The Screaming Eagles

The history of the 101st Airborne Division

Screaming Eagles Band of Brothers
General Maxwell D. Taylor, commanding officer of the 101st Airborne from early 1944 onward (Photo: The National WWII Museum New Orleans)

This year's summer marks the 80th anniversary of the activation of a celebrated American Army division. The 101st Airborne Division came into existence on August 16, 1942, and the "Screaming Eagles" quickly soared to legendary status. With a proud service history in World War II, Vietnam, and more recently Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations, they are a shining example of American military excellence.

The history of the 101st arguably began in World War I, when the 101st Infantry Division was set up. Its headquarters was organized 9 days before the end of the war, so the unit didn't see action, and was reconstituted in the Organized Reserves in 1921. The division was stationed in Wisconsin at this time, and reached back to the state's Civil War history for its identity. The Screaming Eagle, which appears on the division unit patch today, was adopted during this period. It refers to a real bald eagle named Old Abe (Read our earlier article: Old Abe, the original Screaming Eagle), who was the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment. The black shield on which the eagle is depicted in the unit patch is also a Civil War reference, to the Iron Brigade, another unit with Wisconsin connections whose soldiers wore black hats.

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Old Abe, the original Screaming Eagle (Photo: State Historical Society of Wisconsin Visual Archives)

The 101st Airborne was properly formed in the summer of 1942, with some of the initial cadre provided by the 82nd “All American” Airborne Division, who were already established by the time. The division's first commander, Major General William Lee, is often called the "Father of the U.S. Airborne," and included these words in General Order Number 5:

"The 101st Airborne Division, which was activated on 16 August 1942, at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny. Due to the nature of our armament, and the tactics in which we shall perfect ourselves, we shall be called upon to carry out operations of far-reaching military importance and we shall habitually go into action when the need is immediate and extreme. Let me call your attention to the fact that our badge is the great American eagle. This is a fitting emblem for a division that will crush its enemies by falling upon them like a thunderbolt from the skies." The order gave the division its motto, "Rendezvous with destiny."

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William Carey Lee (center), first commanding officer of the 101st, receiving an honorary degree of Doctor of Military Sciences in 1945. (Photo: NC State University Libraries)

The 101st first saw action on the night before D-Day, when they were dropped behind enemy lines alongside the 82nd on the Cotentin Peninsula (Read our earlier article: Jumping into chaos). The division had multiple objectives, all revolving around preparing the ground for the amphibious landings in the morning. Jumping in three drop zones, the 101st was to secure causeway exits from Utah Beach, destroy a German coastal battery, capture several buildings believed to be barracks and a command post, capture a river lock, and capture or destroy several bridges. All of these actions, combined with similar missions carried out by the 82nd, were to hamper German efforts to push back against the vulnerable beachheads in the early hours of the operation, and to help Allied troops at different beaches link up and move further inland.

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Headquarters Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, applying war paint before departing for Normandy. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

As you can read in our article linked above, most paratroopers misjumped. Once on the ground, the men had to link up with whomever they could find and act on their own initiative. Though inexperienced, the 101st accomplished many of their objectives, and the paratroopers appearing all over the place sowed a great deal of confusion among the Germans.

One trick that helped the paratroopers recognize each other was the use of helmet marks unique to the 101st. Each of the four French card suits (spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds) was assigned to one of the division's four regiments (one only attached later on in the war) and painted on every helmet to ease identification. Additionally, a tick mark was painted around the suit symbol, the location representing the soldier's battalion. Other symbols marked support units and artillery, engineer battalions and the like, and the 187th Regiment, added to the division after the war, was assigned the Torii symbol representing traditional gates at Japanese Shinto shrines.

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Ed Pieczatowski showing the hole put in his helmet by an SS grenadier. The club symbol marks him as a member of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. (Photo:

As the first days of the Allied landings unfolded, the 101st was involved in several actions not originally planned but now a part of the division's history. Among these were 1st Lieutenant Dick Winters' assault on the Brécourt Manor battery (Read our earlier article: Dick Winters' first battle) and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole's path down an exposed highway and his bayonet charge against a German-held farm (Read our earlier article: Cole's bayonet charge).

