Before Toem-Arare: The Bushmasters in MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific


Before Toem-Arare: The Bushmasters in MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific

Many members of the 158th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed “Bushmasters,” were Native Americans from such tribes as the Pimas, Papagos, and Maricopas of Arizona.

Many members of the 158th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed “Bushmasters,” were Native Americans from such tribes as the Pimas, Papagos, and Maricopas of Arizona.

by Al Hemingway

Lieutenant General Hachiro Tagami, commanding officer of the 36th Division, dubbed the Tiger Division, did not like the news he had received from Imperial Army Headquarters in Tokyo. Although his food and ammunition were running low, he was ordered to take the offensive in the Wakde-Sarmi, New Guinea, area.

The Japanese high command had written off the region as a “lost cause” and the new main line of resistance (MLR) had been adjusted 200 miles farther west at the newly formed Biak-Manokwari Line. Tagami was disgusted by the decision, but had to follow orders. He had to “hold out as best he could” against the Allied juggernaut in the New Guinea region.

Douglas MacArthur’s “Leapfrogging” Strategy

For several months, while the Japanese were trying to anticipate his next move, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, had used an effective “leapfrogging” strategy. In April 1944, he moved into Hollandia, a strategy that caught the enemy completely off guard. The Japanese high command had fully expected MacArthur to strike at Wewak, a large staging base that possessed two airfields. Instead the supreme Allied leader pushed ahead 110 miles and invaded Wakde Island, just off the northern coastline, for its airstrip. Soldiers from the Alamo Task Force, consisting of the U.S. 41st Division, waded ashore on May 17, 1944, and quickly killed most of the 800-man Japanese garrison defending the island. MacArthur now had the all-important airfield under his control.

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From his vantage point atop a hill near Maffin Airdrome just across the bay, Tagami had watchedas his troops were destroyed. He pondered the Americans’ next move. He did not have long to wait.

Initially, MacArthur had opted not to invade Sarmi. It was reported to be “fuller of Nips and supplies than a mangy dog is with fleas.” However, it was decided that Wakde Island “would not be secure without the mainland,” so additional troops were deployed to assault the Sarmi area.

The “Bushmasters” Namesake

Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, commanding general of the Sixth Army, ordered the Tornado Task Force, camped at Finschhafen, New Guinea, to proceed to the Toem-Arare region. The Tornado Task Force consisted of the 158th Regimental Combat Team (RCT), 147th Field Artillery Battalion, the 506th Medical Collecting Company, and the 1st Platoon, 637th Medical Clearing Company.

Originally part of the Arizona National Guard, the 158th was reorganized and sent to the Panama Canal Zone at the outset of the war to provide security, flush out enemy radio broadcasting stations, and test new jungle equipment. While encamped there, they were quickly given the sobriquet “Bushmasters,” after a poisonous snake indigenous to the country.

Many of the soldiers in the Bushmasters were Native Americans from such tribes as the Pimas, Papagos, and Maricopas of Arizona. There were numerous Mexican Americans within the unit as well. Because of this diverse mixture, the soldiers had to bear insults and racial slurs. Most quietly maintained their composure and waited for the day they could prove themselves on the battlefield.

Setting Sail for the Southwest Pacific

As an autonomous unit, the 158th RCT set sail for the Southwest Pacific in January 1943. After a short respite in Brisbane, Australia, the regiment took part in the occupation of the Trobriand Islands—Kiriwina, Goodenough, and Woodlark.

In January 1944, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were dispatched to Arawe, New Britain, to augment the 112th Cavalry Regiment fighting the Japanese. Reinforced by Shermans from the 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, the Bushmasters performed well in their initial taste of combat, capturing several enemy strongholds and seizing a 75mm howitzer. When the New Britain campaign ended, the Bushmasters sailed back to Goodenough and Woodlark to refit for their next assignment. That mission would prove to be much more dangerous than the one they had just endured.


Add Your Comments


  1. Gary Daniel
    Posted May 23, 2015 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Fort Tuthill in Flagstaff was home of the 158th. There’s even a Bushmaster Park on the East Side. The fort has been turned into the Fairgrounds for Coconino County. There is a little museum about Fort Tuthill.

  2. Woody
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    The 158th home is at 52nd Street & McDowell Rd in the heart if Phoenix…the 158th Museum is housed in the last remaining building of when the area was a POW camp for Germans and on their current home…

  3. Lisa J ( McNair) Kat
    Posted November 12, 2016 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    why nothing about Gen McNair. I am sorry for being rude, but this kills me, truly. He was not supposed to be looked over, or heaven sakes, He was a Gen, Friendly fire, His only child, son killed 2 weeks later. My apologies if I missed a mention of him here. But I would’ve thought it be obvious a header . But apparently not. Thank you

    Lisa J McNair Katnic

    • James Denton
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      Unfamiliar with your story, can you tell me more? Thanks.

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