October 16, 2015

The Montana National Guard's service on the international stage

by Katey Myers, Summer Intern, MHS Library

The military is often seen as the four main branches: Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps; while the National Guard is sometimes seen as a separate entity. This is far from the truth. The Montana National Guard has not only consistently played a role in the protection of the state, but also served on the national stage. The Montana Territorial Volunteers were established in 1867, over twenty years before Montana became a state. The First Montana Militia, later known as the Montana National Guard, would serve well beyond Montana’s borders.

During the Philippine-American War in the late 1890s, the 1st Montana Volunteer Infantry Regiment was called into federal service for the first time. Beginning as the 1st Regiment of Infantry in the Montana National Guard during the 1880s, the Volunteer Infantry was in service from May 1898 to October 1899. When the Volunteer Infantry was mustered out of service after the campaign, many of the men’s terms of enlistment were up. Very few - 114 infantry and cavalry soldiers - remained on the National Guard rosters.

With this small number serving in the Montana National Guard, efforts to rebuild the Guard were a priority for Adjunct General Charles English. A lack of funding and support from the state at the time led to inadequate equipment, uniforms, and training. According to English in Orlan Svingen’s Splendid Service: The Montana National Guard, 1867-2006, Montana guardsmen were facing obstacles that jeopardized the militia’s existence due to these inadequacies. With sufficient support from the state, English believed that “there is no reason the Montana National Guard should not rank first…and lead the way to the founding of a National Military Reserve.”

2nd Montana, 163rd Infantry
leaving for France from Helena, MT
October 24, 1917, World War I
MHS Photo Archives # 953-646
At the turn of the twentieth century, legislation from the federal government gave the National Guard a more permanent role in the military on a national level. The Guard’s annual appropriation was raised and equipment was issued by the federal government. In return for the appropriation, the Guard was expected to become a federal reserve force. Due to this change in the duties of the Guard, the Montana National Guard was reorganized and designated the 2nd Montana Infantry Regiment in 1901. Companies were formed all over the state and the Guard, with its new equipment, began a training regimen as well as participated in camps with the Army.

In June 1916, the 2nd Montana Infantry saw their first national service when the regiment was mobilized for guard duty during the Mexican border conflict after the Mexican Revolution. The regimental commander, Colonel “Dynamite Dan” Donohue, was rampant with his recruitment at the time and held extremely high standards for his men. According to Col. Donohue in Splendid Service, new recruits “needed to be from 5 feet 4 inches to 6 feet three inches in height, weigh between 120 and 190 pounds, be able to speak, read, and write English, have generally good health, and be an American citizen.” After fulfilling these requirements, men were then subject to a rigorous training schedule during their time at Fort Harrison.

In early July 1916, the regiment set up camp in Douglas, Arizona. The 2nd Montana Infantry cleared their camp of vegetation and leveled the ground before tents and other structures were laid out in an orderly fashion. While tents were the earliest structures to be erected, a lack of building materials made it difficult to build anything such as mess halls, bathhouses, or any other structures. During their first month of border duty, the Montanans spent most of their time under sniper attack but only two fatalities occurred, both of which were health related.

The Montana Bugle, July 15, 1916
Printed in Douglas, Arizona
Recreational activities were a key part to the daily lives of the men as these activities were used to break up the monotony of continual patrols and afternoon thunderstorms. Chaplain McMullen obtained a large recreational tent for the troops where books and other publications, stationery, games, a piano, an organ, a phonograph, and a moving picture machine were available. During this time, The Montana Bugle was first published. A four page, weekly newspaper, The Montana Bugle (right - copy of one issue) contained news stories about the different companies and the border area, national stories, orders from Col. Donohue, camp gossip, and jokes. This paper was read by citizens in Montana as well as Guard members stationed on the Mexican border.

After only a few months in federal service, the regiment was demobilized at Fort Harrison in October 1916. The 2nd Montana Infantry would only have a few months of peace before once again the call to service was given. In March 1917, the regiment was mobilized in preparation for service in Europe. However, due to the labor unrest in Montana, the Guard began its active service protecting industrial and commercial enterprises that were experiencing strikes.  In July, the Guard was ordered to prepare for duty overseas. As the War Department integrated the National Guard into federal service, the 2nd Montana Infantry was re-designated as the 163rd Infantry Regiment, 41st Division.

Commemoration for the 163rd Infantry
MHS Library Poster P-697, 1917
The early months of the regiment’s service during World War I included training with the Army in camps across the U.S. After being sent overseas in December, the 41st Division was relegated to replacement and depot status. The 163rd was broken up as men were moved to various units. From there, the men continued their training in areas throughout France as well as serving along the front lines. In March 1919, the 163rd returned home.

During the 163rd's service in Europe, 39,276 Montanans served in the armed forces - including the National Guard, draftees, and regular enlistees - out of a state population of 496,131.

After World War I, the pre-war National Guard no longer existed. The Montana National Guard reformed in the 1920s and went on to serve the nation once again in World War II. 



2nd Montana Infantry. Collection #1887. Montana Military History Museum. Fort William Henry Harrison.

Shore, Chester K. Montana in the Wars. Miles City MT: Star Printing Company, 1977.

Svingen, Orlan J. Splendid Service: The Montana National Guard, 1867-2006. Pullman WA: Washington State University Press, 2010.