The 82nd Airborne Division is one of the most iconic military units in American and perhaps world combat history. Their motto “Death from Above” was well earned during their exploits in the Second World War as the use of the airborne troops became a staple in military doctrine.
The 82nd was the first U.S. unit to parachute into battle in force and conducted 2 airborne assaults in Sicily and Salerno. These were followed by the Normandy assaults the following year and the Market Garden operation for a total of 4 airborne assaults in the war.
The toughness of the soldiers of the 82nd was remarkable. One German officer called them “devils in baggy pants” and their unit effectiveness in Normandy included the completion of all their objectives despite nearly 50% casualties.
However, the 82nd Division’s extraordinary record actually began nearly 3 decades earlier during the Great War.
Following the United States’ entry into WWI in 1917, the 82nd Division was formed at Camp Gordon, Georgia. The division was made up completely of conscripted U.S. soldiers.
These young men came from all over the U.S. and represented all 48 U.S. States (Alaska and Hawaii didn’t become states until 1959). It was with this in mind that the commanding officer, Major General Eben Swift, gave the division it’s name – The All American Division.
The unit’s combat identification badge (patch) with it’s “AA” is representative of the name.
Roots of Greatness
The 82nd was sent to Europe in April of 1918 and assembled in Liverpool, England before being deployed to the British controlled Somme for training and experience.
They were then shifted to the French sector in Lagney to gain further experience before being shipped out to participate in the St. Mihiel offensive. It was during this deployment that the 82nd received its first significant casualties of over 800 men including the units 1st recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Colonel Emory Pike.
During the brief St. Mihiel offensive, the 82nd Division was part of the 1st Corp, which achieved it’s Day 1 objectives by noon and it’s Day 2 objective by early afternoon of Day 2.
The All Americans were then moved to the area of Verdun where they prepared for the final offensive of the Great War – The Meuse-Argonne. The conscripts of the 82nd Division would prove their metal during the offensive and from their midst would emerge their 2nd Medal of Honor recipient – the legendary Alvin C. York.
Additionally, the 82nd was one of two American divisions that help relieve the famed “Lost Battalion” in the Argonne Forest. The effort rescued nearly 200 survivors of German encirclement.
The 82nd Division was sent home following the armistice in November of 1918 after suffering over 8,000 casualties in the Great War. It was demobilized and dormant as an “Organized Reserve” unit for 20 years until America would once again call.
Ultimately, European Fascism and Japanese aggression would pull the “All Americans” back into action and in a new, modern role. In 1942, the 82nd Infantry Division,which was then being commanded by the iconic and now legendary Major General Ridgway, became the USA’s first every air airborne division and was redesignated and known as the 82nd Airborne Division.
The 82nd Division has continued it’s tradition of excellence since WWII as one of the few units in the world that is combat ready for deployment nearly anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice.
It was kept as a strategic reserve during the Korean War in order to thwart any aggressive behavior by the Soviet Union, but it has had a leading or significant role in every major conflict involving the United States for the last 100 years.
The 82nd was deployed for nearly 2 years to Vietnam, served in the Grenada and Panama operations, and was one of the 1st units on the scene during the 1st Persian Gulf War in the early 1990’s.
It has since participated in U.S. actions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq to name a few.
The 82nd continues to display it’s diverse “All-American” roots boasting some remarkable figures who have served in the division.
The list is long but includes the only American general to make all four U.S. parachute jumps in WWII – Lt. General James Gavin; the first female 4 star general in the U.S. military – General Ann Dunwoody; and the first African-American 4 star general – General Roscoe Robinson Jr.
Before his death at the end of WWII, General George Patton observed and commented that the Honor Guard of the 82nd Division was the most impressive he had seen in his career.
Seven members of the 82nd Division have received the Congressional Medal of Honor and the unit has evolved into an elite organization within the U.S. Armed Forces – a remarkable achievement for a bunch of conscripts from across the fruited plain.