Why Do We Hear About the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions? Where Are the Other 99?

Google Questions

Originally published 6-4-07

Mr. Vettese was an HNN intern.

With so few Americans now in the military the public memory of the institution has faded. Although we hear about the exploits of this division or that division, it's unclear to most of us what different units are famous for--or even how they came by their names.

Why do there exist only the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division? Where are the other ninety-nine? Or why is there a 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th and 25th Infantry division, but no 5th Infantry Division? There is a 10th Mountain Division, but what happened to the first nine? There are currently 10 active divisions in the US Army, yet their designation appears random. How and when did they receive their titles?

There exists a simple explanation for this seemingly chaotic naming system. The U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH), the Army organization charged with recording its achievements and the lineage of various army units, organizes the divisions within a hierarchy of honor, predicated upon unit age, campaign participation, and awards and decorations. This helps the Army’s leadership decide which divisions are the most historically important and therefore allowed to remain active.

A division’s history helps inspire the esprit de corps that make military personnel feel as if they are part of something larger than themselves. It instills pride. Its effect is palpable in many ways. The Army certainly subscribes to this belief. General Creighton Abrams, a commander during the Vietnam War, said the 1st Cavalry’s "Big yellow patch does something to an individual that makes him a better soldier, a better team member, and a better American than he otherwise would have been."

This statement is not surprising, as the 1st Cavalry has a long history, which serves as a wellspring of inspiration for its soldiers. It was first created in August 1917, but its component regiments were far older. Some could trace their history to the Indian Wars and included famous personalities, such as General George Armstrong Custer.

Soldiers can also attest to the power of names. When it was announced that the 1st Armored Division was slated for deactivation in the 1970’s, veterans launched an epistolary campaign to ‘save’ their division. The Army Command relented and had the 1st Armored Division replace the 4th Armored Division. This reflagging of units is common, and may appear superficial, but to many it is a successful way to preserve the most distinguished army divisions.

Why was the 1st Armored Division saved? The “Old Ironsides,” as the division is informally known, is the oldest and most prestigious armored division in the American military. Activated in July 1940, it went on to distinguish itself in Operation Torch in North Africa in 1942, Operation Husky in Italy, as well as the Anzio landing. After the war, it was the first division to integrate blacks throughout its ranks. During the Cuban Missile Crisis it performed war games on the Georgia and Florida coast. The “old Ironsides” was no longer just another military division, but living history.

Only a few divisions, such as the 1st, 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions have served continuously since their activation. All three divisions were first mobilized in 1917, and have served ever since. The 1st Infantry Division, called the “Big Red One” by its admirers (because its insignia is a large red number one), was paraded through the streets of Paris to bolster French morale on July 4, 1917. At this juncture, an officer of General Pershing’s staff announced “Lafayette, we are here!” at the dead man’s tomb. The “Big Red One” was the first American unit to fight in WWI and was among the first to fight Germany in WWII when it participated in the invasion of North Africa in 1942. Later, the unit was the first to storm Omaha Beach during Operation Overlord. The carnage was prodigious, but the soldiers persevered and took the beachhead. Their pluck is best exemplified by the words of Colonel George Taylor, commander of the 16th Infantry Regt., who told his men just before their landing, "Two kinds of people are staying on this beach! The dead and those who are going to die! Now, let's get the hell out of here!"

The 3rd Division earned its nickname “Rock of the Marne” when it withstood the ferocious German offensive at the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918. Other units collapsed or retreated, but the 3rd remained and blocked the German path to Paris, and thus, victory. The “Rock of the Marne” again displayed its tenacity and bravery in WWII, where it was the sole American division to boast 531 continuous days of fighting.

The 4th Infantry Division, or “Ivy” Division, has also served almost nine decades. Its sobriquet is a pun on the Latin word for four, and that the ivy is a symbol for fidelity and fortitude. It fought in France during the last four months of WWI and in the next world war it was the first to assail the German defenses on Utah beach. In the month-long fighting in Normandy, the division lost 5,000 men.

Nonetheless, decades of uninterrupted existence are exceptional in the American military. Until recently there was a consensus within the American polity that standing armies were a hallmark of European statism and deleterious to liberty. Until the early 20th century, units were formed at the state level; the central government maintained a bare bones army. The peacetime army was small (in 1914 it was just 18th largest in the world--smaller than Romania's). Although the Civil War and the two world wars demonstrated America’s ability to create and sustain large, continental armies, they were quickly disbanded after victory. It was only after the onset of the Cold War that American demobilization was halted and then reversed. It is only recently that the historical worth of American units has been cherished and apotheosized. Before, a unit would be deactivated and would only be reactivated when another war erupted.

This was the fate of many divisions and regiments in the American army. The Second Infantry Division was activated in 1917, fought in both world wars, and also in the Korean War before it was deactivated. Later, it was reactivated to counter North Korean aggression along the DMZ. The famous 82nd Airborne followed a similar pattern. It was first formed in 1917, when the US prepared to fight Germany. The unit was given the moniker “All American” because it included soldiers from all 48 states. It served with distinction in the Great War. Feats such as Alvin C. York and his small squad capturing 132 German prisoners and silencing several machine gun nests are emblematic of the division’s excellence.

The 82nd infantry division was demobilized after WWI, only to be reactivated again in March 1942 and converted into an airborne division. The division’s first jumps were into Salerno and Sicily in 1943. After fighting in Anzio, the division earned the nickname “the devils in baggy pants,” which was how the opposing German general described them in his diary. The division made other jumps, later in the war, and would fight in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait and Iraq.

The 101st Airborne was the second airborne unit in the army, and shares an equally distinguished history. The Screaming Eagles, as it is colloquially known, is a young division, being created in 1942. Its first commander, Major General William C. Lee, admitted that the unit had “no history,” but promised it “a rendezvous with destiny.” It went on to serve with distinction in the war. Despite losing a quarter of its men when it launched its airborne invasion of Normandy, it continued to fight. An example of its tenacity was its refusal to surrender the town of Bastogne, which was enveloped by Germany’s Ardennes offensive in December 1944 (popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge). On the fifth day of the siege, the Wehrmacht sent emissaries demanding the surrender of the division and the city. General McAuliffe, the acting commander, replied “Nuts!” and continued to defend the town for over a week before being relieved by Patton’s Third Army.

The two airborne divisions were created after the world was awed by the feats of German and Soviet paratroopers. The 10th Mountain Division was inspired by another European innovation. The Winter War between Finland and the USSR in 1939-1940 witnessed Finnish soldiers, equipped with skis and winter camouflage, decimate the Soviet invaders. Tiny Finland defied the might of the Soviet Union. Charles “Minnie” Dole, a ski enthusiast, persuaded General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, to train mountain troops. The 10th Infantry Division was converted into the 10th Mountain Division in 1943. The 10th entered combat in 1945 and fought the Germans in the mountains of Italy, where they fought high altitude battles against elite German mountain troops. In the Battle of Riva Ridge, the 10th scaled the 1,500 foot ridge, which was previously deemed impossible, to outflank their adversaries. Later, near Castel d’Aiano, John D. McGrath and his company were pinned by heavy German fire. Instead of seeking cover, McGrath sprinted towards a nearby house and confronted two German machine gunners, capturing one and killing the other. He then killed and captured five more Germans who emerged from a nearby foxhole. He neutralized another German position by killing two soldiers and capturing three. McGrath is the 10th’s sole winner of a Medal of Honor.

Important as history is to the military, it's getting in the way of the transformation of the institution. The emphasis in the future will be on smaller units instead of large divisions. In the words of Maj. Gen. J. D. Thurman, commanding general, 4th Infantry Division. "We will tailor our units under modularity to transition and transform the force from a divisional-based army to a brigade-based Army. We are literally pushing down assets to make brigades more autonomous."

This change was precipitated by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and reflects the military’s effort to adapt to the Global War on Terror (GWOT). The army is restructuring itself from a division based force (there are approximately 15,000 men in a division) to a brigade based force (around 3,000 men). It is hoped the latter will be more flexible, and more deployable than the cumbrous Cold War army. The goal is to have brigades capable of deploying anywhere in the world within 96 hours, fighting immediately, and being self-sustaining for 3 to 7 days. The Army’s restructuring plan, termed Objective Force, plans modularizing the old divisions. This is army-speak for allowing divisional commanders to use brigades from different divisions.

This recent change has been called the “most significant Army restructuring in the past 50 years,” and may render divisions almost meaningless. American divisions are not only organizations to fight American battles, but are also organisms of living history. The Army, operating through the CMH, takes pride in the traditions and glorious past of these units and their presence will continue to be felt even as they are dissolved and changed. In this way, the obscure names of army divisions are, to paraphrase Max Weber, part of the half-forgotten past that will continue to haunt our society.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Thanks for the additional interesting info, but I would still like to know what determines the numbering of new divisions (regiments, brigades, or whatever) and whether it is basically chronologically sequential, i.e. the higher the number the newer the unit.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Thanks, Mr, Gaston, but we are still not quite on the same wavelength. I understand quite well now that there is a lifetime's worth of trivial lore about when and how various old divisions have gone inactive.

MY perplexity concerns what rational process, if any, governs the decision of what NEW number to give a NEW division, or a relabelled old division.

If the site you last gave a link to is any indication, there is no rhyme or reason at all to the choice of numbers. The 24th can become the 77th or the 1st, or the 22nd of something else. IF this impression is correct, then the process of adding new numbered divisions, or "reflagging" old ones, sounds to me like a good means of keeping military archivists employed and war buffs occupied, and a good source of confusion and murkiness for the rest of us.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Andrew and George, for your insights. This at least makes the underlying inconsistency more transparent and understandable. I have copied the links for future reference.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

An informative piece, but why is it, for example, that the "the 101st Airborne was the second airborne unit in the army." Did the army planners know IN ADVANCE that the later 99 would fade away, like old soldiers? Or if there is no sequential meaning to the numbers at all, then why not call it 1776th airborne?

Robert Andrew Lynn - 7/9/2007

Dear Mr. Vettese,
While your article addresses a long overlooked topic; I must correct some points in it:

*The First Cavalry Division wasn't created in August, 1917 but on 31 August 1920 at Ft. Bliss, Texas and can trace its lineage to the 2nd and 5th Cavalry in 1855, the 7th and 8th in 1866, and the 12th in 1901.

*The 1st Armored Division didn't participate in Operation HUSKY
(the invasion of Sicily).

*The 82nd Airborne Division never included troops from 48 states but the vast majority hailed from Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. The "devils in baggy pants" was the name given to the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.


Lt. Colonel Robert A. Lynn, Florida Guard

Vernon Clayson - 6/18/2007

Mr. Gaston, I don't know enough about recruiting to make a decent comment on the racial disparity you speak of but it is probably very complex involving things such as qualifications, interest and economics. I don't think we should care what races enlist in the military as long as they are
dedicated and qualified, there should not be a quota system.

George Robert Gaston - 6/11/2007

Mr. Clayson,


At first, I had the mistaken thought he was interested. Then, I realized that he was being the three-year-old wanting to know “why”. I suppose I may have humored him a little too long.
What really amazes me is the general lack of knowledge people have about their military, and the things about our military services the academic community and the news media refuse to talk about in public. There are a number of issues confronting the military, especially in light of these new organizational models, that should be of concern to every citizen.

If current racial trends continue we could be on our way to forming a rather large series of “warrior elite” infantry formations that will be from between 85% and 90% white.

The shrinking number of minorities in combat arms formations is the subject of internal Army studies, but there is little, if any general reporting on this subject. The question remains, is this healthy for a military serving a pluralistic society? If no, what is to be done about it, given a volunteer force?

Like it or not, we are going to need these people for some time to come. In fact, we may need them a whole lot more than they need us. We would do well to understand their world.

Vernon Clayson - 6/8/2007

Mr. Gaston, Mr. Clarke is mocking you and the system, the same as the original author. Individuals like the two of them would like nothing better than to have the US military system anonymous and faceless as the hooded characters in the space movies, robot-like without feelings of patriotism, honor or loyalty. They both have likely seen film of the Chinese "hordes" attacking during the Korean war, like so many hyenas and vultures advancing on carrion, and thought it a marvel and the way we should use our soldiers as dull brutes.

