85th Infantry Division in World War II
The 85th Infantry Division in World War II
The Custer Chronicle

With the advent of World War II and America again at war, the United States Army re-activated infantry divisions, most of which had been deactivated from service after World War I. Unlike their counterparts from the "Great War", the divisions activated in 1942 and 1943 were filled with draftees and bore little resemblance to the infantry organizations of 1917. The infantry division of 1942 was "triangulated" into three combat teams built around the three infantry regiments of that division. Gone were the old machine gun and specialized battalions, replaced with new Anti-Tank and Service Companies, artillery battalions assigned to each regiment, an engineer and medical battalion for each division along with tightly organized quartermaster and transport companies. Within the first five months of 1942, the War Department set up hundreds of camps and prepared them for the flood of new inductees.

Major General Wade Haislip
Maj. General Wade Haislip, first commander of the 85th Infantry Division
On May 15, 1942, the 85th Infantry Division was formally re-activated at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, which was to be the division's home for the next nine months. Some of the first draftees arrived that afternoon and were greeted by non-commissioned officers who had been arriving since April, with growls of, "Get in line! Attention!" and "Stow that gear!" The Custer Division was ready to start training and building for it's part in the great campaign.

Initially quartered in World War I vintage tents, the newest "Custermen" began basic training while more and more draftees arrived. The division was soon moved to tarpaper and wood frame hutments between 34th and 36th Streets, arranged in company streets with a company office at the head of the street and mess hall at the opposite end. The hutments were slightly more comfortable than the tents, each large enough to house one platoon. The wooden sides of the hut could be opened for ventilation, a must during those hot Mississippi summers, with two coal stoves inside for heat during the winter. Latrines and showers were outside and separate from the huts.

Road marches in full packs proved to be the real test for many of the new GI's- 6, 10, 15 and eventually 25 mile-long marches in the hot Mississippi sun either made one as tough as possible or broke one down. Trucks following the columns picked up those who could not continue. As time went on, the numbers of men who fell out grew fewer.

Training continued at Camp Shelby until the fall of 1942 when the division had reached its quota and all of the artillery and engineer units had been filled. Battalion level field maneuvers were initiated followed with division-level maneuvers in the DeSoto National Forest through March 1943. In the early spring, the division relocated to Louisiana for corps maneuvers which included mock combat with other units, including the famous 100th Infantry Battalion, filled with American soldiers of Japanese ancestry.

Due to the demand for troops with desert combat experience, the 85th Infantry Division was transferred to the Desert Training Center at Camp Pilot Knob, California. In the heat of the arid California summer of 1943, the Custermen undertook tactical maneuvers and live-fire exercises. The training days were long and difficult under tough conditions- fire and maneuver courses, and field navigation by compass in the desert filled the days. The training was not without mishap as one platoon from the 338th Infantry became hopelessly lost in one of the maneuver areas and all perished before help could arrive. Obviously the Polar Bears felt out of place in the 110 degree heat of a southern California desert, but the training proved worthwhile. The regiment completed the desert warfare training in mid-September 1943 and showed off their expertise to visiting officials with a live fire exercise highlighted by following a rolling barrage across the desert.

In October of that year, the division was shipped by rail to Fort Dix, New Jersey prior to assignment overseas. Brief furloughs were granted and old equipment traded for new as the Custermen prepared for duty in an unknown theater of the world war. In December the division arrived at Camp Patrick Henry near the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation and one step away from the final leap to the war front. Last minute arrangements included briefings on hygiene, shots, and arrangements for insurance settlements by every man. An advance party of division headquarters, including General Gerow, the assistant division commander, accompanied the rear elements of the 88th Infantry Division which shipped out of Hampton Roads on December 16 aboard the HMS Empress of Scotland. On December 24, 1943, the 339th Infantry and 328th Field Artillery Battalion left American shores aboard the USS General Alexander E. Anderson followed two days later by the USS General William A. Mann with the 338th Infantry, 329th Field Artillery Battalion, 310th Medical and 310th Engineer Battalions, and other division units. The 337th Infantry, 910th Field Artillery Battalion, and remaining division support units boarded HMS Andes on December 31 and left Hampton Roads on New Year's Day, 1944. The 85th Infantry Division was now in the great Atlantic Ocean, bound for North Africa.

The General Anderson landed in Casablanca on January 2, 1944, where the 339th Infantry Regiment disembarked and bivouacked at Camp Don B. Passage until January 4, when it was taken by rail to St. Denis du Sig. The "Polar Bear regiment" was soon followed by the 338th and 337th Infantry regiments, division artillery and remaining organizations, where mountain and desert training began in the Atlas Mountains. The Custermen quickly acclimated themselves to the desert conditions with its day time heat and intense night time cold.

Disembarking from an LSI in calm waters. Training
at Port Aux Poules was in much rougher seas.

(US Signal Corps Collection, NARA)
In February 1944, the division encamped at the Invasion Training Center at Port Aux Poules, Algeria for amphibious training. Amphibious landings on the African coast proved to be a new and difficult experience. Rough seas and difficulty in maneuvering the light landing craft caused many problems along the landing areas where undercurrents cut away deep holes within the 100 foot line of shore. LCVP's hit sand bars and as the soldiers moved out of the landing craft, some plunged into holes several feet deep. On one occasion of an early morning landing exercise, several soldiers were drowned when their life belts failed to inflate or slung too low on their bodies, the men foundered and were turned upside down in the surf. In late February, rumors were rampant that the division was slated to reinforce the encircled IV Corps Fifth Army units within the beach head at Anzio in Italy and it seemed that these rumors were true when on 6 March 1944, the 339th Infantry was ordered to move from the Atlas Mountains bivouac to Oran on the coast for shipment overseas. The rest of the division was soon to follow.

Sources: Paul Schultz, The 85th Infantry Division in World War II, Infantry Journal Press, 1947
Records of the 85th Infantry Division, National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, DC
Shelby Stanton, World War II Order of Battle, Galahad Books, New York, 1984

The Custer Chronicle, Part 2.

Custer Division The 85th Infantry Division in World War II
The Unofficial Webpages of the Polar Bear Association of World War II:
Veterans of 339th Infantry, 910th FA Bn, 310th Engineer Bn, & 310th Medical Bn

337th Infantry | 338th Infantry | 339th Infantry | Polar Bear Association of World War II | Links