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Why Do We Hear About the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions? Where Are the Other 99?

With so few Americans now in the military the public memory of the institution has faded. Although we hear about the exploits of this division or that division, it's unclear to most of us what different units are famous for--or even how they came by their names.

Why do there exist only the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division? Where are the other ninety-nine? Or why is there a 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th and 25th Infantry division, but no 5th Infantry Division? There is a 10th Mountain Division, but what happened to the first nine? There are currently 10 active divisions in the US Army, yet their designation appears random. How and when did they receive their titles?

There exists a simple explanation for this seemingly chaotic naming system. The U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH), the Army organization charged with recording its achievements and the lineage of various army units, organizes the divisions within a hierarchy of honor, predicated upon unit age, campaign participation, and awards and decorations. This helps the Army’s leadership decide which divisions are the most historically important and therefore allowed to remain active.

A division’s history helps inspire the esprit de corps that make military personnel feel as if they are part of something larger than themselves. It instills pride. Its effect is palpable in many ways. The Army certainly subscribes to this belief. General Creighton Abrams, a commander during the Vietnam War, said the 1st Cavalry’s "Big yellow patch does something to an individual that makes him a better soldier, a better team member, and a better American than he otherwise would have been."

This statement is not surprising, as the 1st Cavalry has a long history, which serves as a wellspring of inspiration for its soldiers. It was first created in August 1917, but its component regiments were far older. Some could trace their history to the Indian Wars and included famous personalities, such as General George Armstrong Custer.

Soldiers can also attest to the power of names. When it was announced that the 1st Armored Division was slated for deactivation in the 1970’s, veterans launched an epistolary campaign to ‘save’ their division. The Army Command relented and had the 1st Armored Division replace the 4th Armored Division. This reflagging of units is common, and may appear superficial, but to many it is a successful way to preserve the most distinguished army divisions.

Why was the 1st Armored Division saved? The “Old Ironsides,” as the division is informally known, is the oldest and most prestigious armored division in the American military. Activated in July 1940, it went on to distinguish itself in Operation Torch in North Africa in 1942, Operation Husky in Italy, as well as the Anzio landing. After the war, it was the first division to integrate blacks throughout its ranks. During the Cuban Missile Crisis it performed war games on the Georgia and Florida coast. The “old Ironsides” was no longer just another military division, but living history.

Only a few divisions, such as the 1st, 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions have served continuously since their activation. All three divisions were first mobilized in 1917, and have served ever since. The 1st Infantry Division, called the “Big Red One” by its admirers (because its insignia is a large red number one), was paraded through the streets of Paris to bolster French morale on July 4, 1917. At this juncture, an officer of General Pershing’s staff announced “Lafayette, we are here!” at the dead man’s tomb. The “Big Red One” was the first American unit to fight in WWI and was among the first to fight Germany in WWII when it participated in the invasion of North Africa in 1942. Later, the unit was the first to storm Omaha Beach during Operation Overlord. The carnage was prodigious, but the soldiers persevered and took the beachhead. Their pluck is best exemplified by the words of Colonel George Taylor, commander of the 16th Infantry Regt., who told his men just before their landing, "Two kinds of people are staying on this beach! The dead and those who are going to die! Now, let's get the hell out of here!"

The 3rd Division earned its nickname “Rock of the Marne” when it withstood the ferocious German offensive at the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918. Other units collapsed or retreated, but the 3rd remained and blocked the German path to Paris, and thus, victory. The “Rock of the Marne” again displayed its tenacity and bravery in WWII, where it was the sole American division to boast 531 continuous days of fighting.

The 4th Infantry Division, or “Ivy” Division, has also served almost nine decades. Its sobriquet is a pun on the Latin word for four, and that the ivy is a symbol for fidelity and fortitude. It fought in France during the last four months of WWI and in the next world war it was the first to assail the German defenses on Utah beach. In the month-long fighting in Normandy, the division lost 5,000 men.

Nonetheless, decades of uninterrupted existence are exceptional in the American military. Until recently there was a consensus within the American polity that standing armies were a hallmark of European statism and deleterious to liberty. Until the early 20th century, units were formed at the state level; the central government maintained a bare bones army. The peacetime army was small (in 1914 it was just 18th largest in the world--smaller than Romania's). Although the Civil War and the two world wars demonstrated America’s ability to create and sustain large, continental armies, they were quickly disbanded after victory. It was only after the onset of the Cold War that American demobilization was halted and then reversed. It is only recently that the historical worth of American units has been cherished and apotheosized. Before, a unit would be deactivated and would only be reactivated when another war erupted.

