When Jim Marr graduated from Glide High School in 1937 and joined the Oregon National Guard a few months later, he didn’t quite know what he was getting into.
He envisioned helping during natural disasters and other emergencies in Oregon. At a time when a day’s work on a ranch paid $1, he could earn the same pay by drilling for two hours with the Guard. In the end, Marr was pressed into active duty and sent across the world to fight with one of the most heralded units in World War II, the 41st Infantry Division.
Known for its distinctive insignia of a yellow sun against a red background, the Sunset Division, as it was called, was one of the first Army divisions sent overseas as the United States entered the war.
Marr, now 93 and the retired owner of Marr’s RV, was one of 120 National Guard members from Douglas County who were called to active duty September 16, 1940 — a date Marr recites from memory. The group was to train at Camp Murray in Washington state, on what Marr wryly calls “the swamp behind Fort Lewis.”
After the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, former guardsmen from Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Montana who made up the 41st Division were sent to posts from the Canadian border south to Oregon to protect against a possible invasion by the Japanese.
Later, members of the 41st were sent to Fort Dix, N.J., for two weeks of training and then driven to Brooklyn in the middle of the night and led onboard a ship that was to take them to an undisclosed location.
“They didn’t tell us where we were going,” said Marr, who lives at the Garden Valley Retirement Center in Roseburg. “We were the first full division committed to the South Pacific.”
Forty days later, after a trek that including passing through the Panama Canal, the ship arrived in Melbourne, Australia. The soldiers underwent a couple of months of jungle warfare training and lessons in landing via an amphibious troop carrier.
Members of the 41st fought in the jungles of New Guinea and in the rain forests of the Philippines, earning the soldiers the name Jungleers. By the time the war ended, the Sunset Division had fought in more campaigns than any other division. It also spent nearly four years overseas, longer than any other division.
Back at Fort Murray, the 41st was told it was the best National Guard unit in the nation and the third-best unit in the nation when regular Army divisions were included. Marr figures that was the reason the division was involved in some of the most intense fighting in the war.
The 41st Infantry Division received a presidential citation for enduring 76 days of combat without reinforcements at Salamaua, a small town on the northeastern coast of Papua, New Guinea. The entire division was also awarded a Bronze Star Medal and in 2008 was inducted into the Oregon Military Hall of Fame.
The war took a heavy toll. A total of 965 members of the unit were killed in action and another 5,624 were wounded.
“It was rough stuff,” Marr said. “We lost a lot of friends over that period of time.”
Roseburg author Rennie Guyer, who interviewed Marr for a book he is writing, said Marr has an incredibly sharp mind for events that took place 70 years ago. His memory of dates and events is uncanny, he said. He also shows much concern over the men he served with.
“He’s a man of enormous character,” Guyer said.
Marr said it was fortunate that only three members of the 41st who came from the ranks of the National Guard from Douglas County were killed.
Heavy fighting against the Japanese took place at Salamaua, where there were no roads, only crude trails leading from the mountains to the beach.
“They told us we’d have 21 days of rough going,” Marr said. “We ended up going 76 days without reinforcements of any kind.”
For 26 days, only canned rations were available and even those were in short supply. At the end of the campaign, Tokyo Rose, the name given to a dozen English-speaking women who broadcast Japanese propaganda aimed at Allied forces on the radio, called the 41st Division the “Bloody Butchers” because of the large number of Japanese soldiers killed at Salamaua.
“That was our entertainment,” listening to Rose on Radio Tokyo, Marr said. “Interestingly, she was highly accurate about where we were and what we were doing,” he said.
Marr met his late wife, Virginia, who died four years ago, at the old Horn’s Ice Cream Shop on Southeast Jackson Street. She was chief clerk of the local draft board and graduated a year after Marr at Roseburg High.
“She always said she drafted me,” Marr said laughing.
• You can reach reporter John Sowell at 541-957-4209 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
They didn’t tell us where we were going. We were the first full division committed to the South Pacific.