Saturday, June 06, 2015
The 101st Airborne: A Brief History
101st Airborne troops posing with a captured Nazi flag, two days after landing at Normandy
The 101st Airborne Division, aka the “Screaming Eagles,” was formed during World War II, as part of the effort to create airborne doctrine and capability for the United States Army. The 101st created a strong reputation during the Normandy landings and in the Battle of the Bulge, where it held the besieged city of Bastogne against repeated German assaults. Long after the war, the 101st Airborne would gain massive fame through many major book and movie productions such as [Battleground], Saving Private Ryan, and Band of Brothers.
In August 1942, the 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, was split in two, to form two new Airborne Infantry Divisions: the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne. On August 19, 1942, its first commander, Major General William C. Lee, promised his new recruits that the 101st had a “rendezvous with destiny.”
General Order Number Six, 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 your 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.”
Both divisions were stationed at Ft Bragg, N.C. before being shipped overseas. The 101st trained heavily in England during 1943-1944 in preparation of the massive Normandy landings. On June 5th, 1944, the Pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division led the way on D-Day in the night drop prior to the invasion. They left from RAF North Witham having trained there with the elite, veteran 82nd Airborne Division.
The remainder of the Division subsequently landed in Normandy on, and behind the Utah Beach area. Paratroopers were dropped onto three landing zones, and relatively few troops of the 101st landed by glider. The rest of the division landed by sea.
The three parachute regiments captured the four elevated roads leading inland from Utah Beach and secured various key terrain objectives behind the east coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. This was done with great success, and a new objective was added to their agenda: the taking of Carentan, France. This not only aided in linking the Utah and Omaha beachheads, it helped prevent the Germans from driving through to the coast in an area which would divide the Allied landings.
One of the biggest pitched battles pitted part of the 501 PIR against the 1st Bn of the German 6th Para Regiment on 7 June. This resulted in a great victory for Colonel Johnson's regiment. The 502's 3rd battalion won particular honors in its costly battle to secure the road into Carentan from the north-this became known as “Purple Heart Lane,” due to the many American casualties taken there.
The 101st took Carentan and the 506th, reinforced by CCA, 2nd Armored Division, defended it against counterattacks by the 17th SS division and the 6th Para Regiment. The 101st was withdrawn from the lines in late June and sailed back to England on LSTs in July.
After several false alerts, they invaded by air again in the Netherlands on September 17, 1944. The division became part of the XVIII Airborne Corps in the First Allied Airborne Army. As part of this formation, the division took part in Operation Market Garden. Their mission in Holland was to hold open a corridor for British armor to drive north and relieve their paratroops who had landed at Arnhem.
Withdrawn from Holland at the end of November for recuperation, the 101st was sent to Camp Mourmelon le Grand, France. Less than 3 weeks later, the 101st was rushed north into Belgium in trucks, to counter the German Ardennes counteroffensive.
On December 17th, 1944 over 12,000 101st soldiers were sent south to fight in what would be known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 101st arrived in Bastogne just ahead of the Germans and took control of the city. The Division formed a perimeter around Bastogne and held the city against fierce German fire. The Germans surrounded the town and cut off all roads. The division was cut off without supplies and was a sitting target for German artillery. Because the division had been deployed to Bastogne so quickly many soldiers had to endure the harsh winter without winter clothes.
After 5 days of withstanding attacks by the Germans without reinforcements or supplies, two German Officers were sent to the American Headquarters with a letter from the German Commander demanding that the 101st surrender. After hearing that the Germans wanted the 101st to surrender, the Acting Commander - BG General McAuliffe said, “Nuts.” Surrendering was not an option for the 101st, so “Nuts” was chosen as the official response to the Germans’ demand for surrender. The Germans continued their attack of the American perimeter without success, and the 101st continued to hold the city.
The German ring around Bastogne was broken on 26 December, 1944, when elements of Patton's 3rd Army shot their way into the town. But even heavier fighting ensued, as the 101st pushed north toward Houffalize for the first half of January, to help close the Bulge. The 463rd Parachute Field Artillery (PFA) Bn. was attached to the 101st just before the Bulge and remained with the division for the duration of WW2. That unit had prior combat experience at Anzio, as well as in southern France, supporting the 1st Special Service Force.
The 101st left Bastogne in trucks in mid-January, 1945, and the weary Bastogne survivors were rushed to the 7th Army front in Alsace-Lorraine, to reinforce the line along the Moder River. A month later, the 101st boarded trains (408 boxcars) and returned to the Reims, France area, this time Mourmelon le Petit, where they received a Presidential Unit Citation for their defense of Bastogne.