11 March 2011

The Golden Cross Roads

If you stare at something long enough, sometimes you start to see patterns. Driving for hours on the Midwestern flatlands, cornfields blurring past, mind wandering but present, the trick is to recognize when you're making real connections, and when you're just making crop circles.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to travel to downstate Illinois. In a series of coincidences, similar to those I encountered in Mississippi last year, I repeatedly came across the number "33" and the symbol of a Golden Cross--in museums, in roadside signs, and even on bumper stickers.

The 33rd Infantry Division was created in the same pre-World War I years as the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. Where the Red Bull was originally comprised of soldiers from Iowa, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota, however, the 33rd Infantry Division was made up of soldiers from Illinois. The division patch is a golden cross, superimposed on a circular field of black. The symbol's origin stems from an Illinois regiment's pre-WWI practice of marking property with a yellow cross as protection from thievery, based on the belief that the color and shape was anathema to Muslims.

The 33rd Infantry Division fought in Europe in World War I, and in the Pacific in World War II.

Today, the division's heritage is perpetuated by the Illinois Army National Guard's 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (I.B.C.T.). The unit deployed to Afghanistan as Combined Joint Task Force (C.J.T.F.) Phoenix in 2008-2009. Centered on a U.S. National Guard brigade headquarters, CJTF Phoenix was responsible for coordinating an international, multiservice effort to train and mentor Afghan army and police personnel. (Returning to "Red Bull" history for a moment: At one point, as they prepared for deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, the soldiers of Iowa's 2nd BCT, 34th Infantry Division thought they themselves might be tasked with the CJTF Phoenix mission.)

In other words, the 33rd IBCT and the U.S. National Guard was technically responsible for the primary vector toward U.S. military success in Afghanistan: The training of a professional and capable indigenous national security force.

During my recent Illinois travels, a museum exhibit mentioned the American Civil War-era 33rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The states-and-numbers system used in the naming of military units was chewed up and spat out during that war, but somehow the state of Illinois held on to the number 33 during the early 20th century reorganization of the U.S. National Guard.

I have yet to connect the official unit genealogy--the "unit lineage"--between the Civil War-era 33rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment and the modern-day 33rd IBCT. The numerical similarity, however, caused me to ponder a sequence of U.S. National Guard divisions created in the years prior to World War I. Was there a reason that the Illinois unit was designated "33"? Was there a reason that the "Red Bull" was numbered "34"? Were there other connections to be made?
Obviously, the 36th Infantry's "Arrowhead" is the outlier, the only non-Midwestern state in the sequence. In terms of geographic adjacencies, the shapes of unit patches, the nicknames of the units, the possible patterns seem neither random nor entirely rational.

For example: The unit patches of the 33rd, the 35th, and the 37th divisions, for example, are all circular. Those of the 32nd, 36th, and 38th are varying types of triangles. The 34th, 35th, and 38th were all originally named regarding significant weather or terrain of their respective World War I training sites.

It's all fun to think about, but I'm not sure it gets me anywhere.

Look at something long enough, and you start to see things. Sometimes, there are patterns to be found, even out on the prairie. Other times, you seem to travel in circles.

Finding where you started, however, doesn't necessarily mean you've ended up in the same place.


  1. 134th Infantry from Nebraska was a plankholder unit in the 34th Division before World War One, as you reported in your heraldry article, not the Santa Fe division. Nebraska was a part of the 34th in WWI, then in the interwar reorg, joined the 35th, where here most recent claim to fame was made at St. Lo, the Bulge, and the Rhine.

  2. Sherpa - Thanks for the lesson! (I guess it takes a Red Bull to teach an IL Guardsman a thing or two.)

    33rd BCT includes 178th IN BN, 130th IN BN, 122nd FA, 634th BSTB, 106th CAV and some others. We've also go a LOT of transportation units...

    Next time you're in IL, travel a little farther north, so I can show you Chicago!


  3. Sherpa,

    Take a look at http://www.history.army.mil/books/lineage/m-f/index.htm, particularly chapters 2 & 3. The first WWI organization of the National Guard starts in New England and goes from north to south. There's a few states out of the sequence. The second reorganization incremented the division numbers by 21 to allow room for additional Regular Army divisions.

    Many or most of the subordinate brigades and regiments were numbered sequentially too.

  4. @ Anonymous: Thanks for the assist(s). As you can probably tell, I'm currently wrestling with challenges such as "how to make the National Guard structure (pre-WWI, WWI, WWII, to today) make sense to non-historians and non-mil-geeks." Information and insights such as you've provided is very helpful.

    @ Jeff: Although the Illinois-based project I was pitching last week failed to come to fruition, I'll be keeping an eye out for more things 33rd IBCT. It seems that it/they have a compelling story to tell as well ...


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