The National Guard has both a proud and mixed legacy. Because Guard units are traditionally hometown-based, they are generally commanded by officers and NCOs who are both older and more sedentary than regular units. In World War II, many Guard units federalized during the 1940-41 mobilization performed poorly in combat in the early going. The 34th Division’s travails during the North African campaign are amply described in Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn.
There were other units, however, that hit a home run during their first at-bat. And this certainly is the story of the 164th Infantry Regiment, later organized into the Americal Division (for “American, New Caledonia”). A regiment of North Dakota Guardsmen, the 164th was sent to New Caledonia in January 1942 and extensively trained with its sister regiments comprising the Americal. Because of the extraordinary emergency faced by the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, the regiment was deployed to fight with the Marines along the Henderson Field perimeter.
Arriving on Guadalcanal on October 13, 1942, the 164th deployed into the perimeter:
Arriving at Guadalcanal on October 13, 1942 ahead of its brother regiments as emergency reinforcement for the 1st Marine Division, the Regiment was the first U.S. Army unit to engage in offensive action during World War II in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Between October 24 and October 27, elements of the regiment withstood repeated assaults from Japanese battalions and inflicted some two thousand enemy casualties. The First Marine commander, Major General A. A. Vandegrift, was so impressed by the soldiers’ stand that he issued a unit commendation to the regiment for having demonstrated “an overwhelming superiority over the enemy.” In addition, the marines took the unusual step of awarding Lt. Colonel Robert Hall, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 164th, with the Navy Cross for his role in these battles.
Until the Americal division commander, Major General Alexander M. Patch, and other units of the division arrived, the 164th fought alongside the Marines in a series of encounters with Japanese units in the Point Cruz area, where they successfully dislodged enemy troops from two hilltop strong points. The action earned them the nickname “The 164th Marines.” Members of the 164th were also known as “jungle fighters” within the U.S. media because of the terrain on which they fought.
The aforementioned Lt. Colonel Hall was an extraordinary character:
As a Lieutenant Colonel, he commanded 3rd Battalion, 164th Infantry during the Battle for Henderson Field in the Guadalcanal Campaign. His regiment, part of the U.S. Army’s Americal Division, had only just arrived on Guadalcanal as an emergency reinforcement and would become the first U.S. Army unit to see action during World War II. In the middle of a dark and rainy night on 24 October 1942, under close combat conditions, he and Lt. Col. Chesty Puller, commander of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, made the decision to place Hall’s men among the understrength Marines rather take their own place on the 7500-ft. line.
Puller and Hall personally placed the soldiers with Marines in existing positions. The soldiers, armed with the new M-1 rifles, added considerable firepower to the Marines, who were armed with the older M1903 Springfield rifles. “With daylight, Puller and Hall reordered the lines, putting (Hall’s) 3rd Battalion, 164th into its own positions to Puller’s left.” Hall’s troops were crucial in helping repulse numerous attacks by troops from the Imperial Japanese Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. The Japanese defeat in the battle was the last serious attempt by Japanese army troops to retake Henderson Field, an important strategic victory for the United States and its allies. Acting on the recommendation of Puller, First Marine Division commander A. A. Vandegrift awarded Colonel Hall the Navy Cross for his role in the battle. This is the only known case of an Army officer winning the Navy Cross.
The command relationship between Hall and Puller and their merged battalion is still studied in military schools. After the battle, the 164th Infantry was informally called “The 164th Marines,” and members were welcomed at Marine reunions for many years.
When the Marines adopt a bunch of National Guardsmen and the Navy gives them its own Presidential Unit Citation, you begin to realize how special they were.