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 A Summary History of the 1st Cavalry Division

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1st Cavalry Div

"The First Team"

(Updated 5-12-08)

The 1st Cavalry Division, the "First Team," is a heavy armored division assigned to the U.S. Army's III Corps. The First Team is the largest division in the United States Army with nearly 17,000 soldiers assigned. Their home base is Fort Hood, Texas but 1st Cavalry Division troopers have fought around the world pursuing the Division's motto of "Live the Legend."

The 1st Cavalry was established as a permanent division with its own Table of Organization and Equipment on April 4, 1921. However, the 1st Cavalry Division was formed out of the 1st Cavalry Regiment that was designated when the Army made "Cavalry" an official branch in 1855. Furthermore, the 1st Cavalry Regiment can trace its lineage to the First Regiment of Dragoons which existed as early as 1833. The 1st, 7th, Click to preview or purchase "The Boldest Plan is the Best" from Amazon.com8th, and 10th Cavalry Regiments, who would form the future "First Team," participated in major battles of the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish American War, and the Punitive Expedition to Mexico.

The First World War proved that armored vehicles and aircraft would be the weapons of the future. But when the First Team was activated in 1921, these machines were still not reliable enough for the harsh conditions encountered patrolling the Mexican border. When the Division first assembled for maneuvers at Camp Marfa, Texas in the fall of 1923, the troopers still rode horses. The First Cavalry Division added its first aerial assets in October of 1928 with the assignment of the 1st Observation Squadron, Air Force. The next month began the arrival of armored vehicles with the 1st Armored Car Squadron. The 1st Cavalry Division continued throughout the 1930s to patrol the border, field new equipment, improve their home base at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, and prepare for the war to come.

Although the First Team was born out of the need for large horse-cavalry formations, by 1940 many officers of the Army thought the horse was outdated. The reason the Army continued to maintain a unit of horse cavalry was the concern for the defense of the Southwest United States. The less than ideal terrain of the Southwest during these years included rocky hills, deserts, and a lack of good road networks. Mounted cavalry would be ideal to defend this terrain, since horses could move through it faster than wheeled vehicles. Also, cavalry in the 20th Century usually fought dismounted and the 1st Cavalry Division would be supported by their own artillery and armor. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the United States was thrown into World War II, the first wartime mission of the 1st Cavalry Division was to continue surveillance of the Mexican border.

In May of 1942, over twelve hundred troopers from the First Team were assigned as cadre for the organization of the 91st Infantry Division at Camp White, Oregon. By the end of 1942, the 1st Armored Car Squadron, the 62nd Armored Field Artillery, and the 161st Engineers had left the Division for the European Theater. The remainder of the Division continued to train with their mix of machines and horses. By 1943 the threat to our southern border had diminished and the 1st Cavalry Division was alerted for overseas assignment in February. The cavalrymen, however reluctantly, turned in their horses and saddles. By July the bulk of the Division were on troop ships bound for Australia and the Pacific Theater.

The remainder of 1943 was used for training and organizational training in Australia. As a side note of military history, the 1st Cavalry Division had Native American "Code Talkers." Like the more famous Navajo Code Talkers who served with the Marine Corps, the radio platoon of the 302nd Reconnaissance Troop recruited, at the direction of General MacArthur, Lakota and Dakota Indians who used their Sioux language to communicate to other Divisional Headquarters troops. The Japanese never broke this "code." In January of 1944, the First Team moved out to stage in New Guinea for their first combat action.

On February 27, 1944, the Division sailed from New Guinea to "island hop" through the Japanese held island chain of the Admiralties. The first landing occurred on the morning of February 29th on the island of Los Negros. On March 15th the First Team landed on Manus Island. By May 18th the Admiralty Islands campaign was officially over. The 1st Cavalry Division had killed over 3,300 Japanese soldiers while suffering only 290 killed in action, 977 wounded, and 4 troopers missing in action.

