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Birth of the Bushmasters

The trial-by-fire training of Arizona’s 158th Infantry in the wilds of Panama in 1942 not only prepared its Soldiers for combat—it also gave rise to a rigorous jungle warfare regimen still practiced by the U.S. military.
Photo from the Arizona State University Libraries Collection
Photo from the Arizona State University Libraries Collection

In 1940, the Arizona Army National Guard consisted of only 1,466 troops, with a majority assigned to the 158th Infantry Regiment. One of the Soldiers who joined the following January was Guadalupe “Lupe” Lopez of Tucson, AZ. Within four years, Lopez and the unit’s other members would make a name for themselves that lives on to this day and is synonymous with valor: the Bushmasters.

Lopez’s service with the unit illustrates the hardships the Bushmasters faced, the bravery they showed and the sacrifices they made in some of the most harrowing corners of the Pacific in WWII. Thrust from arid desert into sweltering jungle, they battled both the elements and the enemy, playing a critical role in the Allies’ eventual victory and developing war tactics that would be studied, cultivated and employed by generations of Soldiers to come. 

One of seven children born to a farmhand and his wife, Lopez grew up amid the backdrop of the Great Depression. He and his brothers and sisters spent most of their childhood playing in the vast Arizona desert. The jagged rocks, cholla cactus and scrub brush surrounding their home never slowed them down despite the fact that they rarely had shoes to wear. 

Like many in his community, Lopez never attended high school, instead working on farms to help support his parents, Ignacio and Rosario. But Ignacio wanted more for his kids and encouraged Lopez to enlist. The $50 monthly salary would be a welcome change compared to the minimal wages of working the fields. Plus, the military would give Lopez the chance to experience the world beyond the borders of their desert town.

Lopez signed on with the 158th in 1941. A rifleman, he joined the unit just a few months after it had been activated into federal service. After training at Fort Sill, OK, and Camp Barkeley, TX, Lopez and his comrades learned they were destined for a vital yet vulnerable artery of America’s defense system—the Panama Canal.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was one of many attacks in the Pacific by the Japanese, who were determined to seize resources and become the dominant power in the region. As U.S. military campaigns reached into the Pacific Rim, the development of jungle warfare tactics was rapidly becoming a top priority. 

Before heading into the dense jungles of Panama, Soldiers of C Company, 158th Infantry Regiment, trained at Camp Barkeley, TX.

KINGS OF THE JUNGLE 

Arriving in Panama on Jan. 2, 1942, Lopez and the Soldiers of the 158th began an intense training program deep within the country’s jungles, which were better suited for insects and reptiles than for men. For weeks on end, rains soaked the Soldiers as they hacked through thick vegetation with machetes, callusing their hands. Frequent dealings with deadly Central American pit vipers led the unit to adopt a nickname: the Bushmasters. 

A Popular Mechanics article from 1943 recounts the abilities of the jungle warriors: “One of America’s most colorful and least known Soldiers of WWII is the Bushmaster. … His tactics are borrowed from native jungle fighters, the American Indian, British commandos, exponents of judo and the Shanghai underworld. … He moves through the bush like a green shadow, flicking his wrist to cut a path with his knife. With his fellow Bushmasters, he disappears from civilization for weeks at a time. The men know how to sustain themselves on wild fare supplemented by ‘iron ration’ carried in their packs. When they are not testing their camouflage against aerial observers, making camp in a swamp or working out an intricate code of communications, they practice jiujitsu or improve on the native’s technique with the machete. The Bushmaster bows to no man in the art of hand-to-hand fighting, and any unwary [enemy] who crosses his path would probably never know what hit him.”

The fighting techniques the Bushmasters honed in Panama would prompt General Douglas MacArthur to request the Soldiers be sent to the Pacific theater. There, the unit’s specialized skills would serve them well throughout the war, and would form the foundation of the Army’s modern-day jungle warfare training program. 

No doubt, Lopez’s upbringing in the harsh Arizona desert contributed to his ability to adapt to the brutal conditions in which he found himself.

