Iron Mike statue commemorating the fierce battle that raged around the bridge between the Germans and 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Drifting through the sky toward the French village of Sainte-Mère-Église, suspended beneath the silk canopy of his parachute, Pvt. John Marvin Steele of the 82nd Airborne Division realized he had a problem. It was a problem that went beyond the expected challenges of landing in German-occupied Normandy. Not only was Steele wounded, he was headed straight toward a medieval church in the middle of town, rather than the open fields within his target drop zone.
Steele realized that his training on how to tuck and roll to avoid injury would not help him now as he prepared to land on the church. His jump boots smacked against the stone roof, and he tumbled over the edge of the building. Luckily, his chute snagged on the steeple, leaving him suspended high above the ground. He remained there for several hours before German soldiers realized he was alive and took him prisoner.
Despite having been wounded in the foot by flak, Steele managed to escape his captors and rejoin his unit as they prepared to resume their assault on Sainte-Mère-Église. Ultimately, the paratroopers succeeded in defeating the German forces entrenched in the town, making it the first town to be liberated by the Allies during Operation Overlord.
A dummy paratrooper hangs from the church spire in Sainte-Mère-Église, commemorating the story of 82nd veteran John Steele. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Steele and his fellow paratroopers — the “All Americans” — were among the inaugural members of the 82nd, the first airborne division of the United States. Their airborne heroics in World War II made the unit famous, but the 82nd’s history stretches back to the early 20th century, before the advent of parachute assault operations.
And the All Americans continue to play a crucial role in our national defense today. Like the men who liberated Sainte-Mère-Église, the soldiers currently serving in the 82nd constitute the tip of the spear. The nature of warfare has changed, but their mission remains essentially the same.
The 82nd Airborne is an airborne infantry division specially trained and equipped to leapfrog enemy lines and establish an “entry point” for advancing ground forces. The 82nd is one of the largest and most frequently deployed combat units in the US Army. It is made up of three infantry brigade combat teams, an artillery brigade, a combat aviation brigade, and a sustainment brigade.
Members of the 82nd are distinguishable from other US service members by their maroon berets and iconic “AA” shoulder patch. The AA is shorthand for the nickname “All American,” which originated during World War I. Shortly after the division was founded in 1917, the Atlanta Georgian newspaper polled its readers to determine the best-suited moniker for the new unit. All American — which honors the fact that all 48 states of the republic were represented among the unit’s first members — won the vote. The nickname has stuck ever since.
US Army paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division wait inside an Air Force C-130 before a Saturday Proficiency Jump Program jump at Pope Army Airfield on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Jan. 16, 2016. US Army photo by Spc. Rachel Diehm.
Today, according to the Army, the All American Division “serves as the nucleus of the Global Response Force.” Supported by the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, the 82nd can — at least in theory — put boots on the ground anywhere in the world within 18 hours of activation. Because of the unpredictable nature of their mission, 82nd paratroopers are constantly training to sharpen their skills and prepare themselves to respond quickly to a range of possible scenarios.
US Army Staff Sgt. Andy Jones, who served five years in the 82nd, recalls the great lengths his brigade would go to in order to maintain readiness.
“We would practice getting all our gear ready and loading the planes. We would run through the entire sequence in order to ensure we were always ready,” Jones told Coffee or Die Magazine. “We had a lot of pride in being members of the 82nd. They really hammered the tradition of the unit to us.”
Upholding that high standard of readiness has paid dividends. In the years since WWII, the All Americans have been called upon time and again to perform difficult missions and live up to the legendary reputation inherited from their predecessors. They have conducted patrol operations in the rice paddies of Vietnam, performed low-altitude air assaults in Grenada and Panama, and waged difficult counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Recently, in 2021, paratroopers from the 82nd’s 1st Brigade Combat Team executed a rapid deployment to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport during America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Reinforced by two battalions of Marines, the paratroopers took charge of the airport. There, they managed the evacuation effort amid threats of suicide bombers, insider attacks, and overwhelming crowds of people desperately trying to flee the country.
A paratrooper assigned to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, conducts security as the division helps facilitate the evacuation of US citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other at-risk Afghans out of Afghanistan as safely as possible from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Aug 26, 2021. US Army photo by Master Sgt. Alexander Burnett.
More than just a combat unit, the 82nd is also sufficiently trained and equipped to respond quickly to various types of humanitarian crises. In 2005, for example, the unit was deployed to Louisiana to help secure Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Five years later, a task force from the 82nd was sent to Haiti after an earthquake killed more than 200,000 people on the island. The paratroopers distributed food, water, and medical care.
The 82nd Airborne cannot count itself among the oldest organizations in the US Army. Several units that are still active today were founded well over a century before the American Revolution. Nevertheless, the 82nd’s inception predates a number of important military innovations, such as radar, shortwave radios, and penicillin production. And one could argue that it has a richer history than most American infantry divisions do, including even those that have been active a lot longer.
