FeatureFootsteps

‘Screw-up’ NCO highlights history of Midwest’s storied 35th Infantry Division


By JONATHAN (JAY) KOESTER
NCO Journal

The history of every Army division is filled with stories of sacrifice and heroism. These stories are filled with top-notch noncommissioned officers who led their Soldiers through missions with seemingly impossible odds, but great leadership made them possible. The history of the 35th Infantry Division, a National Guard division headquartered at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., is no different.

But the story of one of the 35th ID’s most decorated NCOs is a little divergent. Staff Sgt. Junior James Spurrier was the only 35th ID Soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War II. He also received a Distinguished Service Cross earlier in the war.

But Spurrier wasn’t always known to “lead from the front” or to be “on point.” To be blunt, said Ed Gerhardt, president of the 35th Infantry Museum’s board of directors, Spurrier was a screw-up. But that same quality, plus a heart full of bravery, led Spurrier to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions on Nov. 13, 1944.

Staff Sgt. Junior James Spurrier was the only 35th Infantry Division Soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II.
Staff Sgt. Junior James Spurrier was the only 35th Infantry Division Soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II.

“Spurrier was always in trouble, and they were about ready to bust him,” Gerhardt said. “One morning, he stole a can of peaches from the mess hall, and while he was eating those, he missed formation. His unit moved out without him, and they were going to go around and take this town (Achain, France) from the other side. Spurrier suddenly realized they had moved out without him, so he grabbed his gun and he headed into town from the opposite direction.”

Whether Spurrier meant to attack from the opposite side, or just didn’t know where the rest of his unit was or understand the direction of the attack, is not known. But his move led to the famous order from Lt. Col. Frederick Roecker: “Attack Achain! Company G from the east, and Spurrier from the west!”

“Spurrier shot the first three Nazis with his M-1,” reads a description of the battle in Attack: The Story of the 35th Infantry Division, published in 1945. “Then, picking up BARs, (Browning Automatic Rifles) Yank and German bazookas and grenades wherever he found them, he systematically began to clean out the town. He crumbled one stronghold with bazooka shells, killed three more Nazis with a BAR, and captured a garrison commander, a lieutenant and 14 men. Another defense point was silenced when he killed its two occupants. Out of ammunition and under fire from four Nazis, Spurrier hurled a Nazi grenade into the house, killing the four Germans.

“That night, the one-man army had charge of an outpost. While checking security, he heard four Germans talking in a barn. He set fire to a supply of oil and hay, captured the four as they ran out. Later, he spotted a [German] crawling toward a sentry, killed him when there was no reply to his challenge.

“According to 25-year-old Lt. Col. Frederick Roecker, his battalion commanding officer, Spurrier killed 25 Germans, captured 20 others. In March 1945, Sgt. Spurrier was awarded the division’s first Medal of Honor.”

Earlier in the war, Spurrier received the Distinguished Service Cross for capturing a hill near Nancy, France. Riding on the top of a tank, firing from the rear with a Browning Automatic Rifle, he moved through German lines, killing an estimated 25 Germans, with another 22 Germans surrendering. Later in the war, Spurrier was awarded his second Purple Heart during the Battle of the Bulge after he was knocked unconscious in the snow by a mortar shell. A display in the 35th Infantry Division Museum states, “His actions repeatedly reflected the motto of his unit, the 134th Infantry, ‘All Hell Can’t Stop Us.’”

35th Infantry Division beginnings

The history of the 35th Infantry Division begins in World War I with Soldiers from Kansas and Missouri National Guard units. Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Newton, the command sergeant major of the 35th ID, said the storied history of the division is something its leaders try to teach newcomers right away.

“One of the things we do at division headquarters is when someone new comes to the division, we go over the division history,” Newton said. “We explain, the 35th ID was founded (at Camp Doniphan, Okla.) in August of 1917, and we went over to World War I (in May 1918). The division only served about a month and a half in combat during World War I, but the combat losses that they had in that short amount of time were just astronomical, over 5,000.” [During World War I, the 35th had 1,298 Soldiers killed in action and 5,988 wounded.]

Captain Harry S. Truman, who went on to become the 33rd president of the United States, served as a battery commander for Battery D, 129th Field Artillery Regiment, 35th Infantry Division during World War I.

Forces of the 35th ID took Vauquois Hill, France, on their first day of action in World War I, followed by Varennes, Cheppy and Very. The next day they seized Valmy, then soon after Montrebeau Woods. In a short period of time, the 35th ID had made major contributions to the final defeat of Germany’s army.

