We all know of the storied exploits of the United States’ 82nd Airborne Division. The elite group of soldiers with the motto – Death From Above – has spent a century developing its unique mystique.
In April of 2018, the 82nd Airborne Division inducted its first 20 members as the inaugural class of the units Hall of Fame. With so many notable soldiers serving in the unit since its creation, it was certainly a difficult task in choosing the first class and narrowing it down to 20.
100 Plus Years for the All-American Division
A large portion of the U.S. Expeditionary Forces created in Word War I were units from state militias or national guard units and were formed by citizens within particular areas such as Harry Truman’s Battery B from the Kansas City, Missouri area.
Conversely, the 82nd Division was made up of soldiers from all over the United States, which was unusual at the time based on the mustering system.
As such, the division was given the name of All-Americans and their “AA” insignia is representative of this. The unit served with distinction in World War I, but was deactivated after the war.
Leading into the Second World War, the 82nd was reactivated and given the unique designation as America’s first airborne division. The 101st Airborne would use elements of the 82nd in their creation later.
The war in Europe against the Axis forces would be the proving ground for this new, modern mode of warfare and the 82nd would make four airborne assaults during the war.
Their feats and effectiveness would continue in conflicts yet to come and the soldiers of the 82nd are one of the United States’ rapid deployment units boasting the ability to mobilize and see action in nearly any place on the globe within hours of getting the call.
A Short List of the Standout Warriors of the All-American Division
Here are some of the most notable members of the 82nd Airborne that made the cut for the 1st class of their HOF.
General Matthew Bunker Ridgeway
Ridgeway is one of the most important figures of World War II. He was the 1st commander of the 82nd Airborne Division who transitioned the unit to airborne deployment. He led the division throughout World War II and helped set the standard for airborne operations of United States personnel.
Ridgeway would later lead U.S. forces in the Korean War taking full charge of all United Nations forces after President Truman dismissed MacArthur. It was in Korea that Ridgeway earned the nickname “tin tits” because he regularly donned two hand grenades clipped at chest level.
A West Point graduate of the class of 1917, Ridgeway retired from the army in 1955.
Retired Command Sgt. Major William “Joe” Gainey
Gainey served in a variety of roles with the 82nd Airborne and was a platoon sergeant during Operation Desert Storm in the early 90’s. Gainey enlisted in the Army in 1974 and served until retirement in 2008.
Rising through the ranks, Gainey served in every capacity armored capacity including tank commander. He often carried a bearing from an Abrams tank, which he called his “military bearing”.
Gainey was highly respected by his peers and commanders and would ultimately serve as Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff – a position newly created in 2005 in which he was the first to hold the position.
Additionally, Gainey earned many awards and distinctions including the Bronze Star with “V” Device. The biennial “Best Scout Squad” competition at Fort Benning, Georgia is even named after him – The Gainey Cup.
1st Sergeant Leonard A. Funk Jr.
Funk joined the U.S. Army in 1941 before the outbreak of war and later volunteered to become a paratrooper. He took part in Operations Overlord and Market Garden, fought at the Battle of the Bulge.
He is one of the most decorated soldiers of the 82nd Airborne. In 1945 while stationed in Belgium, Funk came across a group of 80 German soldiers that had disarmed their American guards in an attempt to escape.
Though outnumbered, Funk opened fire on the Germans, led the freed American soldiers in taking weapons and convinced the remaining German soldiers to surrender. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but also received the Silver and Bronze Stars and 3 Purple Hearts during his WWII service.
Funk left the Army after WWII, but worked the Veterans Administration until he retired in 1972.
General Roscoe Robinson Jr.
Robinson graduated from West Point in 1947 and would serve with distinction as a platoon and rifle company commander in Korea. He would hone his skills and education following Korea and lead a battalion in Vietnam.
In 1975, Robinson became a Brigadier General and was promoted a year later to Major General and given command of the 82nd Airborne. His amazing military career has a long list of achievements including being awarded two Silver and a Bronze Star as well as a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Robinson retired after 34 years of service and passed away in 1993 with a number of “firsts” accomplished – first African-American to command the 82nd Airborne and first African-American 4-Star General. The auditorium at West Point is named for him.
Retired General Ann Dunwoody
Dunwoody was raised in a military family with a long history of service so it is no real surprise that she joined the U.S. Army upon graduation from college in 1975.
What may be surprising is how she worked her way to become a 4-Star General before she retired in 2012 becoming the 1st woman to do so.
The 82nd Airborne Division will always know Dunwoody as its first female battalion commander, a remarkable leader, and a tenacious achiever.
Sergeant Alvin York
York is one of the first members of the All-American Division. He was drafted into the Army in November of 1917. York was heavily devout and not comfortable with the thought of violence against men.
However, when a detachment from his unit was sent to silence German machine positions during the Argonne-Meuse Offensive in 1918, then Corporal York stepped up to the plate.
His detachment captured a slew of German soldiers that were preparing for a counter-offensive, but then came under heavy fire from more machine gun bunkers. With 9 men killed or wounded, York became the highest ranking soldier left in the unit.
He led an assault on a machine gun nest killing over a dozen soldiers before running out of ammunition and then used his Colt 1911 pistol to kill 6 more Germans that charged him. The German commander of the machine gun positions, out of ammunition, offered to surrender.
In the end, York and his unit returned with 132 prisoners plus weapons and he was immediately promoted to Sergeant. Following an investigation of events, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, Legion of Honour (France), Military Medal (France) and over 50 other distinctions.
York would lead an admirable but not highly prolific life in the States. He lobbied and worked for programs to benefit his native region of Tennessee and had 8 children. Fittingly, when York passed away in 1964 General Matthew Ridgeway attended as President Johnson’s representative.
Tip of the Iceberg
Of course, this is but a small list of the heroes that have and still populate the ranks of the 82nd Airborne Division. The full list of the 1st 20 members of the division’s hall of fame can be seen here. 5 additional members will be selected each year going forward.