The 101st Airborne Division's Role in the United States Army

by Simon Villeneuve      February 10, 2016

The Serapis flag

I’ll get right to the point. Without the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army, America would be a very different place.

The 101st Airborne Division ("Screaming Eagles") is a modular light infantry division of the United States Army trained for air assault operations. During World War II, it was renowned for its role in Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings and airborne landings on June 6, 1944, in Normandy, France), Operation Market Garden, the liberation of the Netherlands and, perhaps most famously, its action during the Battle of the Bulge around the city of Bastogne, Belgium.

101st Airborne Division Wood Flag

General Order No. Five, which gave birth to the division, reads, "The 101st Airborne Division, activated at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny. Like the early American pioneers whose invincible courage was the foundation stone of this nation, we have broken with the past and its traditions in order to establish our claim to the future. Due to the nature of our armament, and the tactics in which we shall perfect ourselves, we shall be called upon to carry out operations of far-reaching military importance and we shall habitually go into action when the need is immediate and extreme. Let me call you attention to the fact that our badge is the great American eagle. This is a fitting emblem for a division that will crush its enemies by falling upon them like a thunderbolt from the skies. The history we shall make, the record of high achievement we hope to write in the annals of the American Army and the American people, depends wholly and completely on the men of this division. Each individual, each officer and each enlisted man, must, therefore, regard himself as a necessary part of a complex and powerful instrument for the overcoming of the enemies of the nation. Each, in his own job, must realize that he is not only a means, but an indispensable means for obtaining the goal of victory. It is, therefore, not too much to say that the future itself, in whose molding we expect to have our share, is in the hands of the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division."

On August 19, 1942, the first commander, Maj. Gen. William C. Lee, promised this to his new recruits, and as a division, the 101st never failed that prophecy. According to Global Security.org, on June 5th, 1944, the 101st prepared for its first combat operation, the airborne invasion of Normandy.

The plan was that the 101st would drop 6,700 soldiers behind enemy lines to disrupt the Germans before the massive allied beach assault on the coast of Normandy. As soon as the planes carrying the soldiers of the 101st flew into France, they began receiving heavy antiaircraft fire from the Germans. The pilots took evasive action and broke formation to avoid being hit. As a result, soldiers jumped at an altitude of 300 feet at a speed of 200 mph instead of the planned 700 feet at 100 mph. This caused the Division to be scattered all over Normandy. Soldiers landed far from their units, behind enemy lines, and alone. Many were killed before they hit the ground by Germans firing into the sky.

By the end of the 1st day of the Normandy invasion, only 1 in 3 soldiers had found their unit. The scattered jump into Normandy confused the Germans just as much as it confused the Americans. The Germans did not know where to fight the Americans for there were no real front lines. Fighting consisted of small unit actions.

During the 2nd day of the invasion, the 101st began to regroup and receive resupplies by gliders, many of which crashed on landing. During the next 2 days of fighting the 101st took objectives behind Utah beach and turned south towards Carentan, which was key to controlling the peninsula. The Germans had been ordered to fight to the last man. After days of heavy fighting, the 101st took Carentan. The division held the town for 2 more days under a heavy German counter attack until reinforcements arrived.

One month after jumping into Europe, the 101st mission in Normandy was complete, 1 in 4 men had been killed or wounded.

But without the 101st Airborne Division, none of America’s soldiers would have made it out of  alive. And that would have probably cost us the war.

101st Airborne Division Wood Flag

Throughout the years, the 101st Airborne Division has run a number of other successful missions as well. Some include:

  • September 1944: the 101st jumped into Holland to conduct Operation Market Garden
  • December 17th, 1944: over 12,000 101st soldiers were sent south to fight in what would be known as the Battle of the Bulge
  • December 26, 1944: the 101st was relieved by General Patton's 3rd Army and the siege of Bastogne ended
  • 1965: the Division was deployed to Vietnam
  • 1968: the 101st took on the structure and equipment of an Airmobile Division
  • 1972: the 101st was the last combat division to leave Vietnam
  • February, 1974: Major General Sidney B. Berry, Commanding General, signed Division General Order 179, authorizing wear of the Airmobile Badge
  • March, 1982: elements of the 101st began a six-month peacekeeping tour of duty in the Sinai as part of the Multinational Force and Observers
  • August, 1990: the Iraqi Army invaded Kuwait
  • 2008: the 101st Airborne Division became the lead element for US forces in Afghanistan assigned both to Operation Enduring Freedom - Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force
  • … and many more
The 101st Airborne Division's Role in the United States Army

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