Taken out of active service at Camp Funston, Kan., in May 1919, the 35th again became a National Guard division, consisting of regiments from Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

World War II

On Dec. 23, 1940, the 35th ID was mobilized for World War II and began training at Camp Robinson, Ark. In 1941, the division participated in the Louisiana Maneuvers and, after the Pearl Harbor attack, performed coastal defense duties near San Luis Obispo, Calif. In April 1943, the division moved to Camp Rucker, Ala., for advanced training. In May 1944, the division sailed to England where it prepared for invasion.

An exhibit at the 35th Infantry Division Museum in Topeka, Kan., displays letters from the front that Sgt. John Douglas Porter wrote to his wife during World War II. Porter, of  Headquarters Company, 35th Infantry Division, wrote more than 500 letters to his wife, Helen. The "Love Letters from the Front" were donated to the museum by Porter's family. (Photos by Jonathan (Jay) Koester / NCO Journal)
An exhibit at the 35th Infantry Division Museum in Topeka, Kan., displays letters from the front that Sgt. John Douglas Porter wrote to his wife during World War II. Porter, of Headquarters Company, 35th Infantry Division, wrote more than 500 letters to his wife, Helen. The “Love Letters from the Front” were donated to the museum by Porter’s family. (Photos by Jonathan (Jay) Koester / NCO Journal)

By July 7, the 35th Infantry Division had landed on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, and began combat operations soon thereafter amid the hedgerows north of St. Lo. After fierce battles with the Germans, the 35th entered St. Lo on July 18.

“Three weeks before, the 35th had been made up of green troops still in an English training camp,” reads the history book, The 35th Infantry Division in World War II, 1941-1945. “Now, scarred but battlewise, they were the veterans of their first bitter campaign of World War II. Unheralded, they had entered a situation that ranked with the beachhead landings and had emerged the victors.”

Continuing the advance, the 35th took town after town, including Mortain, Orleans and Sens, finally reaching Nancy, France, by mid-September. During that three-month push, the 35th covered more miles than any other front-line division. The division continued to push its way across France, until, at last, on Dec. 11, 1944, Soldiers reached the Blies River, the last barrier to German soil.

“This ended a period in which the division had fought continuously for 162 days,” reads the 35th history book. “The artillery battalions had maintained fire direction centers 24 hours a day. Staff sections had not ceased operations except to move – 3,888 consecutive hours of operation. This was a record that few, if any, division surpassed in World War II.”

After those difficult 162 days, the 35th withdrew to Metz, France, for a rest. But the Battle of the Bulge quickly interrupted that rest, and the division was rushed 80 miles to the Ardennes forest. From Dec. 27 to Jan. 21, the division successfully held off the German armored columns. One of the 35th’s battalions was among the first units to pierce the ring around Bastogne, Belgium, where the 101st Airborne Division was besieged.

By March 11, the 35th was at the Rhine River. The division began crossing the Rhine on March 26, during a powerful Allied air attack. After crossing the river, the division conquered city after city, rounding up 3,770 prisoners in 18 days. The divisions sped all the way to the Elbe River, making them the American troops nearest Berlin. On Victory in Europe day, May 8, 1945, the division command post was at Dohren, Germany.

In 10 months, the 35th had fought almost continuously over 1,600 combat miles and had suffered more than 15,000 casualties. The war over, the division’s Soldiers moved to Hanover, Germany, for occupation duty.

On display at the 35th Infantry Museum in Topeka, Kan., is a booklet from World War II. “That booklet was given to our troops on occupation duty in 1945,” said Ed Gerhardt, president of the 35th Infantry Museum’s board of directors. “When we put this exhibit together, we found this booklet and found that picture in it. On the back of the picture, it says, ‘To Brownie, Just so you’ll remember the fun we had at Meurvild. Cecille.’ ‘Non-fraternization 22 June 1945.’”
On display at the 35th Infantry Museum in Topeka, Kan., is a booklet from World War II. “That booklet was given to our troops on occupation duty in 1945,” said Ed Gerhardt, president of the 35th Infantry Museum’s board of directors. “When we put this exhibit together, we found this booklet and found that picture in it. On the back of the picture, it says, ‘To Brownie, Just so you’ll remember the fun we had at Meurvild. Cecille.’ ‘Non-fraternization 22 June 1945.’”

An article in the July 3, 1945, edition of the Kansas City Star regaled readers with the tales of a well-fought war. Maj. Gen. Paul W. Baade, the commanding general of the 35th, told the newspaper that the division’s Soldiers had much to be proud of.

“You can tell the mothers and fathers, sweethearts and wives, of the 35th Division boys that no outfit did a better job in bringing Germany to her knees,” Baade said. “There were many divisions just as good as ours, but none any better.

“The fighting spirit of the Midwestern lad never faltered from the day we first went into action in the St. Lo offensive,” he continued. “It was a great privilege for me to lead a division like the 35th. Some of our assignments were the toughest of the war and we suffered many casualties in order that others might be saved. I would like to convey to the relatives of those who will not return the comforting thought that everyone who does not return died a hero’s death, and by so doing has done his bit to prevent another world war.”

