Legacy of the 101st Airborne Division (Screaming Eagles)

The Screaming Eagle Patch

[Excerpts from our book - THE STAND ALONE BATTALION]

    In order to fully understand the legacy of the airborne infantry, it is necessary to explain the origin of the famous number 101 and its associated eagle icon.  First mention of these items in association with our nation's military forces dates back to the years immediately following the end of World War I.  The U. S. War Department constituted a 101st Infantry Division as part of the Organized Reserves in June of 1921 and approved its official insignia approximately two years later. The shoulder sleeve insignia of the division as approved in May of 1923, consisted of the head of a bald eagle with open beak and was patterned after a famous bald eagle mascot carried by a company of the 8th Wisconsin Regiment called the "Eau Claire Eagles" during the Civil War.  Even though a 101st Infantry Division existed during the years between World War I and World War II, this relatively insignificant unit had no official connection with the eventual establishment of the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. The 101st Infantry Division was ultimately disbanded in August of 1942 to make way for the newly constituted 101st Airborne Division that same year.

Legacy of the 101st Airborne Division

    With the development of World War II, the War Department of the United States began to realize the practicality of transporting troops by air into battle.  In late 1939, a memorandum was sent to the Chief of Infantry in further pursuit of the possibility of utilizing airborne troops. This memorandum was eventually routed to Major William C. Lee, who was instrumental in bringing about the creation of airborne divisions within the U. S. military. As a result of his efforts, the decision was made by the War Department to form a parachute test platoon at Fort Benning, Georgia on June 25, 1940. The name "paratroops" would become the common term used to define these pioneers of parachute assault.  Military officials were so impressed by the training and successful jumps of the parachute test platoon that the War Department authorized the establishment of the 501st Parachute Battalion in September of 1940. Further expansion of the parachute training program led to the establishment of the Provisional Parachute Group under the Chief of Infantry in March of 1941, with its command headquarters at Fort Benning, Georgia. Shortly thereafter, the 502nd Parachute Battalion was constituted, in keeping with military designation that numbers above 500 be assigned to paratroop units. The steady influx of new recruits into the airborne program warranted the eventual establishment of a permanent Parachute Training School at Fort Benning.  The increased pace in the expansion of the airborne training program finally led the War Department to create four parachute regiments. Consequently, the 501st, 502nd, 503rd, and 504th Parachute Infantry Regiments were constituted in February of 1942. The original 501st Parachute Battalion was absorbed into the newly formed 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), and the 502nd Parachute Battalion became part of the new 502nd PIR. A steady flow of new recruits quickly filled the ranks of the 503rd and 504th Parachute Infantry Regiments.

    By this time, the United States was being swept into the escalation of World War II. Our nation had declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941 in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Three days later, our nation formally made a declaration of war against Germany and Italy.  With the "winds of war" moving ever closer, U. S. military commanders recognized a definite need for highly specialized airborne troops who could land behind enemy lines and use commando tactics to seize and hold enemy territory.  The newly constituted Parachute Infantry Regiments now needed a level of command to direct and train the ever-increasing airborne ranks. In response to this need, the Airborne Command was established in March of 1942, with the now Colonel William C. Lee as its commander. The new Airborne Command assumed direct control over the Provisional Parachute Group at Fort Benning, the four newly constituted airborne infantry regiments, as well as the 88th Infantry Airborne Battalion that would eventually evolve into a unit of glider troops with numerical designations from the range of numbers below 500. (The 500�s were reserved for paratroop units.) Colonel Lee and Airborne Command established their new command base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

    Under Lee�s direction, the strength of the airborne force continued to increase. The 505th PIR was constituted in June of 1942, followed by the 506th PIR in July. The next logical step for the Airborne Command would be to argue for the establishment of an airborne division. As a result of convincing arguments, the Chief of Army Ground Forces ordered the activation of two airborne divisions on July 30, 1942-the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division. The 503rd, 504th, and 505th Parachute Infantry Regiments were assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, and the 501st, 502nd, and 506th Parachute Infantry Regiments comprised the 101st Airborne Division. Each airborne division also contained several glider regiments of foot troops designed to land behind the paratroops and reinforce the assault.  

    August 16, 1942 proclaimed the birth of the 101st Airborne Division as the newly created unit came together at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana under the command of now Brigadier General William C. Lee. As he assumed command of the division, General Lee outlined his vision for the unit in a speech he gave before the troops on activation day. His prophetic words, "The 101st has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny", would in time become the lasting motto of this elite group of fighting men.

    Lee strengthened the esprit of the unit by fittingly assuming the distinctive eagle shoulder patch insignia of the defunct 101st Infantry Division. The patch was further enhanced in 1942 to include the word "Airborne" on a tab above it, and the "Screaming Eagles" of the 101st Airborne Division made their entrance into the annals of American history. This distinguished unit became famous during World War II and received the first Presidential Unit Citation ever to be awarded to an entire division in the history of the United States Army.

Click Here to read Legacy of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment)