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 A Summary History of the 173rd Airborne Brigade – Sky Soldiers

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"Sky Soldiers"

(Updated 10-15-12)

The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (BCT) is a parachute infantry brigade of the United States Army that is home based in Vicenza, Italy. The "Sky Soldiers" are the United States European Command's conventional airborne strategic response force for Europe. As of June 2006, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was reorganized as part of the Army's modularization process. Since that time, subordinate units of the 173rd BCT consist of 1/503rd Infantry, 2/503rd Infantry (Airborne), 1/91st Cavalry (Airborne), 4/319th Field Artillery, the 173rd Support Battalion (Airborne), and the 173rd Special Troops Battalion.

The Sky Soldiers can trace their lineage back to the forming of the 173rd Infantry, 87th Division in 1917. The Brigade went to France with the 87th Division, but was not involved in any major combat action. The Brigade was demobilized at Camp Dix, New Jersey in January of 1919. Between wars, the 173rd went through a series of reorganizations and re-designations. By the start of World War II, brigades were eliminated from divisions. Therefore in February of 1942, the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 173rd Infantry Brigade was assigned to the 87th Division as the 87th Reconnaissance Troop. The 87th Division was part of Patton's Third Army and the 87th saw extensive combat in Europe including the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine River. The future Sky Soldiers were deactivated again in 1945, at Fort Benning, Georgia. Additionally, two maneuver battalions of the Brigade trace their history with the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment which participated in the taking of Corregidor in the Philippines.

Click to preview or purchase "The Boldest Plan is the Best" from Amazon.comThe 173rd ABN BDE earned several nicknames during their training for their noteworthy service during the Vietnam War. The 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) was activated into the regular army on the island of Okinawa on March 26, 1963. The Brigade was to serve as the quick reaction force for the Pacific Command. Since this unique and aggressive unit was to be ready to insert into Southeast Asian countries as a crisis revealed itself, the unit was known as the "Fire Brigade." Their first commander, Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson established realistic training throughout the region. Nationalist Chinese (Taiwan) paratroopers gave the 173rd Airborne their nickname of Tien Bing or "Sky Soldiers" due to the number of training jumps conducted on their island.

Our thanks to John "Dutch" Holland, a Vietnam Veteran with Bravo Company, 1/503rd for his recollection of how the 173rd Airborne got the nickname of The Herd:

"The term Herd used with pride by veterans of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. This nickname was coined by Colonel 'Rawhide' Boland of the 1/503rd. Colonel Boland while on leave heard, liked and bought a copy of Frankie Laine's old song Rawhide from the TV series of the same name. The colonel on returning to camp played the song over the PA system during all battalion formations. We as paratroopers had to run to and from all these formations, and with the roads being unpaved kicked, up quit a cloud of dust. One of his staff remarked that we looked like a herd of cattle and you can guess the rest. Colonel Boland was given the name Rawhide and the battalion was referred to as the Herd. The rest of the brigade adopted the name once in Nam and no one is sure when or how that began. Colonel Boland is still alive and kickin' at 88 years of age and still signs his name as 'Rawhide Boland.'"

The 173rd Airborne Brigade was the first Army unit sent to the Republic of South Vietnam. In May of 1965 the majority of the Brigade landed at Bien Hoa Airfield. They found the area frequently battered by enemy raids and shelling attacks. The Sky Soldiers were the first to go into War Zone D to destroy enemy base camps and relieve pressure on the Vietnamese capitol. The 173rd was the first to introduce the use of long range reconnaissance patrols. The Brigade was assigned to II Field Force, Vietnam for their entire service. They fought in the Iron Triangle, a Viet Cong stronghold north of Saigon. In November of 1965 the 173rd took art in Operation Hump, north of Bien Hoa on the outskirts of Saigon. In 1966 they participated in Operation Crimp to root out enemy forces from the Tunnels at Cu Chi.

The 1st and 2nd Battalions, 503rd Infantry were the first Army combat units from the 173rd sent to the Republic of South Vietnam, accompanied by the 3rd Battalion, 319th Artillery. They were supported by the 173rd Support Battalion, 173rd Engineers, E Trp/17th Cavalry and D Co/16th Armor. The First Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment and the 161st Field Battery of the Royal New Zealand Army were later attached to the Brigade during the first year.

In late August of 1966 the 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry from Fort Campbell, Kentucky joined the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam. The 3/503rd joined the Brigade at Tuy Hoa in September of 1967. Also joining the Brigade was Company N, 75th Rangers. At its peak strength in Vietnam, the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) had nearly 3,000 soldiers assigned.