Andrew D. Todd - 6/8/2007

Correction: When I went back and checked my reference, I found that Stilwell did the stunt with the sheets and the horses as far back as 1905, when he was a young lieutenant in the Phillipines. At about the time of the Second World War, he was asked by a cavalry officer about "... the role of the horse in the fighting in China. After a thoughtful pause, Stilwell replied 'Good eating, if you're hungry.'" (Tuchman, p. 260)

Barbara Tuchman, _Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45_, 1971, pp. 17, 23,68, 160, 260 in paperback edition, printing of 1980

See also:

Edward L. Katzenbach, Jr., "The Horse Cavalry in the Twentieth Century: A Study in Policy Response," _Public Policy_, 7(1958), pp. 120-49; reprinted in Richard G. Head and Ervin J. Rokke, eds., American Defense Policy, 3rd ed., pp. 406-22.

Andrew D. Todd - 6/8/2007

One eternal verity about ship naming is that the biggest and most expensive new ships will be named after states.

Here are some more links to tables of units at the Center for Military History

Regiment numbers are allocated in blocks, with growth spaces in between. Bear in mind that Armored units have their own numbering system, so some numbers are much higher than the number of units the army has ever had. Regular army infantry regiments run from 1 up to 100, in theory. The established infantry regiments of the "old army," as organized after the Civil War, ran up to the 24th Infantry, and the cavalry regiments ran up to the 10th cavalry. The 21-24th Infantry and the 9-10th Cavalry are the originally segregated "buffalo soldier" regiments. The Rangers, originally known as "Darby's Rangers" when they were created in 1942, are the 75th Infantry. National Guard regiments start up in the hundreds. The airborne regiments start with the 501st Infantry. Otherwise, the the highest number is the 442nd, the Japanese-American "Nisai" regiment.






Compared to the British Army, the United States Army has a tendency to build large new organizations around theories. Theories change over time, so the resulting organization tends to be rather unstable. The British are very conservative about new organizations, placing a very high value on personal relationships. They tend to do the least re-organization which they can get away with. In the same way, the United States Army tends to have "personnel turbulence," as a result of assigning people around according to their skills, using computers to match people up and that kind of thing. The British attitude is more that if the Blogshire Regiment needs such and such a skill, it has to train someone inside the regiment.

One can illustrate this with the First Cavalry Division. In the 1930's the United States Cavalry was highly technophobe, but very, very horsey. The officers played polo, which was the acid test of the horseman. Unlike the British cavalry, they had not come to terms with the machine. Officers interested in mechanized warfare, such as George S. Patton, were ordered to remain silent, and eventually arranged to go elsewhere. In one of the maneuvers preceding the United States' entry into the Second World War, the cavalry insisted on bringing their horses, and their opponent, one Joseph Stillwell, issued bedsheets to his infantry and instructed the men to flap them when the cavalry came near. The result was that the horses went into hysterics, bucking off their riders and bolting. My guess is that by 1940, with the increasing mechanization of the civil society, there was a critical mass of cavalry troopers (privates) who were not really in control of their horses. Not surprisingly, when the 1st Cavalry Division shipped out for the Pacific, they did so as leg infantry. They eventually wound up in Korea as de-facto infantry. In 1963, a new division was organized at Ft. Benning, the 11th Air Assault Division (test). After a couple of years of training and experimentation, it was renamed as the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). The 1st Cavalry Division in Korea simultaneously became the 2nd Infantry Division. The original 2nd Infantry division had been stood down some time earlier, and the name had been temporarily attached to a training formation at Ft. Benning. The two key officers, General Howze, who ran the study commitee and General Kinnard who commanded the division in Vietnam, were both paratroopers, Thus the names had elements of intraservice politics, of bureaucratic competition between the Armor establishment and the Airborne establishment, inter alia. The helicopter pilot Robert Mason (_Chickenhawk_) went to Vietnam as part of the 1st Cavalry, but, after a few months, he was transferred to the 101th Airborne. After the Vietnam war, as the army shifted its interest back to Northern Europe, the 1st Cavalry Division was transformed back into a straight armored division, and the 101th Airborne inherited the (designated) airmobile function.

