History of the First Division
World War II: 1941-1945
America entered World War II on December 7, 1941. Commanded by MG Terry de la Mesa Allen, the 1st Division was the first American division sent to Europe, arriving in Great Britain in July 1942. The Big Red One led the invasion of French North Africa near Oran, Algeria, on November 8, 1942. Dispersed among British units as they fought their way east across Algeria into Tunisia, the Division learned hard lessons in combat against the Germans at the Battle of Kasserine Pass. Re-assembled under Allen’s command, the Big Red One scored the first American defeat of a German unit, the 10th Panzer Division, at the Battle of El Guettar in 1943. The division had become a battle-hardened unit.
On July 10, 1943, the 1st Infantry Division participated in its second amphibious operation during the invasion of Sicily. 7th Army commander Lieutenant General George S. Patton had declared, “I want those sons-of-bitches. I won’t go without them!” Backed by naval gunfire, the division beat back assaults on their beach head by Italian formations and then the German Hermann Goering Panzer Division. The division fought across the center of Sicily to confront the Germans at the Battle of Troina. Private James W. Reese became the first division soldier of the war to earn the Medal of Honor.
After the liberation of Sicily, General Eisenhower selected the 1st Infantry Division for Operation Overlord, the cross-channel invasion of France. MG Clarence R. Huebner, who had served with the division in World War I, became the new commanding general. He instituted a rigorous training regimen to prepare the division for its greatest challenge so far.
The 1st Infantry Division returned to Great Britain in November 1943. Reinforced with two regiments of the 29th Infantry Division, the 1st Division led Force O in the assault on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. It encountered a hailstorm of intense fire from the German defenses. Through incredible acts of individual bravery, initiative and leadership, the 1st Infantry Division overcame the enemy forces and penetrated well inland. The division then fought through the hedgerows of Normandy, fought through the breakout and fought through the rapid Allied advance across northern France against the retreating German Army.
By September 1944, the 1st Infantry Division had reached the German frontier and breached the vaunted Siegfried Line. The division then led the attack to isolate and seize the city of Aachen, the first German city to fall to the Allied armies. The Fighting First faced equally tough combat in the dark Huertgen Forest, the frozen winter wastelands holding the northern shoulder at Butgenbach, Belgium; in the Battle of the Bulge; and the final push into and across central Germany.
By the end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945, the 1st Infantry Division had reached Czechoslovakia, where it liberated a Nazi labor camp at Falkenau. The Big Red One was a veteran of three amphibious assaults in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. It had fought in deserts, mountains, plains and cities, in extreme heat and cold, against every kind of opponent. With 16 Medal of Honor recipients, the Fighting First ended the war with a record unequalled by any other American division.