Military


173d Airborne Brigade
"Sky Soldiers"

As of June 2006, the 173d Airborne BCT was in the process of being reorganized as part of the US Army's modularization process. On June 8th, 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 173d Airborne BCT. As of January 2006, the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment was reassigned to the 173d Airborne BCT. The 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment will remain with the BCT.

The 173d Airborne Brigade was reactivated on 12 June 2000 on Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy, where it serves as European Command's only conventional airborne unit. The SETAF Infantry Brigade continues the proud legacy of this historic unit.

In January 1994, an Infantry Brigade was established at SETAF to provide command and control of SETAF's deployable units. The brigade mission is 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.

The 173D Airborne Brigade was activated on the island of Okinawa on March 26, 1963. 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 173d, 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 2/503rd erected a number of very large speakers from which the song of the theme to "Rawhide" was blasted all over their camp. Every morning, the Sky Soldiers of the 173rd's 2/503rd 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 Army Unit sent to the Republic of South Vietnam. During more than six years of nearly continuous combat in Vietnam, the brigade earned 14 campaign streamers and four 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 1,600 names of 173d 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.

The 1st and 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment were the 1st Army Unit 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, D Company, 16th Armour. 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 173d received another Infantry Battalion, the 4th, 503rd 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, NC.

The troopers of the 173D Airborne Brigade (Sep) wear their combat badges and decorations with pride. During more than six years of nearly continuous combat, the brigade earned 14 campaign streamers and four unit citations. 13 Medals of Honor and over 6,000 Purple Hearts were awarded; The Herd conducted the only combat parachute assault of the war; over 1700 names of Sky Soldiers are on THE WALL. The Brigade was deactivated on January 14, 1972 at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.

For the first time in nearly three decades, the colors of the famous 173d Airborne Brigade (Separate) were unfurled on 12 June 2000. In June of 2000, elements of the 173D 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 173d 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 173d Airborne Brigade returned home in September 2000 after seven 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 three 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 is a 173d 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 act 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, 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 and Panama 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 Iraqi was the first wave of conventional American forces into the area. 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. But the team knew that calling the mission off wasn’t 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 going to be fresh mud on the drop zone from the heavy storms in the prior weeks. Because they were in hostile air and because the drop zone was nestled in a valley, the C-17’s had to go into an intense, steep dive from 30,000 feet to 600 feet.

Once one the ground, the troopers started trudging through the mud trying to locate their units and assembly areas. It took us all night to move maybe eight kilometers. They were scattered everywhere. They had jumped into plowed farm country and there was deep mud d 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 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 March 26. Only 32 jumpers did not make it out of the aircraft. They were followed by an airland insertion of forces.

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. While the jump was good, the aircraft "jumped long"; 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"--"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.

Eventually, over 2,000 troops and equipment, including 5 M1A1 tanks, 5 Bradley fighting vehicles, 15 armored personnel carriers and 41 Humvees 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 March 26, 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 in it can 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 July 9, 1943, to September 17, 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 February 22, 1967, at Katum, Vietnam, while assigned to the 173d Airborne Brigade.