Reorganizations and peacekeeping missions

The years after World War II led to several inactivations and reactivations for the 35th Infantry Division. On Dec. 7, 1945, the division was inactivated. In late 1946 and early 1947, the division was reorganized as a Kansas and Missouri division. The division continued to recruit and train until 1963, when it was inactivated, along with three other National Guard divisions.

In early 1983, the Army began the process organize the 35th as a mechanized infantry division from Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado and Kentucky National Guard units. The division headquarters was established Sept. 30, 1983, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. On Aug. 25, 1984, the 35th Division reactivation ceremony occurred at Fort Leavenworth.

After being notified in 2001 that the 35th Infantry Division would be tasked with the command of the stabilization force in Bosnia in 2003, the division’s Soldiers began training for the mission. On Jan. 19, 2003, more than 1,000 Soldiers began the mission in Bosnia. On June 13, 2003, they began “Operation Tornado,” an air and ground assault to secure an area near the town of Han Pijesak. During the mission, they found a series of bunkers hiding a large cache of weapons, missiles and mines. The division returned to Kansas in October after completing a six-month deployment.

In the fall of 2007, the 35th division served as the headquarters unit for Task Force Falcon, a multinational peacekeeping force in Kosovo, where about 200 division Soldiers served for a year. The division also served as a headquarters unit for disaster relief during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 in Louisiana.

“Our division is a pretty busy organization,” Newton said. “Our division headquarters is authorized 722 positions. Our organization is different in that we’re split between two states. The flag is here at Fort Leavenworth, and about a third of the personnel here in Kansas, and the other two-thirds are in Missouri. We share a relationship with two states. Our units are in different states, so we are truly just a headquarters command.”

Santa Fe division’s patch

The history of the 35th Infantry Division is deeply tied to the Santa Fe Trail, which 19th century pioneers used to travel to and develop the West. With the division originally getting many of its Soldiers from states along the trail (Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska), and with their World War I training taking place at Camp Doniphan, Okla., near the eastern end of the trail, the division quickly became known as the Santa Fe Division.

The patches of the 35th Infantry Division are on display at the division museum in Topeka, Kan.
The patches of the 35th Infantry Division are on display at the division museum in Topeka, Kan.

That historical connection with the Santa Fe Trail is nowhere more clear than at its headquarters at Fort Leavenworth, Newton said.

“There’s a spot on Fort Leavenworth where you can still see the wagon wheel ruts in the ground, where the wagons came off the boats going from Missouri to Kansas,” he said. “You can see where the trail starts.”

The division’s patch, consisting of a white Santa Fe cross on a wagon wheel, also harkens back to that history.

“The patch symbolizes the wagon wheel, and the cross symbolizes the path that they had along the trail,” Newton said. “The crosses guided early settlers across the state and to the west.”

Sgt. 1st Class James Knight, an operations NCO for the 35th Infantry Division at its headquarters at Fort Leavenworth, said it’s been special opportunity to serve in the unit he grew up around as a kid in Leavenworth, Kan.

“I’m proud that this division, from World War I to World War II, basically came from the same heart-of-America-type people from Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska,” Knight said. “I grew up right here in Leavenworth, so I remember when this headquarters building was built. I’ve always seen this patch. There’s a ton of history with the 35th. We don’t have the Rock of the Marne or anything like that, but we did do a lot in World War I and World War II.

“It was the first patch I put on when I joined the National Guard,” he said. “I’ve worn a couple of different patches, but mainly I’ve worn this one. Now, my kids, too, have seen it their whole lives, and it means something to them, too.”

Newton said he hopes new Soldiers to the division can appreciate its history and the sacrifices of those who came before.

“What’s important to me is sharing the history and keeping the history of the division alive,” Newton said. “There are some incredible stories. For instance, in the Hall of Fame (at the 35th Infantry Museum in Topeka, Kan.), you’ll see Major General (retired) Charles Browne. He enlisted in the Kansas National Guard in 1926. He went up through all the NCO ranks, then he was commissioned in 1939, just before the war. He held every single NCO rank and every single officer rank in the division. That’s unheard of. Modern day, you would never have anyone like that. He went from private to commanding general of the division.

“Our history really makes me appreciate what we have today,” he said. “When you see what the Soldiers before us went through, the casualty rates during World War I and World War II were astronomical. They faced death every day. But these Soldiers did it because it was their duty. You don’t complain about it, you go out and complete your mission.

“Be proud of the patch you wear on your shoulder, your unit crest. Understand the story behind it. I want to keep the story alive and not forget those who have sacrificed for us. Appreciate what you have today.”