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 A Summary History of the 101st Airborne Division

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"Screaming Eagles"

(Updated 5-9-08)

Since 1974 the 101st Airborne Division has been the United States Army's "Air Assault" Division. The Division is capable of lifting, by helicopter, a 4,000 soldier combined arms force up to 150 kilometers behind enemy lines in one lift. Having approximately 281 helicopters, including three battalions of Apache attack helicopters, makes the "Screaming Eagles" the most versatile fighting unit in the Army. It is the world's only air assault division. The 101st consists of three infantry brigades, Division Artillery, Division Support Command, the 101st Aviation Brigade, the 159th Aviation Brigade, the 101st Corps Support Group, and various other separate commands stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Although the Screaming Eagles won their fame and reputation during the Second World War, the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) can trace its lineage back to World War I. In the build up for the Great War, the 101st Division Click to preview or purchase "The Boldest Plan is the Best" from Amazon.comwas originally activated on July 23, 1918. Without fanfare, the Division was demobilized in December of 1918. In 1921 the 101st Infantry Division was reconstituted as a reserve unit with headquarters in Wisconsin. This is where the distinctive "eagle head patch" was acquired. The eagle's head represented "Old Abe," the famed eagle mascot of the Wisconsin Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. The Division remained in the reserves until needed for World War II. The Screaming Eagles were disbanded as a reserve unit and reactivated in the regular army as the 101st Airborne Division on August 15, 1942.

The United States Army began testing the viability of parachute units in 1940, after seeing the success of British and German paratroop units in the early days of World War Two. The first tests, conducted at Fort Benning, Georgia, were so successful that soon the army was forming Parachute Infantry Regiments (PIR). Once the United States was thrust into the war, the army authorized airborne divisions. The 82nd and 101st would serve in the European Theater and later the 11th Airborne Division would see action in the Pacific.

Originally the 101st Airborne was comprised of the 502nd PIR and two glider infantry regiments (GIR), the 327th and the 401st. Also assigned were three artillery battalions and various support units. Rigorous training began at Fort Benning, Georgia and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In June of 1943 the Division was joined by the 506th PIR, of "Band of Brothers" fame, who had been training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia at the foot of Currahee Mountain. The Division deployed to England in September of 1943.

After eight more months of training in England, the Screaming Eagles were ready. On June 6, 1944 the Pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division were leading the way into France for Operation Overlord: D-Day. In the fight against the German 6th Parachute Regiment for the town of Carentan, Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole, Commander of the 3rd Bn, 502nd PIR, became the first member of the Division to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The 101st would spend 33 days in combat before returning to England to receive replacements and train for their next operation.

In September of 1944, the 101st Airborne Division made its second combat jump. This time the jump was in Holland for Operation Market Garden. During this battle, Private First Class Joe E. Mann of the 3rd Bn, 502nd PIR became the second member of the Screaming Eagles to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The Division spent 72 days in combat before being moved to France for refit.

On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched a surprise attack with thirteen armored and infantry divisions in the Ardennes region of Belgium. The front of the Americans was in danger of collapse. On December 17th the 101st received orders to move north out of France and defend the town of Bastogne, Belgium. This was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.

Bastogne was a hub of highways that moved through the Ardennes, a forested area that forced the German mechanized forces to use these roads. The Germans surrounded the city on December 20th, isolating the 101st and some elements of the 10th Armored Division. On December 22nd the Germans issued a demand for surrender. The acting Commander of the 101st, General McAuliffe, gave his famous reply of "Nuts." The Germans needed to seize the town of Bastogne for the success of their offensive. Although facing five German divisions, the Screaming Eagles held the town until help broke through on December 26th. The Division continued the defense of Bastogne for three more weeks, earning them the moniker of "The Battered Bastards of Bastogne."

The last mission of World War II for the Screaming Eagles was the taking of the German town of Berchtesgaden, Hitler's retreat in Bavaria. From March until August of 1945, the 101st Airborne served as occupation troops and took the surrender of German military units and prominent Nazi officials. In August of 1945 the Division moved to Auxerre, France to train for the invasion of Japan. The operation became unnecessary when Japan surrendered two weeks later. The 101st Airborne Division was deactivated on November 30, 1945 at Auxerre, France.

In the next eleven years the 101st Airborne was activated and deactivated three times. Finally in 1956 the Division was reorganized as a five brigade division and came back to the Regular Army and its permanent home of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Between 1956 and 1964 the Division was reorganized again and participated in several major exercises as the world transitioned into the nuclear age and the United States entered the Cold War. Most notable during this period was the 101st Airborne's deployment to Little Rock, Arkansas, in September of 1957 to assist in maintaining order during a series of civil disturbances. The unrest was a result of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. This was a major event in the quest for racial equality and the professionalism of the troops of the 101st Airborne prevented possible tragedy.

The First Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division was deployed to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam on July 29, 1965. They were the third United States Army unit to arrive in country. The remainder of the Division arrived in Vietnam in December of 1967, just before the Tet Offensive of January 1968. During Tet, the Screaming Eagles were engaged in combat operations as far south as Saigon and as far north as Quang Tri. One platoon of the Second Brigade landed on the roof of the United States Embassy in Saigon which was under attack by the Viet Cong.

During the early days of Vietnam, the Division made its transition from parachutes to helicopters as the method of insertion. In July of 1968, the Division changed its name to the 101st Air Cavalry Division. The next year, on August 29, 1969, the Division changed its name again to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Mobile), making it the Army's second air mobile division.

In late 1971 and early 1972 the Screaming Eagles left Vietnam and returned to Fort Campbell. During almost seven years of action in Vietnam, the 101st Airborne participated in 15 campaigns. Most notable were Hamburger Hill in 1969 and Firebase Ripcord in 1970. The Division served in the northern I Corps area of operations against the NVA infiltration routes through Laos and the A Shau Valley. The Division supported the ARVN Operation Lam Son 719 which involved invading southern Laos in 1971, but only aviation units actually entered Laos. During Vietnam, seventeen Medal of Honor awards were given to members of the Division. The Division suffered 4,011 soldiers Killed in Action during Vietnam, which is twice the number of casualties from World War II. The 101st was the last American Division to leave the combat zone of Vietnam.

In 1974 the Army terminated jump status for the Division and the Screaming Eagles formally became America's Air Assault Division. The Screaming Eagles took on their current designation of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). In the post-Vietnam years the Division has evolved into the rapid deployment force that it is today participating in major exercises and peace keeping operations throughout the United States, Honduras, Egypt, Rwanda, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and elsewhere.

Since the end of the Cold War, the 101st has served proudly in the Persian Gulf War in January of 1991, conducting an air assault deep into enemy territory in the Iraqi desert. The Division sustained no soldiers Killed in Action during the "100 hour war" and captured thousands of enemy prisoners. The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) was the first conventional unit to deploy in the War on Terror. In 2002 the Division's Third Brigade participated in Operation Anaconda facing an intense period of combat in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. In 2003 the Screaming Eagles, led by Major General David Petraeus invaded Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Division has made a second deployment to Iraq in November of 2005 to conduct counterinsurgent operations and to train Iraqi security forces.

General Order Number Five, which gave birth to the 101st Airborne Division in the early days of World War II, begins "The 101st Airborne Division…has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny." The Division has certainly lived up to those prophetic words. The 101st is one of the most famous fighting forces in the world. Thousands upon thousands of proud soldiers have worn the distinctive "Screaming Eagle" shoulder patch, which is arguably the most recognizable unit insignia in the United States military.

 

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