In the 1980 film, The Big Red One, iconic actor Lee Marvin leads a motley band of American riflemen–including actors Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, and Bobby Di Cicco–against some of the toughest diehards in the German army. A somewhat-romanticized chronicling of the experiences of an infantry unit from North Africa to Czechoslovakia, the movie celebrates the combat prowess of the famed 1st Infantry Division–the oldest active division in the U.S. Army, a division once referred to by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as “a sort of Praetorian Guard,” and the U.S. Central Command’s force-of-choice against the recent insurgency in the Iraqi city of Samarra.
On Friday, free-Iraqi forces (totaling 2,000 men) and elements (totaling 3,000) of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division rolled into Samarra, the first of several insurgent strongholds slated for a clean sweep inside the Sunni Triangle. The targeted areas include the cities of Samarra, Ramadi, and Fallujah, as well as the Baghdad slum neighborhoods of Sadr City (largely Shiite) and Haifa Street (dubbed by locals as “Little Fallujah”).
Though casualty estimates vary, approximately 125 enemy fighters have been killed in Samarra. Scores have been wounded and captured. Most of the city is now in Coalition hands. Iraqi police are directing traffic, and U.S. forces are mopping up the holdouts.
The offensive was launched as part of an overall effort to shutdown the insurgency in guerilla-controlled areas of the country before nationwide elections in January 2005. Though previously planned, timing of the offensive was retaliatory in the sense that it came on the heels of the terrorist bombings that killed 35 children as they gathered for candy from American troops, last week.
“Enough was enough,” says Master Sergeant Robert A. Powell, a 1st Infantry Division soldier positioned near Samarra. With fighting raging a few miles down the road, he tells NRO from a satellite phone, “It’s time to put this thuggery to an end. Anti-Iraq forces have been targeting both military personnel and innocent civilians, and these acts must be stopped if we’re going to continue rebuilding this country.”
Battling guerillas in Iraq is not new to the 1st Infantry Division. One of the division’s detached brigades has just returned to Fort Riley, Kansas after months of fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with leathernecks from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, who continue operating in the areas around Fallujah, Ramadi, and in the Al Anbar province.
Brigadier General David L. Grange (U.S. Army, ret.), who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Bosnia during the mid-1990s, told NRO on Saturday that the Big Red One is the right force at the right time for the job of crushing the insurgents in Samarra and elsewhere. “Everything today is task-oriented,” he says. “With tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, artillery, helicopters, and the best-trained soldiers in the world, the division is fast, hard, and flexible.”
Grange, a CNN national-security analyst, points to the fact that though Iraqi soldiers have been rooting out the bad guys at mosques and shrines, the Americans have been taking the lead in the equally dangerous house-to-house and street fighting. “And the division’s armored vehicles and big guns are ‘the hammers’ knocking down the hardened points,” he adds.
Knocking things down has been a specialty of the 1st for over 87 years.
First constituted in May 1917 as the 1st Expeditionary Division, the unit was pieced together from Army units then serving in scattered posts across the U.S. and along the Mexican border. The following month, the division was officially organized in New York. From there it sailed for France.
The division soon became known as “the Big Red One”–an affectionate moniker derived from the red numeral “1″ on the uniform shoulder patch–and the soldiers of the 1st became the first members of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to see combat action during World War I.
In the spring of 1918, elements of the division attacked the German defenders at the French town of Cantigny. The fighting was brutal. The Americans frontally assaulted the German positions, cracked the line, stormed the town, and then burned the enemy out of basements and cellars before repelling several fierce counterattacks.
The battle for Cantigny was not the largest battle of the war, but it was a victory for the Americans. The “Fighting 1st” became world-renowned. One of its regiments became known as the “Black Lions of Cantigny.” And in an interesting what-might-have-been, the division came very close to becoming the first division of American paratroopers in history.
Seeking a means of breaking out of the trench-deadlock along the Western Front, Brigadier General William P. “Billy” Mitchell, a senior air officer in the AEF, proposed a plan wherein American soldiers would be parachuted behind enemy lines. His soldiers of choice would be the men of the Big Red One. His plan included strapping parachutes onto 12,000 select infantrymen from the division, load them onto 1,200 British-built Handley-Page bi-winged bombers–ten men and two machine guns per plane–and drop them over the French city of Metz, a German stronghold deep behind enemy lines. Once on the ground, the paratroopers would spread panic and confusion in the German rear areas while the primary ground forces of the AEF would climb out of their trenches and attack along the front.
Mitchell had hoped to test his new “airborne” concept in the spring of 1919, but the war ended in November 1918.
Though it was never designated “airborne,” the 1st Infantry Division later was tasked with leading the way in some of the toughest battles of World War II; landing in North Africa in 1942, storming the Sicilian coast in 1943, and then knocking down the door of Hitler’s Fortress Europe at Normandy, June 6, 1944. On that day, Col. George Taylor, one of the division’s regimental commanders, uttered the immortal words, “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach–the dead and those who are going to die! Now, let’s get the hell out of here!”
Nearly 3,000 casualties were suffered by the 1st at Normandy. Gen. Omar Bradley later suggested that a lesser division might have been hurled back into the English Channel.
The Big Red One fought in Europe until the end of the war in 1945, then remained in Germany as occupiers until 1955.
Ten years later, the division became the first of its size deployed to Vietnam, and from 1965 to 1970, Big Red One soldiers fought in many of that war’s nastiest slugfests.
The division was called back into action several times during the 1990’s, opening the decade with Operation Desert Storm and closing it with operations in Kosovo.
Today, the division’s counter-guerilla operations in Iraq are characterized by coordinating “an effective mix of Iraqi troops and 1st Infantry Division soldiers,” says Gen. Grange. “In Samarra specifically, they moved in, cordoned off certain areas, isolated enemy nests, and then took them down. If they see anyone with weapons, they kill them.”
Grange adds, “No one is waiting on any elections [here in the U.S.]. Politics are not driving this thing. They’re going to do the same in Ramadi, Fallujah, and other places around the country.”
The Big Red One and its “hammers” surely will continue knocking down doors in Iraq. For according to the division’s unofficial motto–quoted in Rick Atkinson’s Pulitzer-winning An Army at Dawn–”Work hard and drink much, for somewhere they’re dreamin’ up a battle for the First.”
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist and the author of four books, including the Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces.