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173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team
173rd Airborne Brigade (Seperate)
"Sky Soldiers"

The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team is a separate brigade combat team assigned to US Army, Europe (USAREUR) and headquartered in Vicenza, Italy.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team was first constituted on 5 August 1917 in the National Army as Headquarters, 173rd Infantry Brigade, and assigned to the 87th Division. It was organized on 25 August 1917 at Camp Pike, Arkansas. The Brigade deployed to France in 1918 as part of the 87th Division, but did not participate in any named campaigns. For its service, however, the Brigade was awarded a campaign streamer without inscription. The Brigade was demobilized in January 1919 at Camp Dix, New Jersey.

The Brigade was reconstituted on 24 June 1921 in the Organized Reserves as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 173rd Infantry Brigade, and assigned to the 87th Division. It was organized in December 1921 at Mobile, Alabama. The Brigade was redesignated on 23 March 1925 as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 173rd Brigade and again on 24 August 1936 as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 173d Infantry Brigade.

The unit was converted and redesignated on 13 February 1942 as the 87th Reconnaissance Troop (less 3rd Platoon), 87th Division (Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 174th Infantry Brigade was concurrently converted and redesignated as the 3rd Platoon, 87th Reconnaissance Troop, 87th Division). The Troop was ordered into active military service on 15 December 1942 and reorganized at Camp McCain, Mississippi. It was concurrently redesignated as the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, an element of the 87th Infantry Division. The unit was again reorganized and redesignated on 2 August 1943 as the 87th Reconnaissance Troop, Mechanized. The Troop fought in 3 European campaigns: Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe. Following the end of the Second World War, the Troop was inactivated on 21 September 1945 at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The unit was redesignated on 28 April 1947 as the 87th Mechanized Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop and activated on 12 May 1947 at Birmingham, Alabama. The unit was reorganized and redesignated on 18 May 1949 as the 87th Reconnaissance Company and was inactivated on 1 December 1951 at Birmingham, Alabama. During this period, the Organized Reserves, which the unit was a part of, was redesignated on 25 March 1948 as the Organized Reserve Corps, which was in turn redesignated on 9 July 1952 as the Army Reserve. The unit, even while inactivate, remained alloted this organization throughout the redesignations.

The unit was converted and redesignated (less 3rd Platoon) on 26 March 1963 as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and relieved from assignment to the 87th Infantry Division. It was concurrently withdrawn from the Army Reserve, allotted to the Regular Army, and activated on the island of Okinawa, Japan. 3rd Platoon, 87th Reconnaissance Company thereafter had a separate lineage.

From its beginning, it proved to be an aggressive and unique unit led by (then) Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson who established realistic training throughout the Pacific Region. The "Sky Soldiers," as the Nationalist Chinese paratroopers called the 173rd Brigade, made thousands of parachute jumps in a dozen different Pacific area countries.

The 173rd on Okinawa was called the "Fire Brigade" meaning that it was available to be dropped in any of the Southeast Asian countries if needed. To call Reveille, the Battalion Commander of the 1-503rd Infantry, Colonel "Rawhide" Boland, erected a number of very large speakers from which the song "Rawhide" by Frankie Laine (also the theme song to the television show of the same name) was blasted all over the camp. Every morning, the Sky Soldiers of the 173rd's 1-503rd Infantry were rousted from their bunks by the blaring words, "head 'em up, move 'em out, Rawhide" or something to that effect. The entire 173rd Airborne Brigade soon became known as "the Herd."

The Brigade was the first complete US Army Unit sent to the Republic of South Vietnam. The 1st and 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment were the first US Army units to be sent to the Republic of South Vietnam along with the 3rd Battalion of the 319th Artillery. They were well supported by their own Support Battalion and Troop E, 17th Cavalry Regiment and D Company, 16th Armour Battalion. The First Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, and the 161st Field Battery of the Royal New Zealand Army were later attached to the Brigade during the first year. In Late August, 1966, the 173rd received another Infantry Battalion, the 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment which arrived from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. The 3rd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry joined the Brigade at Tuy Hoa in September 1967 following their reactivation and training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

During more than 6 years of nearly continuous combat in Vietnam, the Brigade earned 14 campaign streamers and 4 unit citations, 13 Medal of Honor recipients, 137 Distinguished Service Crosses, more than 6,000 Purple Hearts and the only Combat Parachute Assault of the war. Sadly, more than 1,700 names of 173rd Brigade's soldiers are inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

The major portion of the Brigade landed at Bien Hoa Airfield in May 1965 and found an area that had been battered frequently by enemy raids and shelling attacks. In the combat operations to follow, the paratroopers made their superb training payoff. They were the first to go into War Zone D to destroy enemy base camps. They introduced the use of small, long range patrols. They fought the battles of the Iron Triangle, conducted the only major combat parachute jump in the Tay Ninh area, and blocked NVA incursions during some of the bloodiest fighting of the war at Dak To during the summer and fall of 1967, culminating in the capture of Hill 875. Elements of the Brigade conducted an amphibious assault against NVA and VC forces as part of an operation to clear the rice-growing lowlands along the Bong Song littoral.