This was the fate of many divisions and regiments in the American army. The Second Infantry Division was activated in 1917, fought in both world wars, and also in the Korean War before it was deactivated. Later, it was reactivated to counter North Korean aggression along the DMZ. The famous 82nd Airborne followed a similar pattern. It was first formed in 1917, when the US prepared to fight Germany. The unit was given the moniker “All American” because it included soldiers from all 48 states. It served with distinction in the Great War. Feats such as Alvin C. York and his small squad capturing 132 German prisoners and silencing several machine gun nests are emblematic of the division’s excellence.

The 82nd infantry division was demobilized after WWI, only to be reactivated again in March 1942 and converted into an airborne division. The division’s first jumps were into Salerno and Sicily in 1943. After fighting in Anzio, the division earned the nickname “the devils in baggy pants,” which was how the opposing German general described them in his diary. The division made other jumps, later in the war, and would fight in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait and Iraq.

The 101st Airborne was the second airborne unit in the army, and shares an equally distinguished history. The Screaming Eagles, as it is colloquially known, is a young division, being created in 1942. Its first commander, Major General William C. Lee, admitted that the unit had “no history,” but promised it “a rendezvous with destiny.” It went on to serve with distinction in the war. Despite losing a quarter of its men when it launched its airborne invasion of Normandy, it continued to fight. An example of its tenacity was its refusal to surrender the town of Bastogne, which was enveloped by Germany’s Ardennes offensive in December 1944 (popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge). On the fifth day of the siege, the Wehrmacht sent emissaries demanding the surrender of the division and the city. General McAuliffe, the acting commander, replied “Nuts!” and continued to defend the town for over a week before being relieved by Patton’s Third Army.

The two airborne divisions were created after the world was awed by the feats of German and Soviet paratroopers. The 10th Mountain Division was inspired by another European innovation. The Winter War between Finland and the USSR in 1939-1940 witnessed Finnish soldiers, equipped with skis and winter camouflage, decimate the Soviet invaders. Tiny Finland defied the might of the Soviet Union. Charles “Minnie” Dole, a ski enthusiast, persuaded General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, to train mountain troops. The 10th Infantry Division was converted into the 10th Mountain Division in 1943. The 10th entered combat in 1945 and fought the Germans in the mountains of Italy, where they fought high altitude battles against elite German mountain troops. In the Battle of Riva Ridge, the 10th scaled the 1,500 foot ridge, which was previously deemed impossible, to outflank their adversaries. Later, near Castel d’Aiano, John D. McGrath and his company were pinned by heavy German fire. Instead of seeking cover, McGrath sprinted towards a nearby house and confronted two German machine gunners, capturing one and killing the other. He then killed and captured five more Germans who emerged from a nearby foxhole. He neutralized another German position by killing two soldiers and capturing three. McGrath is the 10th’s sole winner of a Medal of Honor.

Important as history is to the military, it's getting in the way of the transformation of the institution. The emphasis in the future will be on smaller units instead of large divisions. In the words of Maj. Gen. J. D. Thurman, commanding general, 4th Infantry Division. "We will tailor our units under modularity to transition and transform the force from a divisional-based army to a brigade-based Army. We are literally pushing down assets to make brigades more autonomous."

This change was precipitated by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and reflects the military’s effort to adapt to the Global War on Terror (GWOT). The army is restructuring itself from a division based force (there are approximately 15,000 men in a division) to a brigade based force (around 3,000 men). It is hoped the latter will be more flexible, and more deployable than the cumbrous Cold War army. The goal is to have brigades capable of deploying anywhere in the world within 96 hours, fighting immediately, and being self-sustaining for 3 to 7 days. The Army’s restructuring plan, termed Objective Force, plans modularizing the old divisions. This is army-speak for allowing divisional commanders to use brigades from different divisions.

This recent change has been called the “most significant Army restructuring in the past 50 years,” and may render divisions almost meaningless. American divisions are not only organizations to fight American battles, but are also organisms of living history. The Army, operating through the CMH, takes pride in the traditions and glorious past of these units and their presence will continue to be felt even as they are dissolved and changed. In this way, the obscure names of army divisions are, to paraphrase Max Weber, part of the half-forgotten past that will continue to haunt our society.