173d Airborne Brigade Association

Posted by Desmond Walton

The 173rd Airborne Brigade ("Sky Soldiers") is an airborne infantry brigade combat team (IBCT) of the United States Army based in Vicenza, Italy. It is the United States European Command's conventional airborne strategic response force for Europe.

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 in Vietnam, serving there from 1965 to 1971 and losing 1,533 soldiers. Noted for its roles in Operation Hump and Operation Junction City, the 173d 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 2d Battalion, 503d Infantry, were absorbed into the 3d Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), and the 3d Battalion, 319th Field Artillery was reassigned to Division Artillery in the 101st. The remaining units of the 173d were inactivated.

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 during the Vietnam War.

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.

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 in name did not exist during the war, the redesignation meant that it carried the lineage of the 87th Reconnaissance Troop, and 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, though other separate brigades would receive support elements of their own a year later. 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. The SSI would be given to them in May 1963.

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, making mass parachute jumps. They earned the nickname Tien Bing (Chinese: 天兵), 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". They took their theme song from the television series Rawhide. As the Pacific quick-reaction force, they were the first brigade to be sent to South Vietnam two years later when hostilities escalated there.