In January 1994, an Infantry Brigade was established at Southern European Task Force (SETAF) to provide command and control of SETAF's deployable units. The Brigade's mission was to operate as a separate, independent brigade, to fall in on a division as an organic brigade and to operate as the Army Forces component in a Joint Task Force. In August 1994, the newly formed Brigade deployed to Rwanda on Operation Support Hope to aid millions of displaced citizens. This same operation saw portions of the USASETAF Headquarters deploy for the first time in history, as the nucleus of the Joint Task Force Headquarters.

For the first time in nearly 3 decades, the colors of the famous 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) were unfurled on 12 June 2000 at Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy, where it served as European Command's only conventional airborne unit. The SETAF Infantry Brigade continued the proud legacy of this historic unit. In June of 2000, elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade conducted an airborne assault and airfield seizure at Kesckemet Airfield, Hungary. The purpose of the mission was to exercise the rapid deployment capabilities of various units within US Army Europe (USAREUR), and expand interoperability with Hungary, a recent addition to NATO's team. Exercise Lariat Response demonstrated the ability of SETAF and 1st Armored Division to deploy rapidly and be ready for combat. With the support of V Corps' 12th Aviation Brigade, 30th Medical Brigade and the Air Force's 86th Airlift Wing, SETAF successfully deployed its light forces to secure the area.

Part of the Lariat Response mission following the airfield seizure was airland reinforcement by C-130's. USAREUR provided their Light Immediate Ready Company (L)IRC, which at the time consisted of elements of the 1st Armored Division's 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry (Airborne Battalion Combat Team) trained with elements of the 34th Long Range Reconnaissance Battalion and the 88th Rapid Reaction Battalion of the Hungarian Army. The training consisted of the airfield seizure and follow-on airlandings, combined air-assaults, using both UH-60 Blackhawks and Hungarian Air Force Mi-8 Hips, combined patrolling, weapons familiarization, and a squad-level force-on-force competition, commonly called the MILES Rodeo (MILES stands for Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System).

When soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade went to the Combat Maneuver Training Center at Hohenfels, Germany in August 2000, soldiers from the Vermont Army National Guard's Company A, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry and the 54th Engineer Battalion of Bamburg, Germany augmented the Brigade's forces and helped accomplish the various missions in the field. The 173rd Airborne Brigade returned home in September 2000 after 7 weeks of training at Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels, Germany. Their duty in Germany began at the ranges and lanes of Grafenwoehr and ended in the mock villages at Hohenfels. The soldiers spent the last 3 weeks at the Combat Maneuver Training Center in Hohenfels, where they put their skills to the test against the black-suited opposing force, or OPFOR, in an all out-defensive battle 15 September 2000.

African Lion was a 173rd Airborne Brigade exercise held every two years in Morocco. The Moroccan and American leaders joined forces to defeat a simulated enemy on a computerized battlefield. The sophisticated simulation equipment, known as the Joint Conflict and Tactical Simulation Systems, allowed military leaders to simulate a battle using terrain from any where in the world. A series of networked laptop computers at each station acted as a company headquarters in the field.

On 26 March 2003 (not 23 March, as sometimes reported), the 173rd Airborne Brigade conducted a jump into Northern Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This action was advertised as "the largest airborne assault since D-Day," but that was manifestly untrue. Operation Market Garden, which followed D-Day, was larger than the Normandy assault. It was also called the "...largest mass combat jump since WWII," but operations in Korea were larger than the 2003 airdrop. Other accounts claimed that it was "... the largest combat airborne operation since the Vietnam War...." but the airdrop in Panama in 1989 was several times larger. It does appear that it was the C-17's first-ever combat insertion of paratroopers.

Soldiers landed in the Bashur Drop zone effectively opening a northern front in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Kurdish controlled area was expected to be friendly and little resistance was anticipated. The 173rd's jump into Northern Iraq was the first wave of conventional American forces into the area. With all of the US and coalition presence, the support team, SOF team, and Peshmerga, on the ground, the jump was considered "permissive," meaning the soldiers did not expect to be shot at as they descended. Parachute insertion made sense because it saved time given the relatively small ramp capacity on the airfield.

The 173rd augmented and provided a visible and credible conventional capability to the already-robust SOF presence in the Kurdish Autonomous Zone, the area on the Kurdish side of the Green Line. However, the weather was bad when the planes took off for the jump and the weather continued to be bad hours out from the jump as the C-17s approached the jump site. The team knew that calling the mission off was not an option. Nearly 1,000 soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade loaded up onto C-17 jets lining the Aviano Air Base runway. The weather called for a pitch-black night, with no moon or stars and there was expected to be fresh mud on the drop zone from the heavy storms in the prior weeks. In the approach the C-17's had to go into an intense, steep dive from 30,000 feet to 600 feet because of being in hostile airspace and because the drop zone was nestled in a valley.