George Robert Gaston - 6/8/2007

The point is that after WWII I doubt that there would be a new unit designation (they have over 100) to choose from. They simply reactivate an old one.

Another factor is politics. If some congressman's grandfather served in the 11th Airborne Division in WW II, and that congressman is on the House Armed Forces Appropriations Committee there is a fair chance that a new airborne divison would be the 11th.

I suppose it makes as much sense as how they name navy ships.

George Robert Gaston - 6/7/2007

Believe it or not, the Army’s Chief of Military History has a point system for deciding which army divisions remain in the active force. The factors include:

The length of time a Division has been active. The 1st, 2nd ,3rd and 4th divisions go back to 1917 when the US Army formed is first infantry divisions.

The campaign history of the division.

Service in war theaters.

US and Foreign unit decorations

Days in combat

Unit "renown"

Individual decorations.

The following site may be helpful.


During WWII there were about 90 divisions. I doubt that there will ever be that many again. However these unit designations are the pool from which they can pick. However, some of these are currently designations used by the National Guard.

George Robert Gaston - 6/7/2007

There never was a 1 through 100 airborne divisions. All airborne divisions are infantry divisions that are organized and trained for airborne operations. Units come and go along with budgets and wars. However, there were airborne divisions other than the 82nd and 101st. The 13th and 17th Airborne Divisions deployed and fought in Europe in late 1944 and 1945. The 11th Airborne Division fought in the Pacific during the war, and served as the airmobile test bed division that later became the 1st Cavalry Division prior to being deployed to Vietnam.

However, the regiments represented inside some US Army units should be of more interest to historians.

Some of the regiments represented inside the single number divisions go back to the American Revolution and the war of 1812. For example, the 7th Infantry Regiment is known as the "Cottonbalers" because the regiment defended New Orleans from behind breastwork made of cotton bales under Andrew Jackson in 1815. The regiment has been in service since 1798.

A study of the history of some of these regiments should be of interest to anyone interested in American history. Many of them have their own historical collections well worth seeing.

Vernon Clayson - 6/6/2007

If the author isn't mocking he must be really unaware. I can't believe you see history in this piece or even a search for history? There are numerous sources he could have used, perhaps then he could have written something more interesting. Shouldn't he be giving answers or opinions, who decided he should quiz us? I bet he would really be perplexed if he looked into how fire and police precincts are numbered, even how boy scout units are numbered.

Nathan M Williams - 6/4/2007

How can you conclude this piece mocks men (and women) in uniform? Because the author writes from the perspective of a civilian?

The piece is an honest, straight-forward and mostly successful effort at explaining the modern Army division as well as including some unique history of each active division.

"Where are the other 99?" is of course a relatively superficial question. But to interpret it as smirking or mocking is to dissuade genuinely interested civilians from learning more about their military.

Vernon Clayson - 6/4/2007

Mr. Richards, don't encourage the author, he is mocking the military and the legions of men who have served in these units. If he had a true interest there are dozens of sources that would answer his smirking question. He probably sees our military organizations and those serving honorably and bravely as being nameless drones, as less than worthy in his exalted esteem.

Clark Richards - 6/4/2007

Mr Vettese.

Thanks for a well written and informative article that will appeal to all veterans and should be interesting to those that admire the heroism of those who serve. Of course veterans are familiar with the history of the division they were part of and more specifically with the brigade or battalion that they fought with.

Please be aware that while the division is the patch that is worn on the uniform for the most part to designate affiliation, it is the separate battalion or brigade that generally evokes the most pride and loyalty. While I was a member of the 1st Cavalry Division and proud of it - I am even prouder of my service with the 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry.

The 7th Cavalry "Garry Owen" has an extremely rich history having initially been organized with horses, subsequently depending on helicopters and presently using tanks. See http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/army/2-7cav.htm
if you are interested.

There obviously is potential for a book here (many have been completed, but there is always a new approach that can be pursued) and military historians are always in demand. Anyway, thanks for making a retired soldier's day a bit more interesting