173rd Airborne Brigade: ‘Sky Soldiers’

‚ú™ The¬†173rd Airborne Brigade¬†is an¬†airborne infantry brigade combat team¬†(IBCT) of the¬†United States Army¬†based in¬†Vicenza, Italy. The 173rd Airborne Brigade is the U.S. Army’s Contingency Response Force in Europe, providing rapid forces to the United States European, Africa and Central Commands areas of responsibility. Forward-based in Italy and Germany, the Brigade routinely trains alongside NATO allies and partners to build interoperability and strengthen the Alliance.

Originally activated in 1915 as the 173rd Infantry Brigade, the unit saw service in World War II but is best known for its actions during the Vietnam War. The brigade was the first major United States Army ground formation deployed to South Vietnam, serving there from 1965 to 1971 and losing 1,533 soldiers. Noted for its roles in Operation Hump and Operation Junction City, the 173rd is best known for the Battle of Dak To, where it suffered heavy casualties in close combat with North Vietnamese forces. Brigade members received over 7,700 decorations, including more than 6,000 Purple Hearts. The Brigade returned to the United States in 1972, where the 1st and 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, were absorbed into the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), and the 3rd Battalion, 319th Field Artillery was reassigned to Division Artillery in the 101st.The remaining units of the 173rd were inactivated.

Since its reactivation in 2000, the Brigade has served five tours in the Middle East in support of the¬†War on Terror. The 173rd participated in the initial invasion of Iraq Operation Iraqi Freedom¬†in 2003, and had four tours in¬†Afghanistan¬†in support of¬†Operation Enduring Freedom¬†in 2005‚Äď06, 2007‚Äď08, 2009‚Äď10 and 2012‚Äď13. The Brigade returned most recently from a deployment stretching from late 2013 to late 2014. The 173rd Airborne Brigade has received 21¬†campaign streamers¬†and several unit awards, including the¬†Presidential Unit Citation¬†for its actions during the Battle of Dak To.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade currently consists of 3,300 paratroopers in six subordinate battalions as well as a headquarters company. All of these units are airborne qualified, making the 173rd Airborne Brigade the only separate airborne IBCT in the United States Army.

The 173rd Infantry Brigade was constituted on 5 August 1917 as an infantry brigade and organized on 25 August at Camp Pike, Arkansas as an element of the 87th Division along with the 174th Infantry Brigade. The Brigade deployed to France along with the rest of the division in September 1918, but it did not participate in any campaigns and never saw combat; instead being utilized as a pool of laborers and reinforcements for frontline units. Four months later, the Brigade returned to the United States, and was demobilized with the rest of the division in January 1919 at Camp Dix, New Jersey

On 24 June 1921, the unit was reconstituted as the Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC), 173rd Infantry Brigade and was assigned to the Organized Reserve Corps and the 87th Division at Shreveport, Louisiana. It was again reorganized in December 1921 at Mobile, Alabama and redesignated on 23 March 1925 as the HHC 173rd Brigade, and redesignated once more as HHC 173rd Infantry Brigade on 24 August 1936.

During World War II, brigades were eliminated from¬†divisions. Consequently, the HHC 173rd Infantry Brigade was designated as the 87th Reconnaissance Troop in February 1942 and activated on 15 December 1942.¬†Though the Brigade itself in name did not exist during the war, the redesignation meant that it carried the lineage of the 87th Reconnaissance Troop. When the Brigade was reactivated, it would include the troop’s lineage and campaign streamers.¬†The troop entered combat in 1944 and fought in three European campaigns; central Europe, the¬†Rhineland¬†and¬†Ardennes-Alsace¬†operations.

The maneuver¬†battalions¬†of the¬†Vietnam¬†era 173rd trace their lineage to the¬†503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, which successfully assaulted the fortress island of¬†Corregidor¬†in the¬†Philippines¬†by parachute and waterborne operations, thereby earning the nickname “The Rock.”¬†After the war, the troop reverted to¬†reserve¬†status and was posted at¬†Birmingham, Alabama¬†from 1947 until 1951. On 1 December 1951, the troop was inactivated and released from its assignment to the 87th Infantry Division

