173rd Airborne Brigade

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The 173rd Airborne Brigade of the U.S. Army has been established for a variety of needs where a full airborne division, of which the U.S. has only the 82nd Airborne Division, was not needed. It operated independently in the Vietnam War, and is now the airborne contingency unit assigned to United States European Command. As part of that command, it is stationed at Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy, with subordinate units in Schweinfurt and Bamberg, Germany. It has recently had some of its units assigned to United States Central Command.

While its most recent deployments have been to Iraq and Afghanistan, it has had routine training deployments to Bosnia, Kosovo, Hungary, Tunisia, Morocco, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, and more. These deployments are an important part of CINCEUR’S theater engagement strategy, demonstrating both a commitment to preserving stability in Europe and the ability to provide immediate response to crisis situations throughout the theater.

It has two airborne infantry battalions, an airborne cavalry and an artillery battalion, and a support battalion.

History and Lineage

The 173rd was first created as a non-airborne unit, and served in both World Wars.[1]

First World War

The 173d Airborne Brigade was constituted 5 August 1917 as an infantry brigade and organized 25 August 1917 at Camp Pike, Arkansas as an element of the 87th Division.

The Brigade deployed to France in 1918 as part of the Division, but did not participate in any named campaigns. Returning to the United States the Brigade was demobilized January 1919 at Camp Dix, New Jersey. Reconstituted 24 June 1921 in the Organized Reserves as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 173d Infantry Brigade, and assigned to the 87th Division at Shreveport, Louisiana. Organized in December 1921 at Mobile, Alabama. Redesignated 23 March 1925 as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 173d Brigade. Redesignated 24 August 1936 as Headquarters and Headquarters Company 173d Infantry Brigade. Converted and redesignated 13 February 1942 as the 87th Reconnaissance Troop and ordered into active military service 15 December 1942.

Second World War

During World War II, when brigades were eliminated from divisions, Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 173d Infantry Brigade fought in three European campaigns as the 87th Reconnaissance Troop. After the war, the troop reverted to reserve status and was active from 1947 to 1951 at Birmingham, Alabama. It was inactivated 1 December 1951 at Birmingham, Alabama and released from assignment to the 87th Infantry Division.

Move to Airborne status

In 1963 it was allotted to the Regular Army and activated on Okinawa 26 March 1963 as the 173d Airborne Brigade (Sep). Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson commanded the unit, which was given the charter to serve as the quick reaction force for the Pacific Command. Under Williamson the unit trained extensively making mass parachute jumps and they earned the nickname “Tien Bien” or “Sky Soldiers,” from the Nationalist Chinese paratroopers.

Vietnam War

Deployed to Vietnam in May 1965, the brigade was the first major ground combat unit of the United States Army to serve there. Its core components were:

  • 1st battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, known as 1/503
  • 2/503 Parachute Infantry Battalion
  • 3/503 Parachute Infantry (September 1967)
  • 4/503 Parachute Infantry (August 1966)
  • 3/319 Airborne Artillery Battalion
  • 173rd Support Battalion
  • 173rd Engineer battalion
  • Troop E, 17th Cavalry
  • Company D, 16th Armor
  • Co N, 75th Ranger Regiment

They were the first to go into War Zone D to destroy enemy base camps, introduced the use of small long-range patrols, and conducted the only combat parachute jump in the Vietnam conflict on 22 February 1967 Operation JUNCTION CITY. They fought in the Iron Triangle and blocked NVA incursions at Dak To during some of the bloodiest fighting of the war in 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 troopers of the 173d Airborne Brigade wear their combat badges and decorations with pride. During more than six years of continuous combat, the brigade earned 14 campaign streamers and four unit citations. Sky Soldiers serving in Vietnam received 13 Medals of Honor, 46 Distinguished Service Crosses, 1736 Silver Stars and over 6,000 Purple Hearts. There are over 1,790 Sky Soldiers' names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. The brigade was deactivated on 14 January 1972 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Reactivation in Europe

The 173d Airborne Brigade was then reactivated on 12 June 2000 on Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy, where it serves as European Command’s only conventional airborne strategic response force for the European Theater.

Assignment to Central Command operations

On March 26, 2003, the 173d made the largest mass combat jump since WWII when the brigade’s Soldiers landed in the Bashur Drop zone effectively opening a northern front in support of the Iraq War. This diverted Iraqi forces from the main ground assault from the south. Nine Sky Soldiers died in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In the spring of 2005, the 173d began its second deployment in three years to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom VI. The 1-508th spearheaded the deployment in February by deploying forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in Regional Command East. The remainder of the brigade deployed to Regional Command South. 17 soldiers were kille.