Most of us drive Highway 26, or Sunset Highway, at least once a month, maybe even more. Many assume that the highway’s name refers to the east to west direction, or perhaps the beautiful shores that the highway will take you to, but in fact, the windy road is named for something a bit more honorary.
But first, a little history is in order. Construction of Highway 26 or Wolf Creek Highway began in January of 1933 and was a joint venture of the W.P.A. and the C.C.C. Portions of the highway officially opened to the public on September 19, 1941. For those inspired to make their way to the coast still had quite a journey. The trip usually took a full day to make, but was still better than going by train.
On Dec. 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor was attacked, pulling the United States into the Second World War. Troops across the nation set sail (or flew, of course) to Europe or other parts of the world. The Pacific Northwest’s 41st Infantry Division was no exception. The 41st Infantry Division was an Oregon and Washington State National Guard unit. Initially the 41st conducted coastal defense duty from the Canadian border south into Oregon. However, many eventually set sail for Australia as one off the first U.S. Army division sent overseas. Australians welcomed the 41st, as most of Australia’s troops were in Europe and the Middle East and many-feared Japan may attack from the north.
While in Australia the 41st Infantry participated jungle and amphibious training that would later prove useful. In December 1942, they were sent to a combat zone at Papua, New Guinea. In April 1944, the division made amphibious landings at Hollandia and Airtape, where resistance was minor. It was part of the U.S. military’s “island-hopping” campaign, attacking or bypassing Japanese-occupied areas as it pressed west and north across the South Pacific.
The division’s bloodiest engagement was on the island of Biak, off New Guinea’s coast. Oregon’s 162nd and 186th regiments plus the 163rd defeated over ten thousand well-entrenched and well-led Japanese forces. The campaign extended from May through August 1944, and the 41st earned a new title, “The Jungleers.”
In February and March 1945, the 41st Division landed at Zamboanga and Palawan in the southern Philippines. In August, the soldiers were preparing for a Japanese invasion when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This action caused Japan to surrender, ending World War II. The division performed occupation duty in the Kure-Hiroshima area of Japan until Dec. 31, 1945.
In 1946, the 41st reorganized as the Pacific Northwest’s Army National Guard division. In case you are wondering how the story gets back to Highway 26, here it is. The 41st Infantry Division’s shoulder-sleeve insignia is a red half-disk with a yellow setting sun over a blue baseline representing the Pacific Ocean. It was this for this patch that the “Sunset Division” was named, honoring the bravery of the 41st. On Jan. 17, 1946, U.S. Highway 26, from Portland to Seaside, was officially named the Sunset Highway in the division’s honor, although it took another three years until its completion in 1949.
If you’d like to learn more about the 41st Infantry, stop by the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum to see their latest exhibit “World War II on the Oregon Coast.” The exhibit features paraphernalia from the 41st Infantry and also shows a documentary about them daily. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Monday and admission is by donation.