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101st Airborne paratroopers in Saint-Côme-du-Mont (Photo: U.S. Army)

These fierce days also brought along the division's first loss of a general officer. Brigadier General Don F. Pratt was touching down in Normandy in a glider on D-Day, when the vehicle crashed into a hedgerow. Sitting in his jeep, Pratt broke his neck from whiplash, becoming the highest-ranking Allied officer to die on the first day of the Allied landings.

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Wreckage of the Fighting Falcon, Don F. Pratt's glider (Photo: The Don F. Pratt Museum)

The division's next great test was Operation Market Garden in the fall of 1944. The doomed operation tried to capture a large number of bridges in the Netherlands with airborne troops, and then use those bridges to cut across the country with tanks. The largest airborne operation in history, Market Garden was a bold but ultimately failed attempt to rapidly reach Germany's industrial heartland and possibly end the war before winter.

Both the 101st and the 82nd captured several bridges early on in the operation, but the 101st hit a snag when one of their primary objectives was blown up by the Germans. The division then tried but failed to capture another bridge a few miles away. This contributed to the delay of the British XXX Corps, but it should be noted that Market Garden suffered from many problems and localized failures, which all added up to eventually defeat. During the operation, the 101st managed to hold a narrow corridor 16 miles (26 km) long in enemy territory for ten days, a stretch of which was nicknamed Hell's Highway due to the intensity of fighting.

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101st Airborne paratroopers with Dutch civilians during Operation Market Garden (Photo: U.S. Army)

The failure of Market Garden meant that the war was definitely not going to end before the Christmas of 1944. However, the 101st had no way of knowing just how quickly they'll be needed again. On December 16, Hitler launched a carefully and secretively prepared offensive in the Ardennes in Belgium, starting what is now called the Battle of the Bulge. Available Allied units in the area were hurriedly called up and thrown in the way of the German advance with essentially no time to prepare. The 101st was lacking some vital equipment such as winter coats, but needs must when the Devil drives: the division boarded a truck convoy (the weather was unsuitable for parachute drops) and headed for the town of Bastogne, where they met up with a tank destroyer battalion, elements of an armored division, and three artillery battalions. Their orders were simple: hold Bastogne at all cost. Bastogne was a local transportation hub where several roads and railways met. Capturing the town would have allowed the Germans to move their forces around much more quickly in a region dominated by forested mountains. The longer the division could deny Bastogne to the enemy, the easier it would be for other Allied units to stop and beat back the German offensive.

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Paratroopers of the 101st moving up to Bastogne (Photo: U.S. Army Center of Military History)

Describing the entire battle is far beyond the scope of this article, but one element that became a part of the 101st's legend must be mentioned. The division's acting commander was Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, since the division's commanding officer, Maxwell D. Taylor, was in the United States for a staff conference. The German commander of the siege of Bastogne sent McAuliffe a written message demanding the Americans' surrender. A frustrated McAuliffe, just woken up to be given the news, responded with "Nuts!," an exclamation that became the official, written reply after a short deliberation. Of course, the word does not carry the same slang connotation in German, so the officer taking the message back had to be explained that it meant "go to Hell."

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Anthony McAuliffe (center) with two of his officers in Bastogne (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Battered Bastards of the Bastion of Bastogne, as the 101st came to be known, held the town against all comers, including a desperate German attack on Christmas Day, which initially saw several German tanks penetrate American lines. General George S. Patton's forces arrived the next day to rescue the Battered Bastards, even though the latter maintained they didn't actually need any rescuing. In January, the 101st went on the counteroffensive and liberated several nearby villages before being relieved. The actions of one particular paratrooper in Bastogne also led to the creation of the famous Airborne Beer (Read our earlier article - A helmet full of beer).

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Cobra King, the first tank to reach Bastogne (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Battle of the Bulge was Germany's last-ditch attempt to turn the tide of war on the Western Front. Once the offensive was blunted, it was relatively smooth sailing into Germany. On the way, the 101st liberated one of the many subcamps of the Dachau concentration camp. They also reached the Nazi resort town of Berchtesgaden and Hitler's famous Eagle's Nest, liberating large quantities of Nazi-held champagne and other libations in the process. It should be mentioned in the interest of historical fairness that while the 101st, and more specifically the famous Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, are usually credited with reaching both the town and the mountaintop retreat first, there is some historical evidence that they were beaten to it by the 3rd Infantry Division, who got there first (on the same day, even), but were ordered to move on before they could enjoy their conquest.

