First Infantry Division

The First Infantry Division

| Known as the Big Red One, the First Infantry Division is one of the Army's most famous units. Divisions form the backbone of all modern armies, and come in many shapes and sizes. During the Vietnam War, the First Infantry Division was organized as a light infantry division. In World Wars One and Two it was organized as a regular infantry division. During the Gulf War, and most of the period before and after Vietnam, the Big Red One was organized as a mechanized infantry division. In 1997 the division was considered a mechanized infantry outfit and stationed in Germany, with units deployed to Bosnia and a brigade remaining at Fort Riley, Kansas. A brief history of the division follows, along with some notes regarding the division's organization during the Vietnam War. No more than a capsule history can be given here, although the links page contains some other resources regarding the Big Red One.

The First World War

First organized for service in World War One (it was then called the First Expeditionary Division), the First Division went overseas in 1917 and saw its first combat in 1918. The first American division to see combat in the First World War, the Big Red One (so called for its shoulder patch, which forms the background of this page) was involved in heavy fighting in the Meuse-Argonne and St. Mihiel regions of France. Remaining in Germany after the Armistice, the Division did not return to the United States until September, 1919.

World War Two

Once again the Big Red One was one of the first U.S. units to see combat in Europe. It participated in the November 1942 invasion of Oran in North Africa (the "Torch" landings) and the campaign in Tunisia. From there the division fought its way through Sicily before being pulled out of the line. Its next destination was the beaches of Normandy.

Selected as one of the assault divisions, the Big Red One hit the beach designated Omaha. Through a set of errors and faulty intelligence the division was landed at the wrong location and under the guns of the German 352d Division. Unlike the opposition faced by units at Utah Beach, the 352d was composed of hardened veterans of the battles on the Eastern Front. Slow progress threatened the success of the Omaha landing for a time, until the veterans of the Big Red One organized themselves and began pushing inland off the beach. From there the division pushed inland through the infamous bocage country, taking part in the COBRA breakout in July of 1944. Reformed behind the lines, the First Infantry Division reentered the lines just in time to besiege and capture the German fortress-city of Aachen in October. This was the first major German city to fall to the Allies. Later the division was involved in halting the Aredennes Counteroffensive in December, fighting in the Malmedy sector. The division's final operations found it pushing up the Roer and Rhur River valleys, fighting near the Harz Mountains, and finally shifting to the Czech border for a final offensive when the war ended in May 1945.

The Interwar Years

The First Infantry Division did not take part in the Korean War. It spent the time between World War Two and Vietnam training and preparing for the expected conflict with the Soviet Union in the central German plains. For this purpose the division was reorganized as a mechanized infantry unit and given two tank battalions and an Honest John atomic rocket battery. Stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, the division was training for a war that never came. At the time, no one expected that the Big Red One's next battles would take place in jungles far from Europe.


The call to deploy to South Vietnam came in early 1965. Like many of the early combat units deployed, the Big Red One would move overseas in stages. While the bulk of the division hastily reorganized and retrained, the Second Brigade left the United States - destination Vietnam. The rest of the division followed, and the Big Red One was in place by October, 1965. Stationed in the III Corps area north and west of Saigon, the division was responsible for securing the approaches to the capital. It spent its entire time in Vietnam (1965-early 1970) operating north and west of Saigon, at times close to the Cambodian border and other times much closer to Saigon and the populated regions of III Corps. Often engaged in securing the lines of communication between Saigon and the surrounding provinces, the First Infantry Division often engaged Main Force Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units in large-scale actions. Involved in the defense of the Saigon approaches during Tet 1968, the BRO withdrew from Vietnam just before the Cambodian Incursion in 1970.
Like many larger American units, the Big Red One placed most of its operational emphasis on large unit engagements. As a result the division paid little large-scale attention to pacification until 1968. The division also developed a reputation for its reliance on firepower. With a series of hard-nosed division commanders throughout its time in Vietnam, the Big Red One was one of the Army's permire divisions in Vietnam.

Combat Organization

Prior to being selected for Vietnam service, the Big Red One was organized as a mechanized infantry division. In this context its infantry battalions were equipped with M113 armored personnel carriers and there were two tank battaltions assigned to the division. When word came that the division was to deploy to Vietnam there was a massive reorganization. Tanks, according to the view held by many high ranking officers, were not suited for Vietnam. Thus the two armored battalions were left behind, replaced by two infantry battalions (the First and Second Battalions, Second Infantry Regiment). All mechanized infantry was dismounted and hastily retrained to operate as light infantry. Lacking the massive helicopter resources of the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile), the Big Red One was planning to do things the old-fashioned way; on foot. This reorganization also saw the cavalry squadron replace its M114 reconnaissance vehicles with more capable M113s; in many cases the APCs were simply those turned in by the mechanized infantry units.

When it was finally deployed to Vietnam, the First Infantry Division contained its three brigade headquarters elements, divisional support elements, and the First Squadron, Fourth Cavalry. In addition, there were nine infantry battalions and five battalions of artillery (four equipped with medium 105mm howitzers and the fifth with heavy 155mm howitzers). Two of the division's infantry battalions would later be mechanized, in a belated recognition that armor and mechanized forces could operate in Vietnam.
The infantry battalions assigned to the BRO were organized into three (later four) companies. They will be listed in normal U.S. Army format, which means that the First Battalion, Second Infantry will be shown as 1/2 Inf. The units marked with a * were later converted to mechanized infantry. Many of the infantry units came from regiments which had historical ties to the Big Red One.

Normally the infantry battalions were controlled by the division's brigades, which could command from two to five battalions (although they normally commanded only three). Artillery battalions were assigned to the brigades as needed, although some common attachments did develop. Certain battalions became associated with particular brigades as well. The allocation of resources to the brigades was tightly controlled by division headquarters.
Since it was not organized as an airmobile division, the Big Red One had very limited helicopter resources. A single aviation battalion (the 1st Aviation Battalion) was assigned to the division, and it soon found its resources stretched to the breaking point trying to meet the needs of the division.


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This Page Modified 10 Feb 2017

CopyWrite by Bill Van Horn, 1997