US Army soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division on patrol in Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury in October 1983. Two of the soldiers on the road have M47 Dragon anti-tank weapons. US Army photo by Sgt. Michael Bogdanowicz.
The division was constituted as the 82nd Division for service in the national army during WWI and mustered in 1917 at Camp Gordon, Georgia. There, recruits hailing from every state in the union underwent infantry training before shipping off to the war in Europe. In France, the division fought in some of the war’s most pivotal engagements, including the battles of the Somme, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
A total of 995 soldiers from the 82nd were killed in the First World War. Following the armistice, the division returned to the United States and soon thereafter it was deactivated.
On Feb. 19, 1942, the 82nd was reactivated and chosen to become America’s first airborne division. The unit was selected for the role partly because it was based at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, where the weather conditions were ideal for jump training. Furthermore, the 82nd was neither a regular Army unit nor a national guard, which made it an ideal guinea pig for “experimental” tactics like parachute infiltration. The effectiveness of airborne operations was still unproven at the time, as it had not yet been employed in combat.
The 82nd conducted the US military’s first airborne combat operation in 1943, when its troopers parachuted onto the island of Sicily during Operation Husky. From there, the 82nd was assigned to Operation Overlord to spearhead the liberation of France. On June 6, 1944, the All Americans jumped into Normandy alongside soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division and the British 8th Airborne Division. The paratroopers defended the entire western flank of the Allied landing force at Utah Beach and helped clear the path for its march inland.
Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division prepare to jump into Normandy, June 1944. Wikimedia Commons photo.
After France was liberated, the 82nd conducted another combat jump, into the Netherlands, as part of Operation Market Garden. The mission — to create a salient in German lines and accelerate the Allies’ advance toward Berlin — was not a total victory. However, the 82nd and its partner forces did succeed in liberating several Dutch cities, including Eindhoven and Nijmegen.
After Operation Market Garden, the All American Division continued to fight in Europe with distinction. During the Battle of the Bulge, an estimated 8,352 paratroopers from the 82nd waged a fighting withdrawal against 43,000 German troops. Later, toward the end of the war, the 82nd Airborne liberated the Wöbbelin concentration camp.
The 82nd’s exploits in WWII solidified its role as America’s “A” team. The division remained stateside during the Korean War because presidents Truman and Eisenhower wanted the unit to be ready in case of a bigger war with the Soviet Union. But the unit wasn’t in the bullpen for long. Aside from Korea, the 82nd has fought in every major American conflict since WWII, including the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, and the War on Terror.
Troops of the American 82nd Airborne Division view bodies of inmates at Wöbbelin, a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp. Germany, May 6, 1945. US Army photo.
Despite its reputation as an elite infantry unit, the 82nd Airborne Division is not considered special operations. The term “Special Forces” strictly refers to US Army soldiers with an 18-series military occupational specialty who are assigned to a Special Forces Group. Other Army units that fall under US Special Operations Command include the 75th Ranger Regiment and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
But even though the word “special” isn’t affixed to their title, the paratroopers of the 82nd are an exceptional group of soldiers, and they know it.
“Being a paratrooper in this division is an absolute honor, but it comes with a unique set of challenges,” Lt. Barrett Lucas, an officer currently serving in the 82nd, told Coffee or Die. “The uncertainty of deployments and the endless training to maintain constant readiness require a lot of early mornings and late nights. Once my time here is over, if I was given the chance to do it again, I’d leap at it.”
Lucas’ willingness to go above and beyond seems to be a common denominator among 82nd paratroopers. And naturally so. They have big jump boots to fill. The division has produced some of the most decorated soldiers in US Army history. These include six Medal of Honor recipients, as well as legendary warfighters like Lt. Col. James “Maggie” Megellas — whose daring actions in WWII were immortalized in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far — and Lt. Gen. James “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin, the only general officer to complete four combat jumps in a single conflict. Gavin held the rank of brigadier general, despite being only 36, when he arrived in Normandy.
Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne post security during a training exercise on Camp Rudder, Florida, July 16, 2014. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Callaway.
The 82nd’s rigorous standards and sense of discipline seem to leave a lasting imprint on those who pass through its ranks. Veterans of the division have gone on to distinguish themselves in various capacities, such as while serving in special operations units, in foreign armies, and in political offices. Notable alumni include Omar Bradley, the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Wes Moore, who was recently elected to become Maryland’s first Black governor; and current US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
The entire 82nd Airborne Division is based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and is part of the larger XVIII Airborne Corps. The base is home to more than 57,000 soldiers and approximately 34,000 civilian employees and family members. Known as the "home of the Airborne and Special Operations Forces,” it is one of the largest military installations in the world.
Fort Bragg encompasses 163,000 acres and offers ample training ground for 82nd paratroopers to develop and hone their skills as warfighters. The base has the space, assets, and facilities for units to train on everything from airborne insertions and urban operations to artillery and close air support missions. The division’s wide range of capabilities help ensure that the All Americans are fully prepared to answer the call, wherever it takes them.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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