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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After months of grueling road marches through the north Georgia mountains, a group of elite paratroopers had to put their training to the test in a trial by fire. They leapt from an airplane, bullets whizzing past parachutes and shrapnel pelting the plane’s side panels.
Ed Shames was among them. Now 90, Shames was 19 when he signed up for new parachute units created military leaders who wanted a quicker, more aggressive unit that could sneak behind enemy lines in Europe. This week, thousands of active-duty soldiers and veterans are gathering at Fort Campbell, Ky., to honor the 101st Airborne Division that was created 70 years ago, even as its current soldiers prepare to leave for Afghanistan.
Military officials at first weren’t so sure the 101st “Screaming Eagles” would find success. And the day Shames first saw combat turned out to be one of the most crucial in U.S. history — the D-Day invasion of France.
“They prophesized that we were going to fall on our faces, from the very beginning,” he said.
On August 16, 1942, the Army created the first paratrooper divisions, with the nation still reeling from Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The 101st Airborne Division and the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based 82nd Airborne Division would go on to redefine war strategies from World War II to Vietnam to the Middle East.
The Week of the Eagles is commemorating that legacy with games, a concert, an air show and memorials to the fallen, with each day dedicated to the major wars that have created the unique legacy of the Screaming Eagles. The event culminates with a division review on the parade field.
The first commanding general of the 101st, Maj. Gen. William C. Lee, said his men had no history but had a “rendezvous with destiny.” The Army wanted physically fit, aggressive young men who were a “cut above the rest,” said the division’s historian, Capt. Jim Page.
Among them was Shames, of Norfolk, Va. He and other paratroopers from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment earned their tough reputation by making daily road marches up Currahee Mountain in Georgia.
“A 25-mile march for us was just like a Sunday stroll,” said Shames, who now lives in Virginia Beach. “We had to walk 10 to 12 miles to get to our training area at Toccoa and then train all day and walk back 10 or 12 miles back to camp every day.”
He recounted D-Day, as the Allied planes crossed into Normandy and started taking heavy artillery fire.
“You could hear the shrapnel hitting against the side of the plane and when we jumped out, you could hear the bullets coming through the parachutes,” Shames said.
Expecting that the paratroopers would get scattered, the division’s regiments drew playing card symbols — the spade, the club, the heart and the diamond — on their helmets so that they could identify each other once on the ground.
Shames said the paratroopers were successful in their mission of capturing key bridges to prevent German tanks from reaching the shore as amphibious troops made their landing. But it came at a cost, Page said: The 101st lost about a third of its men in only about six weeks.
The division then went on to suffer more casualties in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands. Herbert Suerth II joined the Easy Company, whose exploits have been made into books and a TV series, as a replacement soldier right before the division went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.
“When I joined the 101st, the discipline, the tempo, everything changed, and it was refreshing,” said Suerth, who is now 86 and jokes he is the president of the Men of Easy Company Association because he is the youngest member.
As the unit made its way to establish a perimeter in the pine woods around the town of Bastogne in Belgium, they could hear the artillery rounds and small arms fire of the approaching German divisions, he said.
“In between us and the German advance were hundreds of American infantry guys literally running,” he said. “They had been overrun by a couple of German divisions.”
When the Germans demanded that the division surrender after surrounding the town, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe responded with one word: “NUTS!” The division held that town until just after Christmas when reinforcements arrived.
After the war ended, the division was deactivated in 1945 as the Army shrunk to a post-war size.
The division was reactivated as a combat unit in 1956 at Fort Campbell. It would not again see combat again until the Vietnam War, although one of its current units served in the Korean War.
In the summer of 1965, 4,000 troops from the 101st traveled for weeks by boat across the Pacific Ocean. John Pagel was a private first class and among the first division soldiers who stepped off the boat in Camh Ran Bay in Vietnam.
The brigade was sent all over South Vietnam to clear out Viet Cong fighters, said Pagel, who is now 68 and living in Glendora, Calif. It was during this war that the division’s troops began shifting from jumping out of a plane to jumping out of helicopters. He had no experience in one before his first chopper assault, he said.
“Ninety-five percent of the troops of the 101st had not even sat in a helicopter before Vietnam, so we had to learn,” Pagel said.
Later in 1967, the rest of the division would deploy to Vietnam, where they would remain until 1972. Page said records captured during the war showed the North Vietnamese Army warned troops to be cautious when encountering the “chicken men,” referring to the division’s bald eagle patch.
Today, the 101st remains the Army’s only air assault division.
After the Cold War, the division was sent on peacekeeping missions in countries such as Somalia and Bosnia and saw combat in the first Gulf War and the most recent Iraq War. The post-9/11 decade has brought constant deployment rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, with many current day troops serving between two and five tours.
Even with this week’s celebrations, the division still has wartime obligations. One of its helicopter units is deploying to Afghanistan, and another infantry brigade is scheduled to leave later this year. They’re fighting a different type of enemy than the men who landed on Normandy, with new technology and on different terrain. But the division has adapted over the years, Page said.
“Soldiers of the 101st, whether in World War II or in 2025, can expect that they will be placed at the forefront of America’s contingency operations wherever that may be,” Page said.