During one early operation, his squad came under attack while on patrol in a village. Seeking cover in a hut, Lopez took up a position on the floor, directly beneath a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. As the firefight raged, the makeshift shelter was riddled with bullets, and Lopez prayed he’d survive to see it end. When the jungle finally fell silent, he paused to gather himself before heading back outside. Looking up, he saw the religious image above him miraculously undisturbed on the bamboo wall, every other inch of which had been penetrated by gunfire. It would not be the last time his faith would guide him during some of the fiercest fighting of WWII.

Bushmasters use a flamethrower to clear an enemy bunker.

BLOODY SUNDAY 

In January 1943—now joined by members of the South Dakota Guard’s 147th Field Artillery Battalion and operating together as the 158th Regimental Combat Team—Lopez and his comrades arrived in Brisbane, Australia, site of headquarters for the newly activated Sixth U.S. Army. Under the command of Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, the Sixth Army had assumed control of units fighting to neutralize the Japanese base in New Britain, New Guinea. Over the next two years, the 158th would battle its way through the southwestern Pacific, unknowingly charting a course for what would become one of its costliest challenges during the war. 

On Jan. 6, 1945, the Allies launched an amphibious attack to gain control of the Lingayen Gulf in northwestern Luzon in the Philippines. Japan had occupied the strategically important gulf since December 1941, when MacArthur ordered troops to retreat from Luzon after they were defeated by the Japanese 14th Army.

Following three days of intense naval and air bombardments, including attacks by Japanese kamikazes, Allied troops landed on the coast of Luzon, establishing a 20-mile beachhead and utilizing the gulf as a supply depot for the remainder of the war. From there, the mission was to press southward to Manila.

The 158th was tasked with locating and destroying Japanese artillery hidden within the island’s mountains. Concealed under nipa huts and mounted on rails, the guns could be moved into position to fire and then back to their original placements, disguising them from aerial observation.

Early on Jan. 14, the 158th moved out of the village of Damortis along a stretch of road bearing the name of Lopez’s mother—Damortis-Rosario. The terrain to the north and south was paralleled by a network of ridges with an adjoining series of spurs and draws. Enemy tunnels had been constructed to allow artillery pieces to be run through a ridge from the reverse slope. Fortified defensive positions had zeroed in on every possible approach by the assaulting elements.

The 158th was entrusted with protecting the north flank. A Company was in the lead, with C Company close behind. The Japanese held their fire until the advancing units were directly under their muzzles.

The exercises conducted by the 158th in Panama in 1942 form the basis of the Army’s modern-day jungle warfare training regimen.

As C Company crossed a field of rice paddies, the sky opened up in gunfire, raining lead and artillery shells. In the blink of an eye, the center body of C Company was gone. Up ahead, A Company, now cut off from its trailing comrades, was experiencing communication issues. As its Soldiers took up a position just off the roadway near a line of shacks, the Japanese unleashed a second barrage of artillery fire, bringing another wave of casualties. 

The shattered companies began to retreat. As the Japanese continued to shell the area, Lopez, assigned to the rear guard and under heavy fire, assisted in the extraction of wounded Soldiers from the battlefield to a waiting jeep. Once. Twice. Three times. Four.

“Jump in!” the driver shouted.

But there was no room left. In a literal leap of faith, Lopez jumped onto the back spare tire as the vehicle sped off down the rugged jungle road. Again he prayed, this time for the strength to hold on just a little longer.

Until his death in September 2015—just months shy of his 97th birthday—Lopez attributed divine intervention with leading him out of the jungle that day. “Bloody Sunday,” as it came to be known, marked the highest number of casualties sustained by the 158th in any battle during its history.

Despite its devastating losses on Bloody Sunday, the 158th pressed on, helping to gain control of the integral route. For the remainder of WWII, the unit would continually find itself on the frontline of operations, charged with suppressing Japanese actions in the region. When Japan surrendered in August 1945 following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Bushmasters’ scheduled invasion of Tanegashima, Japan, was called off. Had the assault—part of a plan codenamed Operation Downfall—taken place, the mission would have marked the first hostile landing on Japanese soil in over six centuries.

