A paratrooper with 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, US Army Alaska, takes a knee before walking a night iteration of company live-fire exercise at Fort Greeley, Alaska, March 21, 2019. The Senate Armed Services Committee announced the US Army would resurrect the historic 11th Airborne Division to focus on Arctic warfare. US Army photo by Sgt. Alex Skripnichuk. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
The US Army will raise a third airborne division, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville confirmed at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, May 5.
The US Army Alaska Headquarters is being remodeled as the 11th Airborne Division in a new strategic plan to focus on Arctic dominance. The deliberate move was made to prepare for future conflicts in cold-weather environments. The newly resurrected 11th Airborne Division will join the 82nd Airborne Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade as the Army’s premier airborne light-infantry units, while the 101st Airborne Division will remain focused on air assault.
“This is a historic development for our Alaska-based military,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said after the hearing. “Redesignating U.S. Army Alaska under the 11th Airborne Division banner presents a dual opportunity for our country — renewing the spirit and purpose of our Alaska-based soldiers by connecting them with this division’s proud and storied history, and better fulfilling America’s role as an Arctic nation.”
Similarly to the existing airborne divisions, the 11th Airborne was established during World War II. Nicknamed the “Angels,” the 11th Airborne was activated on Feb. 25, 1943, at Camp Mackall, North Carolina. The division underwent airborne training and advanced jungle warfare training in New Guinea before deploying in November of 1944 to the Philippine Islands. The paratroopers landed at Leyte Beach, and after three months of intense combat across mountainous terrain, the paratroopers emerged victorious, having killed more than 5,700 Japanese soldiers along the way.
During the Battle of Leyte, 31-year-old Pvt. Elmer E. Fryar encountered an entrenched enemy position supported by mortars and automatic weapons. Members of Company E, 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division, could not seize the position and were ordered to retreat. Fryar noticed an enemy platoon attempting to outflank his company and moved himself to higher ground for a better firing position. He was wounded during the firefight but continued onward, single-handedly killing 27 enemy soldiers. Fryar even helped two wounded comrades to safety. While doing so, he leapt in front of his platoon leader when he saw an enemy sniper aiming for the man, taking the fatal shot himself. With his remaining strength, he took out the enemy sniper with a hand grenade before he died. Fryer was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
The 11th Airborne saw action again in the Battle of Luzon, where Pfc. Manuel Perez Jr. became the second soldier from the division to be awarded the Medal of Honor. On Feb. 13, 1945, Perez helped destroy 11 Japanese pillboxes and killed 18 enemy soldiers — three with the butt of his rifle and one with his bayonet in hand-to-hand combat. Perez was killed in action one month later.
The 11th Airborne Division later escorted Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the American occupation of Japan. They were relieved in 1949, but parts of the division soon returned to Asia to fight in the Korean War.
The 11th Airborne Division was officially deactivated in 1965.
“The 11th has a great history and heritage,” McConville said. “That means a lot to soldiers and tabs on their badges — things like that matter. But, also, we’re looking at the Arctic very differently. We put out a strategy. We think it’s very different. We’ve got to be able to operate in that environment. We’ve got to make sure the units have the capabilities and that gives them the confidence to be somewhat special — you’re the ones that can operate with the right equipment and even transform some of those units so they have the right vehicles to operate in the coldest time [of year]. They have the right equipment and the right clothing. All of those things come together to give them a sense of identity, and that’s who we send there.”
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.