By October 20, 1944 the 1st Cavalry Division was landing on Leyte Island as part of MacArthur's return to the Philippines. The Leyte Campaign wrapped up at the end of December and on January 26, 1945 the First Team was on board convoys headed for Luzon to continue the recapture of the Philippines. On February 3rd elements of the 1st Cavalry won the race to the Philippine capitol of Manila. There they had the honor of capturing the capitol building before retreating Japanese troops could burn it and also rescuing almost 4,000 civilian prisoners being held at an internment camp at Santo Tomas University. The fight for Manila was hard and the 37th Infantry Division joined the First Team February 5th to take on the Japanese holding the western side of the city. At that time, Manila was a city of 800,000 residents and one of the largest in Southeast Asia. It took until March 3, 1945 to end organized enemy resistance in Manila.

By June 30th the fighting on Luzon was declared completed and the Division began training for its part in the invasion of the Japanese mainland. The invasion, dubbed Operation Olympic was set for November 1, 1945. However, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent surrender of Japan ended that surely costly mission. On September 5, 1945 elements of the 1st Cavalry Division moved into Tokyo, the first official movement of troops into the Japanese capitol.

Easy duty as occupation troops in Japan was suddenly interrupted on the morning of June 25, 1950 when North Korea invaded the Republic of Korea to the south. The United States, determined to support their South Korean allies, immediately sent troops from the 24th Infantry Division. To bolster the low strength units of the peacetime army, the 24th deployed with many members of the 1st Cavalry Division. Also, A Company, 71st Heavy Tank Battalion, which was previously part of the First Team, deployed to Korea attached to the 24th Infantry Division. The remainder of the 1st Cavalry Division landed at Pohangdong, Korea on July 18th to join American and South Korean forces in holding the "Pusan Perimeter." After weeks of bloody fighting in the hilly terrain, the perimeter held. On September 15th General MacArthur launched the famous Inchon Landing in Korea. The 1st Cavalry Division broke out of the Pusan Perimeter and started fighting north to join the United Nations forces coming inland from Inchon. During this offensive Task Force Lynch comprised of units from the 1st Cavalry Division led the Pusan Perimeter Breakout covering over 106 miles through enemy territory to link up with the 7th Infantry Division coming from Inchon. On October 9th the First Team crossed the 38th Parallel into North Korea and on October 17th was the first unit into the North Korean capitol of Pyongyang.

It started to look like the Korean War was coming to a close. The second week of October, 1950 found the North Korean Army pushed into a pocket on the Yalu River, North Korea's border with China. However, the tables turned on the United Nations Forces on October 14th when Communist Chinese Forces entered the war on the side of the North Koreans. Eventually, China would commit approximately 780,000 troops to the fight. During the remaining weeks of 1950, U.N. Forces, including the 1st Cavalry Division were pushed back below the 38th Parallel. In the onslaught of Chinese Communist Forces, the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the First Team was surrounded near the North Korean town of Unsan while fighting to hold approach routes to the south. In what became known as the Battle of Unsan, elements of the 1st and 2nd Battalions broke through the Chinese roadblocks. But the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division was destroyed as a fighting unit. More than 600 troops were lost making this the most painful episode in the long history of the 1st Cavalry Division.

During 1951 the United Nations forces fought their way back to the 38th Parallel and the 1st Cavalry Division was an integral part of that effort. By the end of the year it was time for a rest. The 1st Cavalry Division was replaced in the line by the 45th Infantry Division of the Oklahoma National Guard. The last elements of the First Team were re-deployed to Japan in mid-January 1952, after eighteen months of almost continuous combat. In Japan, the 1st Cavalry Division was tasked with occupation duty, the defense of the Japanese Island of Hokkaido, and to prepare Regimental size combat teams for sixty day tours on the line in Korea. Elements of the Division continued to serve in the stalemated Korean conflict until the war was over in July of 1953.

Occupation duty ended August 29, 1957 when, in accordance with a treaty signed by both Japan and the United States, defense of the Japanese mainland was turned over to the Japanese Defense Forces and all U.S. ground forces were removed. The 1st Cavalry Division was ordered to move its colors once again to Korea. The Division continued to serve overseas as part of the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea. During this period the First Team went through reorganizations and fielded new equipment, all while patrolling the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separated North and South Korea. The Division also began to field helicopters in the spring of 1963 and train in airmobile tactics. In July of 1965 the First Team was reorganized as the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and officially activated at Fort Benning, Georgia out of personnel from the 11th Air Assault Division (Test). Their duties in Korea were turned over to the 2nd Infantry Division, and one month later the First Team was in route to Vietnam.