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Members of the famous Easy Company in Berchtesgaden. (Note that the photo is often inaccurately described as having been taken at the Eagle's Nest.) (Photo: U.S. Army)

In the late summer of 1945, the 101st began training for redeployment in the Pacific, but the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan and the country's subsequent surrender ended the war before they could be sent east. The division’s WWII actions were depicted in several movies and series, the most famous being HBO’s Band of Brothers miniseries.

World War II was over, but the 101st Division continued to serve. It was deactivated and reactivated several times in the late 40s and the 50s. In 1957, it was reactivated as the first "pentomic" division of the United States Army. Pentomic divisions were a short-lived experiment to adapt to the Cold War. A pentomic division comprised of not three regiments, but five smaller battle groups. The idea was that this would allow the division to be in more places and do more things at the same time. Additionally, with the five battle groups dispersed over a larger area, it would be harder for the Soviets to destroy an entire division with nuclear weapons.

The pentomic experiment didn't last, but the 101st achieved another milestone in 1957, though one less military in nature. A group of nine African-American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas, in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education, and the ensuing political crisis placed the students in danger. Soldiers of the 101st were ordered into Little Rock to protect the students of the formerly segregated school from harassment or harm.

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Members of the 101st in Little Rock (Photo: Getty Images)

The 101st Airborne were also deployed to Vietnam. Between 1865 and 1967, the division became known as the "Nomads of Vietnam" for always being sent from one crisis spot to another. Among many other locations, the 101st fought at Hamburger Hill and Firebase Ripcord. According to some sources, the North Vietnamese misunderstood the division's unit patch and started calling them "Chicken Men."

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Wounded members of the 101st being evacuated in Vietnam, May 1969. (Photo: United States Army Military History Institute)

A few men from the 101st were selected for Tiger Force, a special long-range recon patrol unit. Numbering around 45 men, the mission of Tiger Force was to "outguerilla the guerillas." The unit achieved a fearsome reputation, but paid a high price for it in the moral murkiness of the Vietnam War. An investigation revealed that the force committed numerous war crimes, but the Army decided not to prosecute anyone.

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Members of Tiger Force on a North Vietnamese infiltration trail (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

It might surprise some readers, but 101st Airborne Division, so famed for their paratrooper operations in World War II, no longer perform jumps, since their jump status was terminated in 1974. Since then, the division has operated first as an airmobile division, then later (and today) as the United States' only air assault division. (An airmobile division is one that uses air transport to get near a battlefield, then disembarks and proceeds on foot. An air assault division uses helicopters or tiltrotor aircraft to land directly in combat and fight from the very first step onward.)

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Jimmy Hendrix during the time when he served in the 101st (Photo: United Service Organizations)

Since their reorganization, the 101st Airborne have continued to serve with pride. In 1991, during the Gulf War, they have struck Iraqi targets 155 miles (249 km) behind enemy lines, executing the deepest air assault in history. They have participated in humanitarian relief efforts and peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. They have also performed air assaults, counterinsurgency operations and have trained local allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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A member of the 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne on patrol in Afghanistan, 2013. You can see the Torii symbol, not yet used in World War II, on his helmet. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Most recently, the Screaming Eagles have started returning to Europe. It was announced in the summer of 2022 that the 101st will be a part of a mission to reinforce America's allies in NATO and help ensure Europe's safety during and after the war unfolding between Russia and Ukraine. If the 101st truly returns to Europe for the foreseeable future, they will find a warm welcome by friends who remember.

Join us on our Band of Brothers Tour to follow in the footsteps of the division’s paratroopers from Normandy to the Eagle’s Nest and explore the sites where 101st soldiers, like Ronald Speirs (Read our earlier article - Badass paratrooper or war criminal?), went into battle to restore liberty to Nazi-occupied Europe.

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Elements of the 101st arriving in Romania, Europe, in June 2022 (Photo: U.S. Army)