Deactivated from federal service on Jan. 17, 1946, the Soldiers of the 158th hold the record for the longest continuous wartime service by any National Guard unit in U.S. history.

A HERO RETURNS 

Discharged in June 1945, Lopez returned home to face the challenges of re-entering the very society he’d helped shield from the hardships of war. After a series of odd jobs—including fishmonger and cement mason—he began working for the City of Tucson.

For his heroism on Bloody Sunday, Lopez received the Silver Star in August 1946. A letter from the War Department summarized his courageousness: “The fearless actions of Sergeant Lopez undoubtedly resulted in saving some of the men’s lives, and his gallant conduct was an inspiration to the men working with him.”

In the years that followed, Lopez married and became a father of six. Although too humble to speak much about his WWII experience, he remained proud to have served his country with the Arizona National Guard. His time with the 158th defined him.

Near the end of his life, Lopez sat in a medical exam room with one of his sons, awaiting test results. The appointment had proven to be daunting for the 96-year-old. “They had me standing for an hour,” Lopez said, slightly hunched in his chair.

“For an hour, Dad,” the son conceded. “But you are a Bushmaster.” 

At that, Lopez’s demeanor changed—he sat tall, back straight, shoulders squared. The pride of the Bushmaster endures.


PACIFIC TOUR

“No greater fighting combat team has ever deployed for battle.”

That’s how General Douglas MacArthur described the Bushmasters. The 158th Infantry’s exploits throughout the Pacific theater established its combat record as among the most distinguished of WWII. Here’s a geographical breakdown of the unit’s major movements and campaigns:

  1. January 1942, Canal Zone defense and jungle warfare training, Panama
  2. January 1943, Brisbane, Australia
  3. July 1943, Kiriwina, Papua New Guinea
  4. December 1943, Battle of Arawe, New Britain, Papua New Guinea
  5. May 1944, Assault on Wakde Island, Indonesia
  6. January 1945, Invasion of Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, Philippines
  7. Jan. 14, 1945, “Bloody Sunday,” Luzon, Philippines
  8. March 1945, Battle of Batangas, Philippines
  9. April 1945, Assault at Legaspi, Philippines
  10. May 1945, Liberation of Bicol Peninsula, Philippines  


TOOLS FOR THEIR FIGHT
Throughout the Pacific theater, hand-to-hand combat was as common as it was brutal. With camouflaged enemies lying in ambush among dense jungles, the Bushmasters learned to expect the unexpected and adopt a new brand of fighting. In addition to martial arts, these were the tools of their trade: 

Mk 2 hand grenade
This time-fused explosive was known as the “pineapple grenade” because of its grooved design, which aided fragmentation and improved grip. A Soldier had 5 seconds to lob the device, filled with 2 oz. of TNT, at enemy troops before detonation. 

Sash cord
A 5-foot length could be looped around an enemy’s knees and knotted behind the neck, resulting in strangulation. 

Machete
The key tool of jungle operations, the 18-inch machete enabled Soldiers to slice their way through thick curtains of tangled vegetation. As a weapon, it was particularly useful during nighttime attacks, when silence was essential.   

M1 Garand
The WWI-era, bolt-action weapons still in use by the enemy were no match for this semiautomatic powerhouse. Functional and accurate, the .30 cal rifle was called by General George Patton “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” 

M1 Thompson submachine gun
The only submachine gun in mass production by Allied nations in WWII, the Tommy gun offered a blistering rate of fire (up to 1,500 rounds per minute for early models) that was most effective at close range.

 


‘CUIDADO,’ BUSHMASTERS!

Spanish for “take care,” the 158th’s motto has evolved as much as the unit itself. The Bushmasters trace their origins to Arizona’s First Infantry Regiment, which in 1916, assisted General John J. Pershing’s army with dangerous border patrols during the Mexican Revolution. A quarter century later, the phrase took new meaning in the jungles of Panama, which were infested by lethally venomous snakes. One thing that’s never changed is the motto’s dual meaning—both a word of caution to the unit’s Soldiers and a warning to anyone who dares oppose them.