On February 22, 1967, the 173rd Airborne Brigade took part in Operation Junction City, conducting the only combat parachute jump of the Vietnam War. During some of the toughest fighting of the war, the Sky Soldiers blocked North Vietnamese Army incursions at Dak To during the summer and fall of 1967. This period culminated in the capture of Hill 875. Elements of the brigade conducted an amphibious assault against NVA and VC forces as part of an operation to clear the rice-growing lowlands along the Bong Song littoral.

The Battle of Dak To took a heavy toll on the Brigade and hence they were transferred to the An Khe and Bong Son areas. They saw little action during 1968 while the Brigade was rebuilt. The unit stayed in An Khe until mid-1969. In May of 1969 the Brigade conducted Operation Darby Punch II, which was the Sky Soldiers fiftieth operation in country.

From April 1969 until its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1971, the 173rd Airborne Brigade served in Binh Dinh Province. They participated in four additional operations: Washington Greene, Greene Lightning, Greene Storm, and Green Sure. From April to August, 1971 the Sky Soldiers redeployed back to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The unit was deactivated on January 14, 1972.

The Vietnam Veterans of the 173rd Airborne Brigade are deservedly proud of their service with the Sky Soldiers. During just over six years of combat, the 173rd earned 14 campaign streamers and 4 unit citations. The Brigade soldiers were awarded 13 Medals of Honor, 46 Distinguished Service Crosses, 1736 Silver Stars and over 6,000 Purple Hearts. Sadly, 1736 of the Sky Soldiers died in Vietnam.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade was reactivated on June 12, 2000 on Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy as the European Command's only conventional airborne strategic response force. On March 26, 2003 the 173rd made the largest combat jump since World War II when the Sky Soldiers landed in the Bashur Drop Zone to open the northern front in support of the invasion of Iraq. The jump forced Iraqi defenses to commit forces to the area making it safer for swift progress to Baghdad by other U.S. forces. In March of 2004 the Sky Soldiers returned from combat operations in Iraq.

After doing their part in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 173rd Airborne Brigade began its second deployment in three years in the spring of 2005. This time the Sky Soldiers deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Global War on Terror. The Brigade returned to Italy in March of 2006.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade was re-designated the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) on October 11, 2006. This was a significant change as the "Combat Team" designation signifies the ability for the Brigade to deploy its forces and sustain itself with its newly integrated support teams. While most of the Brigade remains in Vicenza, Italy, three battalions have been organized in Bamberg, Germany and another in Schweinfurt, Germany until additional facilities are constructed in Vicenza.

In the spring of 2007 the 173rd ABCT again deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as Task Force Bayonet. This was their first deployment as a fully transformed Brigade Combat Team. The 173rd Airborne BCT officially relieved the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division on June 6, 2007. They participated in various operations with the objective of ensuring security and subduing insurgents in the mountainous regions along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan near the Hindu Kush. During a 15-month deployment the brigade ran over 9,000 patrols in the region. Author and journalist Sebastian Junger's book War is about this deployment. Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington were embedded with Battle Company and after the deployment produced the documentary Restrepo.

In July of 2008, about two weeks before the end of the deployment, about 200 Taliban insurgents attacked a position near the village of Wanat in Waygal district defended by the second platoon of Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne). At one point the Taliban, attacking the remote base from the nearby village and adjoining farmland, broke through the American's defensive lines. The paratroopers drove off the attackers with the assistance of artillery and air support. It is estimated that between 21 and 52 insurgents were killed and another 20 to 40 wounded. However, what became known as the Battle of Wanat resulted in the deaths of nine paratroopers killed in action and twenty-seven wounded. This was the largest number of American combat deaths in a single battle since the beginning of U.S. operations in Afghanistan in 2001.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade's deployment ended in July and all Sky Soldiers were back at home base by August 2008. Thirty-nine soldiers from the brigade were killed during the '07-'08 deployment. On June 14, 2009, the 173rd Airborne BCT was notified that they would again deploy to Afghanistan. The Sky Soldiers deployed to the provinces of Logar and Wardak, Afghanistan in November 2009. The 1st and 2nd Battalions, 503rd Infantry Regiment saw extensive action in the eastern part of the brigade's area of operations while the 1/91st Cavalry worked to transform western Logar province into a secure environment. The Sky Soldiers returned to Europe in November of 2010.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team deployed to Afghanistan once more in July 2012, replacing the 3rd IBCT, 1st Armored Division, Task Force Bulldog. The Sky Soldiers are operating yet again in Logar and Wardak provinces.

 

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