Paratroopers remember the soldiers who gave their lives for America
Band of brothers: This week, thousands of active-duty soldiers and veterans are gathering to honor the 101st airbourne division that was created 70 years ago, pictured
Thousands of soldiers and veterans are coming together this week to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the legendary 101st Airborne Division. The group of elite paratroopers, considered a ‘cut above the rest’, was created on August 16, 1942, and first saw combat on one of the most crucial days in U.S. history – the D-Day invasion of France. The 101st Airborne Division and the Fort Bragg, North Carolina-based 82nd Airborne Division would go on to redefine war strategies from World War II to Vietnam to the Middle East.
This week, as its current soldiers prepare to leave for Afghanistan, scores of active-duty soldiers and veterans are gathering at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to honor the elite fighting force. The first commanding general of the 101st, Major General William C. Lee, said his men had no history but had a ‘rendezvous with destiny.’ The Army wanted physically fit, aggressive young men who were a ‘cut above the rest,’ said the division’s historian, Captain Jim Page. After months of grueling road marches through the north Georgia mountains, the group of elite paratroopers had to put their training to the test in a trial by fire. They leapt from an airplane, bullets whizzing past parachutes and shrapnel pelting the plane’s side panels.
Historic: On August 16, 1942, the Army created the first paratrooper divisions and the division is still fighting today, pictured
Ed Shames was among them. Now 90, Shames was 19 when he signed up for new parachute units created by military leaders who wanted a quicker, more aggressive unit that could sneak behind enemy lines in Europe. With the nation still reeling from Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army created the first paratrooper divisions in August, 1942. But military officials at first weren’t so sure the 101st ‘Screaming Eagles’ would find success. ‘They prophesized that we were going to fall on our faces, from the very beginning,’ Shames said. The Week of the Eagles is commemorating that legacy with games, a concert, an air show and memorials to the fallen, with each day dedicated to the major wars that have created the unique legacy of the Screaming Eagles.
World War II: Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, pictured, artillery commander of the 101st Airborne Division, gives his various glider pilots last minute instructions in 1944
The event culminates with a division review on the parade field. Shames, of Norfolk, Virginia, and other paratroopers from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment earned their tough reputation by making daily road marches up Currahee Mountain in Georgia. ‘A 25-mile march for us was just like a Sunday stroll,’ said Shames, who now lives in Virginia Beach. ‘We had to walk 10 to 12 miles to get to our training area at Toccoa and then train all day and walk back 10 or 12 miles back to camp every day.’ He recounted D-Day – his first day of combat – as the Allied planes crossed into Normandy and started taking heavy artillery fire.
‘Cut above’: Paratroopers of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, pictured in Vietnam in 1969, were considered a ‘cut above’ other soldiers
‘You could hear the shrapnel hitting against the side of the plane and when we jumped out, you could hear the bullets coming through the parachutes,’ Shames said. Expecting that the paratroopers would get scattered, the division’s regiments drew playing card symbols — the spade, the club, the heart and the diamond — on their helmets so that they could identify each other once on the ground. Shames said the paratroopers were successful in their mission of capturing key bridges to prevent German tanks from reaching the shore as amphibious troops made their landing. But it came at a cost, with the 101st losing around a third of its men in only about six weeks. The division then went on to suffer more casualties in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands.
Choppers: During the Vietnam war the Airborne troops, pictured crossing a waist-deep river, captured many Viet Cong and some weapons
Herbert Suerth II joined the Easy Company, whose exploits have been made into books and an HBO TV series called Band of Brothers, as a replacement soldier right before the division went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. ‘When I joined the 101st, the discipline, the tempo, everything changed, and it was refreshing,’ said Suerth. He is now 86 and jokes he is the president of the Men of Easy Company Association because he is the youngest member. As the unit made its way to establish a perimeter in the pine woods around the town of Bastogne in Belgium, they could hear the artillery rounds and small arms fire of the approaching German divisions, he said. ‘In between us and the German advance were hundreds of American infantry guys literally running,’ he said.
Evolving roles: The 101st Airborne Division troopers, pictured in Vietnam in 1968, would go on to redefine war strategies from World War II to Vietnam to the Middle East
‘They had been overrun by a couple of German divisions.’ When the Germans demanded that the division surrender after surrounding the town, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe responded with one word: ‘NUTS!’ The division held that town until just after Christmas when reinforcements arrived. After the war ended, the division was deactivated in 1945 as the Army shrunk to a post-war size. It was reactivated as a combat unit in 1956 at Fort Campbell. It would not again see combat again until the Vietnam War, although one of its current units served in the Korean War. In the summer of 1965, 4,000 troops from the 101st traveled for weeks by boat across the Pacific Ocean.
Taking aim: Troopers of 101st Airborne Division fire into brush during Operation Wheeler, in 1967 while on a search and destroy mission
John Pagel was a private first class and among the first division soldiers who stepped off the boat in Camh Ran Bay in Vietnam. The brigade was sent all over South Vietnam to clear out Viet Cong fighters, said Pagel, who is now 68 and living in Glendora, California. It was during this war that the division’s troops began shifting from jumping out of a plane to jumping out of helicopters. He had no experience in one before his first chopper assault, he said. ‘Ninety-five per cent of the troops of the 101st had not even sat in a helicopter before Vietnam, so we had to learn,’ Pagel said. Later in 1967, the rest of the division would deploy to Vietnam, where they would remain until 1972. Page said records captured during the war showed the North Vietnamese Army warned troops to be cautious when encountering the ‘chicken men,’ referring to the division’s bald eagle patch.
Mini series: The story of some of the 101st Airbourne Division troops was portrayed in an HBO series called Band of Brothers, pictured, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in 2001
Today, the 101st remains the Army’s only air assault division. After the Cold War, the division was sent on peacekeeping missions in countries such as Somalia and Bosnia and saw combat in the first Gulf War and the most recent Iraq War. The post-9/11 decade has brought constant deployment rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, with many current day troops serving between two and five tours. Even with this week’s celebrations, the division still has wartime obligations. One of its helicopter units is deploying to Afghanistan, and another infantry brigade is scheduled to leave later this year. They’re fighting a different type of enemy than the men who landed on Normandy, with new technology and on different terrain. But the division has adapted over the years. ‘Soldiers of the 101st, whether in World War II or in 2025, can expect that they will be placed at the forefront of America’s contingency operations wherever that may be,’ Page said.