The 'Big Red One' led the fight from WWI to Iraq

The 1st Infantry Division is the oldest continuously active division in the U.S. Army and has served since 1917. During that time, it has often claimed the first honors of different American wars — everything from firing the first American shell against Germany of World War I to breaking through the berm into Iraq in 1991.

In the past 100 years, it has served in almost every American war. The Big Red One was kept in Europe to prevent a Soviet attack during the Korean War, but fought in both world wars, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the Balkans, and the Iraq and Afghan Wars.

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Soldiers with the 1st Division, U.S. First Army, ride on a tank, during their advance on the town of Schopen, Belgium. (Photo: U.S. Army Sgt. Bill Augustine)

The unit was created in May 1917 when Maj. Gen. John Pershing received orders to take four infantry regiments and an artillery regiment to France. Pershing assumed that this meant he was to take a division, and he organized the force as the First Expeditionary Division which was later changed to the First Division. The unit included an additional artillery regiment.

When it sailed to France, the First Division fulfilled America’s promise to help bring Imperial Germany to its knees. They trained quickly in trench warfare side-by-side with their French counterparts and then took over a sector of the frontlines.

World War I training and mascots

Soldiers of the New York National Guard march through the streets of New York city in 1917. The First Expeditionary Division launched from New York and led the way for U.S. forces headed to France in World War I. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

While in France, the First Division fired the first American shell in the ground war against Germany on Oct. 23, 1917, and suffered the first American casualty of the ground war only two days later.

(The USS Cassin had fired the first shells of the war and suffered the first casualty on Oct. 15, 1917, in battle with the German U-61 submarine.)

The doughboys of the First Division led the first American offensive of the war at Cantigny and fought on through Soissons, the St. Mihiel Salient, and the Meuse-Argonne Forest. In the Argonne, the division fought through eight German divisions despite suffering more than 7,600 casualties.

As World War I drew to a close, the division was authorized its “Big Red One” shoulder patch that it still wears to this day.

Army 1st Infantry Division troops land on Omaha Beach on D-Day. (Photo: U.S. Navy Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent)

For World War II, the division was re-designated the 1st Infantry Division and sent to Africa as part of Operation Torch. America’s first major offensive in the war, Torch helped bring about the Allied victory in North Africa and cut off Axis oil supplies headed into Europe.

Big Red One soldiers pushed on, taking part in Operation Husky on Sicily and Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings at Normandy. That means that the 1st Infantry Division took part in two of the larger amphibious operations of the war, Husky and Torch, and the largest amphibious assault in history, Overlord.

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Soldiers with the 1st Infantry Division move up in Germany during World War II. (Photo: U.S. Army Technician 3rd Class Jack Kitzerow)

In the Normandy landings, the Big Red One was assigned to take Omaha Beach where a combination of bad water and worse terrain made the initial invasion plan untenable. Instead of fighting through the five roads leaving the beach, the men were forced to scale 100-ft. tall cliffs and attack German defenses from the rear.

The division fought its way west with the rest of the invasion force, taking Normandy’s hedgerows after weeks of bitter fighting and then making it into Germany just in time for the massive counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge. They fought their way back into Germany after the Bulge and liberated two German concentration camps.

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A U.S. Army soldier with the 1st Infantry Division prepares his anti-aircraft gun during World War II. The six swastikas indicate six enemy planes killed. (Photo: U.S. Army Sgt. Bill Augustine)

While the division did not deploy to Korea, it was called on for a number of near misses during the cold War, with units sent to Florida to support the potential invasion of Cuba during the missile crisis and to Berlin to prevent a Soviet invasion of West Berlin.

In July 1965, Big Red One’s second brigade became the first element of any infantry division to arrive in Vietnam. It fought a number of engagements over the next few years, working in early 1966 to capture supplies before an anticipated enemy offensive and capturing a massive weapons stockpile that April, removing 350 firearms and over 300,000 rounds of ammunition from Vietnamese arsenals.

In 1968, the Division helped protect key U.S. positions during the Tet Offensive but tragically lost its commanding general, Maj. Gen. Keith L. Ware, when his aircraft was shot down in September.

During Desert Storm, the Big Red One was the spearhead into Iraq. On Feb. 24, 1991, it broke through Iraq’s defensive berm, attacked the Iraqi 26th Infantry Division, and took 2,500 prisoners before allowing other coalition units to pass it. It pressed on and took out a Republican Guard division and other units.

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Army 1st Infantry Division soldiers watch for enemy activity in Afghanistan. (Photo: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Guffey)

It engaged at least 11 enemy divisions and captured more than 11,400 prisoners of war — over twice as many as any other division — before the war ended on Feb. 28.

After serving with other units in the Balkans and Kosovo, the Big Red One was once again sent to full-spectrum combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan where its forces served in task forces across both countries. Their largest contributions came in Iraq were 1st Inf. Div. soldiers helped secure the Sunni Triangle.

Interested in 1st Infantry Division History? A military museum at Cantigny Park, a public space dedicated to education and recreation by a 1st Infantry Division veteran, is looking for a Historic Vehicle Programs Manager who will oversee the First Division Museum’s fleet of tanks, personnel carriers, and other vehicles from American military history.

Candidates should have a bachelor’s degree or higher in history or a related field and a good understanding of U.S. military history as well as experience in the maintenance and operation of historic military vehicles.

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