From 1961 to 1963, the Army began reorganizing its force so that each division would have a similar structure, which would vary depending on the type of division it was. This move was called the¬†Reorganization Objective Army Division¬†(ROAD) plan. The plan eliminated regiments but reintroduced brigades to the Army’s structure, allowing three brigades to a division.¬†The reorganization also allowed for the use of “separate” brigades which had no division headquarters and could be used for missions that did not require an entire division.¬†The 173rd Brigade was selected to become a separate brigade and a special airborne task force, which could deploy rapidly and act independently.¬†It was then designed uniquely from other separate brigades. The 173rd was the only separate brigade to have support formations permanently assigned to it.¬†The Brigade was also the only separate brigade to receive its own¬†tank¬†company,¬†in the form of Company D,¬†16th Armor.¬†Consistent with¬†regimental combat teams¬†activated before them, these separate brigades were given their own¬†shoulder sleeve insignia.¬†The soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade created a patch with a wing on it to symbolize their status as an airborne unit, along with red, white, and blue, the national colors of the United States.

On 26 March 1963, the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) was assigned to the¬†Regular Army¬†and activated on¬†Okinawa.¬†Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson¬†took command of the unit,¬†which was chartered to serve as the quick reaction force for the¬†Pacific Command.¬†Under Williamson, the unit trained extensively in making mass parachute jumps. They earned the nickname¬†Tien Bing, literally¬†Sky Soldiers, from the¬†Taiwanese¬†paratroopers.¬†During their time in Okinawa, they prided themselves as the “toughest fighting men in Okinawa, if not the entire U.S. Armed Forces.”¬†As the Pacific quick-reaction force, they were the first brigade to be sent to¬†South Vietnam¬†two years later when hostilities escalated there.

The brigade arrived in South Vietnam on 7 May 1965, the first major ground combat unit of the United States Army to serve in the country.¬†Williamson boldly predicted on arrival that his men would defeat the¬†Viet Cong¬†(VC) quickly and that they “would be back in Okinawa by Christmas.”¬†The 1st Brigade,¬†101st Airborne Division; the 2nd Brigade,¬†1st Infantry Division; and the¬†1st Cavalry Division¬†quickly followed the 173rd into Vietnam. The first of what would eventually be 25 U.S. Army brigades to serve in the country during the war.

The 173rd was also assigned Company N (Ranger), 75th Infantry. At its peak of its deployment in Vietnam, the 173rd Airborne Brigade comprised over 7,000 soldiers.

The Brigade was the first unit sent into¬†War Zone D¬†to destroy enemy base camps, introducing the use of small¬†Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols. On 8 November 1965, the 173rd took part in¬†Operation Hump, just north of¬†Bi√™n H√≤a¬†on the outskirts of¬†Saigon. They were ambushed by approximately 1,200 VC fighters and suffered 48 deaths. The unit also fought in the¬†Iron Triangle, a VC stronghold north of Saigon,¬†seeing many engagements with VC forces during that time. In January 1966 they launched¬†Operation Marauder, the first U.S. military operation in the¬†Plain of Reeds. They participated in¬†Operation Crimp¬†in 1966, a failed attempt to root out VC forces from the¬†CŠĽß Chi tunnels.

The attached helicopter unit became the Casper Aviation Platoon, befitting a separate infantry brigade as the only separate aviation platoon deployed in Vietnam. Casper Platoon was part of the HHC 173rd Airborne Brigade and its members wore the brigade patch. The attached Assault Helicopter Company, the 335th AHC, nicknamed the “Cowboy,”, deployed with the brigade all over Vietnam into mid-1968 and comprised the Airmobile capability along with the Caspers.

Following an attack on the ńźŠļĮk T√ī Base¬†and actions on Hill 882 by the 1-503rd that saw 7 men dead and 34 wounded,¬†330 men of 2-503 moved in to assault¬†Hill 875.The Vietnamese then unleashed¬†B-40¬†rockets and 57¬†mm recoilless rifle fire on the Americans. The paratroopers attempted to continue the advance, but the Viet Cong, well concealed in interconnected bunkers and trenches, opened fire with small arms and grenades. At 14:30 PAVN troops hidden at the bottom of the hill launched a massed assault from the rear. Unknown to the Americans, they had walked into a carefully prepared ambush by the 2nd Battalion of the 174th PAVN Regiment. Soon, U.S. air strikes and artillery fire were being called in, but they had little effect on the battle because of the dense foliage on the hillside. Resupply became a necessity, because of high ammunition expenditures and lack of water, but was impossible to accomplish: Six¬†UH-1¬†helicopters were shot down or badly damaged that afternoon trying to get to 2‚Äď503.

The following day was spent in launching airstrikes and a heavy artillery bombardment against the hilltop, totally denuding it of cover. This time the Americans gained the crest, but the PAVN had already abandoned their positions, leaving only a few dozen charred bodies and weapons.

The intense fighting during the Battle of Dak To took a heavy human toll on the 173rd. The battle of Hill 875 cost 2-503 87 killed, 130 wounded and three missing. 4-503 suffered 28 killed 123 wounded, and four missing.¬†Combined with noncombatant losses, this represented one-fifth of the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s total strength. For its combined actions during operations around Dak To, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was awarded the¬†Presidential Unit Citation.¬†340 of the 570 173rd Airborne troops who attacked the hill became casualties.

The unit then served in An Kh√™ until mid-1969, seeing little in the way of heavy fighting. From April 1969 until its withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1971, the brigade served in B√¨nh ńźŠĽčnh Province.¬†During more than six years of continuous combat, the brigade earned 14¬†campaign streamers¬†and four¬†unit citations, the Presidential Unit Citation, a¬†Meritorious Unit Commendation, a¬†Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, and a¬†Republic of Vietnam Civil Action Honor Medal. Sky Soldiers serving in Vietnam received 13¬†Medals of Honor, 32¬†Distinguished Service Crosses, 1,736¬†Silver Stars¬†and more than 6,000¬†Purple Hearts.¬†The 173rd incurred 1,533 deaths and around 6,000 wounded.

After Vietnam, the Army retained the 173rd Airborne Brigade as a quick deploying contingency brigade.¬†However, with the ending of¬†conscription¬†following America’s disengagement from Vietnam, many of the Army’s formations had to be rebuilt for the volunteer force.

The brigade was inactivated on 14 January 1972 at the fort and its assets were used to form the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, a parachute component within the Airmobile 101st.

In the late 1990s, Army leaders including¬†General Eric Shinseki¬†began shifting the Army force toward brigade centered operations. All separate brigades had been inactivated in the 1990s as part of the U.S. Army’s drawdown following the end of the¬†Cold War.¬†These inactivations, along with subsequent reorganization of U.S. Army divisions, saw several divisional brigades stationed in bases that were far from the division’s headquarters and support units. These brigades had difficulty operating without support from higher headquarters

It was Shinseki’s idea to reactivate a few separate brigades and assign them their own support and sustainment units, which would allow them to function independently of division-level headquarters. These formations were termed “brigade combat teams.”¬†Such units could be stationed in bases far from major commands, not requiring division-level unit support, an advantage in places like Alaska and Europe, where stationing entire divisions was unnecessary or impractical. The first of the separate brigades was the¬†172nd Infantry Brigade, activated in 1998.¬†The 173rd Airborne Brigade was reactivated in 2000 at¬†Caserma Ederle¬†in Vicenza, Italy.

Not long after its reactivation, elements were deployed to Kosovo as part of Operation Rapid Guardian in support of Kosovo Force (KFOR). In 2003, as preparations were being made for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was assigned to be a part of an assault from the north of Iraq.

As the brigade had no heavy or mechanized forces and only a few Humvees and an artillery battery, heavier forces were attached to it in the form of two companies of M113 Armored Personnel Carriers, M1 Abrams tanks, and M2 Bradleys from a task force of 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor, which was attached to the brigade.

The use of the 173rd as a part of a special operations task force was a unique first in U.S. Army history. This force was assisted by Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and tasked with attacking key airfield and oil production positions deep in northern Iraq. The brigade would take off from Aviano Air Base in Italy, a four hour flight from northern Iraq.

Operation Iraqi Freedom began on 20 March with V Corps, consisting of the 101st Airborne Division, 82nd Airborne Division, and 3rd Infantry Division making a forceful push from the south, beginning the Iraq War. A few days later, the 173rd and 10th Special Forces Group departed for northern Iraq.

On 26 March 2003, 954 soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade conducted a combat jump from C-17 aircraft onto Bashur Airfield in Northern Iraq. After the end of major combat operations in mid-2003, the 173rd Airborne Brigade did not engage in any major battles, though it was regularly involved in skirmishes with Iraqi insurgents.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed to Afghanistan in March 2005 under the command of Colonel Kevin Owens, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The 173rd Support Battalion and the 173rd Combat Support Company provided logistical support from Kandahar, while sending individual soldiers to assist at other forward operating bases.

