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Published: Sunday, 3/30/2003

Legendary U.S. units battle in Iraq

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Army Maj. Robert Schaeffer is a former member of the 3rd Infantry Division. Army Maj. Robert Schaeffer is a former member of the 3rd Infantry Division.
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When the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry - the unit once led by George Armstrong Custer - goes marching into Baghdad, it won't be on horseback. Rather, Abrams Battle Tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles will be the soldiers' travel mode.

Members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division won't be parachuting into the Iraqi capital, as the division did in Normandy on D-Day. Rather, they will arrive by Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters.

Sixty-one years after they fought at Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, Marines with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force are carrying the Stars and Stripes in a different battle, a new kind of war.

Many of the divisions, brigades, battalions, and other units comprising the 90,000 U.S. troops fighting the war inside Iraq are familiar names from other conflicts, some of them going back as far as the War of 1812 and the post-Civil War period. Their goal is the same - win the war - but methods have changed.

“It's dramatically different,” retired Army Sgt. Maj. Rich Olson, public affairs director at Fort Stewart, Ga., said of the Army's 15,000-member 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized)

“They used to be foot soldiers. Now they travel in mechanized infantry tanks and fighting vehicles that go 40 mph. They are the swiftest moving units on the battlefield,” he said.

The 3rd Infantry, which includes the 7th Cavalry's 3rd Squadron, is one of the most storied units in Army history, with 49 Medal of Honor winners, including the late Audie Murphy, World War II's most decorated American soldier. Dubbed the “Rock of the Marne” for its successful defense of Paris against the Germans in World War I, the unit, first commissioned in 1917, has played an important role in every war since, including the Persian Gulf War.

Dr. Robert Smith, a University of Toledo history professor, said the 3rd Infantry's role at the Marne battle “was the first time a large-scale American unit was put on the front line.”

The division rolled into Iraq from Kuwait on March 20 en route to Baghdad. Unexpected skirmishes along the way at places such as Najaf have slowed the march and tested the troops, many of whom are fighting their first war.

Veterans watching coverage of the Iraq war can identify with their old units even though there have been drastic changes in weaponry and transportation. In some instances, it's hard for veterans to just sit back and watch.

That has been the case for Army Maj. Robert Schaefer, a military science professor in UT's Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program and a 3rd Infantry Division veteran of the Cold War.

“I have a lot of friends in the 3rd Division. It's very difficult for me. I wish I was there helping,” he said. “When you see a convoy ambushed, your presence there probably makes no difference. But you can't help but think your presence might have made a difference.”

Among the units leading the way in Iraq is the 7th Cavalry, one of the most recognizable names in military history. Organized in 1866 at Fort Riley, Kan., the 7th Cavalry played a prominent role in the country's western campaigns against Native Americans. Most notable was the defeat of Lt. Colonel George Custer, who had been a dashing young cavalry general during the Civil War. He and five companies of the 7th Cavalry were defeated at Little Big Horn in 1876 by the Sioux and the Cheyenne, during which 261 soldiers died, including Custer, a native of Monroe.

In Iraq, the 7th Cavalry's 3rd Squadron, consisting of 800 soldiers, is performing a considerably different task than it did in the days of the Wild West, when it was a key fighting unit.

“They are out in front of the division assessing what the enemy is up to,” Mr. Olson said. “They can put up a good fight if they have to, but they are [primarily] scouts.”

Moving side by side with the 3rd infantry as they approach Baghdad is the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, another famous outfit whose roots can be traced back to U.S. involvement at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay in the decade after the Spanish-American War. The force's 1st Marine Division helped lead the way at Guadalcanal, the first major American offensive of World War II, and played key roles in Korea and Vietnam.

Also moving toward Baghdad is the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which has a more current history. The 2,000-member unit was the first Marine outfit on the ground in Afghanistan last year.

Among the units providing air support for the Marines and the Army are the Army's 101st Airborne (Air Assault) and 82nd Airborne divisions. Both were immortalized in military history for their night drop of paratroopers behind German lines in Normandy in the hours before the full D-Day invasion during World War II.

The 101st gained fame in the Gulf War with a deep air assault into Iraqi territory. Nicknamed the “Screaming Eagles,” the division has changed from its paratrooper days.

“They used to be pure airborne, where they jumped out of planes. Now they go into battle with Black Hawks and Chinooks,” Mr. Olson said.

As the 101st Airborne, 7th Cavalry, 3rd Infantry, and 1st Marine units move toward Baghdad, another legendary unit is at work in northern Iraq. About 1,000 paratroopers in the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted in last week and secured an airfield to prepare for the arrival of coalition tanks and armored vehicles.

The 173rd, which began as an infantry brigade during World War I, became American's first major ground combat unit in the Vietnam War in 1965. It carried out America's only combat parachute jump of that war. The names of nearly 1,800 members of the 173rd, known as the “Sky Soldiers,” are chiseled into the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.

Blade staff member Paul Hem, a retired Army officer, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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