In August of 1965 and advance party of the First Team flew into Nha Trang, Vietnam. The combat force of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) arrived by Military Sea Transport by mid-September. By September 19th, elements of the First Team were already engaging the enemy in Operation Gibraltar with the 101st Airborne.

The 1st Cavalry Division's first major operation was the Pleiku Campaign, in which the Division conducted 35 days of continuous airmobile operations. The opening battle of the campaign was the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. The operation took place between November 14 and November 18, 1965 and involved the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 7th Cavalry with the 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry going against more than three North Vietnamese Regiments and a Viet Cong Battalion. The battle was the subject of the book We Were Soldiers Once…And Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and journalist Joseph L. Galloway and then depicted by the 2002 movie We Were Soldiers starring Mel Gibson.

The First Team seemed to be everywhere in Vietnam. Most of 1967 was spent conducting Operation Pershing in the II Corps Area. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Division was in the I Corps Tactical Zone, and was involved in recapturing Quang Tri and Hue. In March of 1968, the Division moved to relieve Marine units at the besieged combat base of Khe Sanh in Operation Pegasus. The First Team worked in the Ashau Valley during April and May of 1968, then in the fall moved to the III Corps Tactical Zone northwest of Saigon. In May of 1970 the 1st Cavalry Division participated in the incursion into Cambodia.

The 1st Cavalry Division withdrew from Cambodia on June 29, 1970. After that the Division remained in a "defensive posture" as offensive combat operations were turned over to South Vietnamese forces and the withdrawal of U.S. forces continued. The majority of the Division was withdrawn from Vietnam on April 29, 1971, but the Third Brigade stayed until June 29, 1972 making the 1st Cavalry Division one of the final two ground combat units to leave the country and the longest serving Division in the Vietnam War. Before moving to their new home at Fort Hood, Texas, the First Team sacrificed 5,444 troopers killed and 26,592 wounded in Vietnam.

As Vietnam ended and the Cold War heated up, the need for a deployable armored force became more apparent. By 1975, the 1st Cavalry Division was equipped as a heavy armored division and assigned to III Corps at Fort Hood. During the remainder of the Cold War, units of the First Team participated in rotations to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, and REFORGER exercises in West Germany.

The First Team was well prepared to participate in the first conflict to use U.S. armor forces in significant numbers since World War II: the Gulf War that consisted of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91. The 1st Cavalry Division was deployed with the two brigades it had assigned at the time and operated as the VII Corps reserve armor force. During the days leading up to the kickoff of the ground war, units of the Division probed the enemy defenses. The "100 Hour War" was over so quickly that the First Team only engaged in the last few hours of the conflict. However, their deep thrust into enemy territory destroyed elements of five Iraqi divisions.

Since the Gulf War the First Team has conducted multiple exercises in Kuwait and in October of 1998 deployed for a year-long peacekeeping mission in the Balkans. The 1st Cavalry Division as a whole did not participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although many of its subordinate units did deploy because of the need for special skills. However, the Division did deploy as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2004. The First Team operated in Baghdad and included subordinate units from the Louisiana, Arkansas, and Washington National Guard during their deployment. The Division returned home in April of 2005 after losing 168 soldiers killed and approximately 1,500 wounded. The 1st Cavalry Division departed again for Baghdad in November of 2006 for a 15 month deployment.

The 1st Cavalry Division has earned its nickname as America's First Team by being the first military unit to accomplish many great things. They were the first unit into Tokyo, the first into North Korea, the first in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the first heavy armored division into Iraq. The Division's motto is "Live the Legend," and when a 1st Cavalry Trooper is on parade, they proudly recall the name of the old Irish marching tune that has become synonymous with the cavalry, "Garry Owen!"

 

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