Road Honoring Soldiers Has Complex History

Nov 9, 2017

An illustration from a 1920 book commissioned by Wisconsin and Michigan depicts the 32nd division as a red arrow, breaking a German fortified line in World War I.
Credit The 32nd Division in the World War, 1917-1919 / Courtesy of Tom George

The Red Arrow Highway runs east from New Buffalo across Berrien and Van Buren Counties. Cross into Kalamazoo, and suddenly the road is called Stadium Drive. A listener asks: why? The road is named after a storied Division of the US Army. Wouldn’t the name “Red Arrow” pay better tribute to veterans?

Before we answer his question, let’s start with some background on the 32nd Infantry Division, which would come to be nicknamed the Red Arrow Army.

“This was a military unit that was formed during World War I and it consisted of soldiers from Wisconsin and Michigan,” explains Tom George, a physician who researches local history.

George says the 32nd Division went on to fight in World War II.

“In both of those world wars the division played a very important role in the fighting and was very famous at the time,” he adds.

George says that during World War I, the 32nd was one of the earlier American divisions to arrive in Europe, where it soon became noted for its prowess.

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“When it was shown on the battlefield map, some of the other divisions you know were shown as – they were lines because they were stagnant, or stuck in one position. But the 32nd division was often moving forward, so there was an arrow showing where it was, a red arrow, and that became one of its nicknames, the ‘Red Arrow Army.’”

Victory came at a price. George says the 32nd suffered a high casualty rate.

He says it’s probably best known for its role in the Battle of the Argonne Forest in the last months of World War I.

“This was a huge Allied offensive. There were over a million American soldiers involved,” he says, adding that the division is credited with breaking a particular German fortified line, the Kriemhilde Stellung.

“Helping to turn the tide of the battle, and Germany surrendered within two weeks or so after.”

In World War II, the division now known as the Red Arrow Army fought in the Pacific. George says there’s a high school in the Philippines that’s named in honor of the division.

Many tributes to the 32nd can be found in Wisconsin and Michigan, from a Wisconsin highway to the Lowell High School Red Arrows. And, of course, there’s the Red Arrow Highway.

Why does this road become Stadium Drive as you cross into Kalamazoo? We’ll start in the 1920s, when this road had a different name - not Stadium, not Red Arrow, but US Route 12.

“US 12 came from Detroit through Kalamazoo on its way to Chicago,” says Kalamazoo County GIS Coordinator and Michigan road expert Chris Bessert.

He says like many highways, US 12 had local names in many cities.

In the 1920s, “A lot of the communities along the path of US-12 in Jackson, Calhoun, Kalamazoo Counties got together and named their segments Michigan Avenue so it was all one coordinated name,” he adds.

Later, at the end of the 30s, the road authorities decide that Kalamazoo’s Michigan Avenue needs a bypass southwest of downtown.

“And they gave it a different name at that point, Stadium Drive, because it went past Waldo Stadium,” Bessert says.

Old maps tend to call it US-12. But Bessert thinks the locals called the bypass Stadium from its beginning.

Then, in the early 1950s, the entire Michigan portion of US-12 gets an honorary name: the Red Arrow Memorial Highway. Bessert says the title is strictly ceremonial.

“It wasn’t something that people used as addresses or commonly referred to when giving directions and generally did not appear on a lot of maps either,” he says.

But just a few years later, the interstate comes along, and Michigan makes some changes on its older routes. It takes US 12 and reroutes it along a different road with a (perhaps confusingly) similar name: the former US 112.

Now the rural parts of the road that had been US 12 need a name. That’s when Berrien and Van Buren Counties propose “Red Arrow Highway” as a permanent name, not just a ceremonial one.

But Kalamazoo already had names for the now-former US 12 – Stadium Drive on the bypass, and of course Michigan Avenue. Bessert says the county simply opted to keep those names.

“’Michigan Avenue’ name was an iconic name. Everybody knew it, it had long been used in the city, so to call it Red Arrow Highway through downtown Kalamazoo, a lot of people probably wouldn’t have appreciated that,” he says.

In short, Red Arrow Division lost a memorial when US-12 changed routes. But at the same time, it gained a road exclusively named in its honor.

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