While the jump was good, the aircraft "jumped long" and the brigade was strung out all over the airfield with some airplanes releasing 2,000-3,000 yards early, while others released that late. As the sun rose, it revealed "LGOPPs" or "little groups of pissed-off paratroopers," strung out all over a now-10,000-yard-long drop zone. LGOPPs form when paratroopers link up with whomever is closest, regardless of unit affiliation, and move as a group to the assembly points.

Once on the ground, the troopers started trudging through the mud trying to locate their units and assembly areas. It took all night to move approximately 8 kilometers. Elements were scattered everywhere. They had jumped into plowed farm country and there was deep mud everywhere. The mud was so bad troopers were pulling each other in and out of it. Some lost a boot in it and ended up walking half of the way barefoot. The Kurdish soldiers, however, proved themselves to be friendly allies. The Peshmerga brought firewood, rice in an old oil pan, bread and cheese, and some mystery meat.

The C-17s gave Washington the power to open and sustain a northern front when Turkey would not permit US ground forces to use Turkish soil to invade Iraq. Fifteen C-17s airdropped 954 troops and equipment from the 173rd Airborne Brigade near Bashur on 26 March 2003. Only 32 jumpers did not make it out of the aircraft. They were followed by an airland insertion of forces.

Eventually, over 2,000 troops and equipment, including 5 M1A1 tanks, 5 Bradley fighting vehicles, 15 armored personnel carriers and 41 HMMWVs were airlifted to the field. The unit remained in Iraq until February 2004. Nine Soldiers and one Airman gave their lives as they fought here to make the mission a success.

The actions of the brigade "caused the Iraqi defenses to commit forces to the area, making it safer for swift progress to Baghdad" by other US forces. In early 2004 the 26 March 2003 jump was classified as a combat jump, even though the objective was a coalition-held forward operating airfield. As a result, the paratroopers who participated could stick their chests out with pride showing off the gold star, or "mustard stain," that crowns their parachutist wings. Small stars are superimposed on the appropriate badge to indicate combat jumps as follows: One jump: A bronze star centered on the shroud lines 3/16 inch below the canopy; Two jumps: A bronze star on the base of each wing; Three jumps: A bronze star on the base of each wing and one star centered on the shroud lines 3/16 inch below the canopy; Four jumps: Two bronze stars on the base of each wing; and Five jumps: A gold star centered on the shroud lines 5/16 inch below the canopy. CW4 Howard P. Melvin was the only Quartermaster to have made five combat mission jumps as a parachutist. From 9 July 1943 to 17 September 1944, he participated in four combat parachute missions while assigned to the 505th Parachute Infantry Battalion, 82d Airborne Division. The missions were in Gela, Sicily; Salerno, Italy; Ste. Mere Eglise, France; and Nijmegen, Holland. He made his fifth combat mission jump on 22 February 1967, at Katum, Vietnam, while assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

As of June 2006, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was in the process of being reorganized as part of the US Army's modularization process. As of January 2006, the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment was reassigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment remained assigned to the reorganized and redesignated Brigade Combat Team. On 8 June 2006, the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, the 4th Battalion, 319th Field Artillery Regiment, and the 173rd Special Troops Battalion were all activated as part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Headquarters, 173rd Airborne Brigade was reorganized and redesignated on 16 September 2006 as Headquarters, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Headquarters Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade thereafter had separate lineage.

In the spring of 2007, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team executed an extended deployment to eastern Afghanistan in support of OEF VIII, where 43 Sky Soldiers laid down their lives. Soldiers serving in OEF VIII exhibited incredible bravery earning one Medal of Honor, one Distinguished Service Cross, and 32 Silver Stars.

In 2009, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team returned to Afghanistan for a third time in support of Operation Enduring Freedom X continuing its proud tradition of selfless service. While executing a difficult build mission south of Kabul, 9 Sky Soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice.

On 12 January 2012, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta that as part of a new, 10-year defense strategy announced by President Barack Obama earlier in the month, which emphasized air-sea doctrine to better allow the United States to confront more than one threat at a time, the Army would withdraw 2 brigade combat teams from Europe, while retaining a strong presence in the region via rotational units. On 16 February 2012, the Department of Defense outlined the force posture adjustments. While 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team was to remain active, elements of the Brigade Combat Team were expected to relocate from Bamberg and Schweinfurt, Germany, to Vicenza, Italy through FY13. This had been previously planned and the consolidation would move 1,600 soldiers and associated families to Italy. The moves would support the plan to close the US facilities in Bamberg and Schweinfurt FY15.

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Page last modified: 17-02-2012 14:42:06 ZULU