On 11 October 2006, as part of the Army’s “Unit of Action” modularized unit force restructuring that General Shinseki had originally envisioned the 173rd Airborne Brigade became the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (an airborne IBCT). This was a significant change as it signified the ability for the brigade to deploy its forces and sustain itself with its newly integrated support teams. By integrating these support elements, the unit became able to maintain its fighting forces with all that is required to keep the ground soldiers supplied and moving.

In 2006, the Brigade was notified for a second tour of duty in Iraq from 2007 to 2008, but its deployment plan was changed to Afghanistan in February 2007. In the early 2007, the 173rd again deployed to Afghanistan, as Task Force Bayonet, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF 07‚Äď09),¬†their first deployment as a fully transformed brigade combat team. The brigade was dispersed throughout the east of the country, with units operating in¬†Kunar,¬†Paktika and¬†Laghman Provinces.

The 173rd participated in various operations with the objective of ensuring security and subduing¬†Taliban¬†insurgents in the mountainous regions along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, near the¬†Hindu Kush.¬†Throughout their 15-month deployment, the brigade participated in more than 9,000 patrols throughout the region.

Only two weeks before the brigade was to return to Europe, a platoon of 45 soldiers from the brigade stationed in the Dara-I-Pech district was attacked by a large force of insurgents during the Battle of Wanat.Though the platoon was able to drive the insurgents back with air support, the fight resulted in 9 soldiers killed and 16 wounded; the deadliest attack on troops in the country since 2005.

The 173rd’s tour ended in July 2008, and the last redeploying paratrooper from the brigade returned to Europe by the beginning of August 2008.¬†42 soldiers from the brigade lost their lives during the deployment.

From November 2009 until November 2010, the 173rd IBCT(A) once again returned to Afghanistan, this time to the provinces of Logar and Wardak. With combat experience already earned in other similar mountain regions in 2007 and 2008, the Brigade distinguished itself in combat regularly against the Taliban and fought tenaciously against them, while still promoting and attempting to legitimize the Afghan government.

Given the province and its three major districts saw a massive influx of both foreign and domestic fighters due to the relatively calm winter prior to the brigade’s arrival, its company-sized and platoon-sized elements found themselves in combat against anti-Coalition forces almost daily from the start of March 2010 until its relief. The brigade returned to its home station in Europe in November 2010. Seven soldiers from the Brigade lost their lives during the deployment.

In July 2012, the 173rd IBCT(A) once again deployed to Afghanistan as part of Task Force Bayonet. This was the Brigade’s fifth deployment since 2003, their fourth to Afghanistan as they prepare for a complete transition of the security of Afghanistan to the Afghan National Security Forces.The Brigade returned in early 2013. Nine soldiers from the Brigade lost their lives during the deployment.

On 23 April 2014, four paratrooper companies of the 173rd were deployed to Poland,¬†Estonia,¬†Latvia¬†and¬†Lithuania¬†to reassure America’s NATO allies threatened by Russian military maneuvers along the borders of eastern Ukraine during the¬†2014‚Äď15 Russian military intervention in Ukraine.

In March 2015, a 173rd Airborne battalion of around 600 American paratroopers headed to Ukraine to train Ukrainian national guard troops. The training took place at the Yavoriv training center near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. The 173rd Airborne paratroopers trained the Ukrainians on how to better defend themselves against Russian and rebel artillery and rockets. Training also included securing roads, bridges, and other infrastructure and treating and evacuating casualties. This program was known as Fearless Guardian which was congressionally approved under the Global Contingency Security Fund. Under the program, the United States trained three battalions of Ukrainian troops over a six-month period.

A paratrooper in the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s Sky Soldiers, assigned to the¬†1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, in¬†Vicenza, Italy, in 2019 through 2020 plotted an ambush on his unit, “to result in the deaths of as many of his fellow service members as possible.”¬†He was charged in June 2020 with¬†conspiring¬†and attempting to murder military service members, and providing and attempting to provide¬†material support¬†to terrorists.

In May 2021, as part of the NATO training exercise Swift Response 2021, soldiers of the brigade were simulating seizing & securing the decommissioned Cheshnegirovo airfield in Bulgaria. During this operation multiple buildings belonging to the airfield were secured. Soldiers accidentally entered and secured a sunflower oil factory next to the airfield while it was operating. No weapons were discharged. The army apologized and promised to improve their procedures for defining training areas.

The 173rd’s service, particularly in Vietnam, has been featured several times in popular culture. Illinois Route 173, which runs for 66 miles along the¬†Illinois/Wisconsin¬†border was designated the “173rd Airborne Brigade Highway” in 2008. ‚ú™



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