japanese positions along the Maeda Escarpment, achieving little and suffering heavy casualties in the process. On 1 May, the 96th was relieved by the 77th Infantry Division for rest and rehabilitation. During its week off the line, the Deadeyes enjoyed performances by the division band, a limited supply of Coca Cola, and movies, although the first evening of showings was interrupted nine times by air raid sirens. The 96th also took on 2,600 replacements to fill its ranks depleted by the intense fighting so far on Okinawa.

After relieving the 7th Division, the 96th took part in a four-division attack that called for an envelopment of the Shuri Line. While much of the attack, as previous ones, initially stalled against fierce Japanese resistance, the 383d Infantry attacked and captured part of Conical Hill, held it against a fierce enemy counterattack on 13 May, and secured the hill by 15 May. Over the next two weeks, the 96th fought a series of bloody engagements over a series of hills—Sugar, King, Love, Oboe, and Hen—against determined Japanese resistance and torrential rains during the last ten days of May that turned much of the landscape into a quagmire. The final major action for the 96th and all other U.S. forces on Okinawa took place around the Yaeju-Dake Escarpment, a large coral outcropping in the southeast part of the island where the Japanese decided the make their last stand. From 6 through 14 June, the Deadeyes battled the Japanese along the escarpment, with heavy losses on both sides, then fought for several peaks in the area. While Japanese numbers began to dwindle, and American forces took increasing numbers of enemy prisoners, fierce fighting continued.

On 18 June, Lieutenant General Buckner, Tenth Army commander, was killed by enemy artillery while at a forward observation post. The following day, the 96th Division’s assistant division commander, Brigadier General Easley, who had been wounded on Leyte, was killed by machine-gun fire during his daily tour of the front. The last week of June was spent mopping up the last of Japanese resistance; on 2 July, the fighting on Okinawa came to an end and the island was declared secured. By the time the battle for Okinawa concluded, the 96th Division suffered 1,598 killed or missing and 5,614 wounded, the highest number of casualties in any XXIV Corps division during the campaign. The 96th Division departed Okinawa on 22 July and arrived at Mindoro in the Philippines, where it remained through the end of World War II. Rather than serving with the occupation forces in Japan, the Deadeyes remained in the Philippines. On 17 January 1946, the 96th left the Philippines for the United States, arriving at the Port of Los Angeles on 2 February. It was inactivated the following day at Camp Anza, California.

Five soldiers from the 96th were awarded the Medal of Honor—one for actions in the battle for Leyte and four for Okinawa; three of the five were posthumous awards. Eighteen soldiers were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and hundreds of the division’s men received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, or other decorations. In addition to earning two campaign streamers—Leyte and Ryukyus—the Deadeyes were awarded the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation for Leyte. On 31 December 1946, the 96th Infantry Division was activated in the Organized Reserves (later Organized Reserve Corps in 1948 and U.S. Army Reserve in July 1952) with headquarters in Helena, Montana. The division’s headquarters remained in Montana until it moved to Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah. It remained there until it was inactivated on 31 December 1965, ending the 96th Infantry Division’s service as a division. Since 1965, a number of Army Reserve units, including the 96th Army Reserve Command and the current 96th Sustainment Brigade, wear the shoulder sleeve insignia of the 96th Infantry Division, but these units do not share the lineage of the same unit with the proud combat history in the Pacific Theater of World War II.