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“Angels” fly high once again as U.S Army resurrects WWII 11th Airborne Division in Alaska

Published: Jun. 9, 2022 at 5:11 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - In June 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to the nation asking the American people to join him in prayer as 160,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II, in an attempt to liberate France in what would soon to be called “D-Day.”

That historic event lives infamously in time, now 78 years later, history is made again as The U.S Army Alaska at Fort Wainwright (FWA) in Fairbanks, and Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson (JBER) based out of Anchorage, Alaska, collectively held ceremonies to commemorate this historic activation of the 11th Airborne Division on Monday, June 6th, 2022.

“Live up to the heroic legacy of those who have gone before you,” said Army Chief of Staff General James C. McConville during the ceremony at FWA earlier this week. “Every generation has its heroes, and out World War II heroes, the greatest generation established a legacy that we strive to live up to every single day.”

Army Chief of Staff, Gen. James C. McConville speaking at Fort Wainwright.
Army Chief of Staff, Gen. James C. McConville speaking at Fort Wainwright.(Julie Swisher)

It all comes at a time as the U.S Army shifts its focus on operations in extremely cold weather, and prepares for future cold-weather conflicts, that the return of the historic 11th Airborne Division reclaims its re-designation in Alaska.

U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth initially made the announcement that U.S Army Alaska headquarters would be re-designated during a line of questioning from Alaska Senator Sullivan in a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on May 5, 2022.

The two Brigade Combat Teams in Alaska, the 1st Brigade Combat Team, and the 4th Brigade Combat Team, both of the 25th Infantry Division, would be designated as the 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams of the 11th Airborne Division.

“Wherever you go, you will be the most highly trained, disciplined, and fit Arctic warfighting unit in the world; ready to fight and win,” said Army Chief of Staff General James C. McConville during the ceremony at Fort Wainwright. “That is what you do, that is who you are. We are counting on you.”

He added that the Army plans to move the armored Strykers out of Alaska by the end of the summer as it continues the acquisition process of Cold Weather, All-Terrain Vehicles or CATVs.

U.S Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan (both R-Alaska) were both present at Fort Wainwright for the event.

“This transformation of this unit to the 11th Airborne Division, now one of only two airborne [paratrooper] divisions in the entire U.S. military, represents a transformation – a sea change in the Pentagon’s thinking about the Arctic and our Arctic strategy,” Sullivan said during the ceremony. “It wasn’t too long ago that our Department of Defense saw the Arctic as a backwater of strategic relevance: no real strategy and a focus on shutting down bases and units here in Alaska. Now all of that has changed. The standing up of the 11th Airborne Division here in Alaska represents a critical pillar of the transformation of America’s Arctic strategy.”

Senator Murkowski then came to the podium and stated, “Soldiers here in Alaska have always been Arctic tough. They are our nation’s Arctic Warriors, conquering mountains, valleys, and training in the winter’s bitter cold. Their legacies will now become part of the 11th Airborne Division as it re-emerges as one of the world’s most distinguished and elite fighting forces. These Arctic Warriors play a critical role in the defense of our nation, and I am committed to doing everything I can to support them. Arctic Angels, Arctic Strong!”

Soldiers unroll the flag during the ceremony.
Soldiers unroll the flag during the ceremony.(Julie Swisher)

The history behind the 11th Airborne Division stretches back into World War II and the Vietnam War. The Division originally operated between 1943 and 1965 and consisted of one parachute and two glider infantry regiments with supported troops. In an article written by the U.S Army regarding the 11th Airborne Division, the Army credits their role with the “amphibious assault,” which helped secure the liberation of Manila from Japanese Forces at Luzon, Philippines, and rescued more than 2,000 civilians on March 4th, 1945.

“The 11th Airborne Division has a storied history of valor during World War II in the Pacific and also has a proud history of innovation,” McConville said. “So we expect them to live up to the legacy. We expect them to be masters of their craft in Arctic warfighting and extreme cold weather and high altitude and terrain. We expect them to develop innovative ways of operating in this environment.”

Now, 70 years later, U.S Army Alaska (USARAK) plans to focus on Arctic Strategy, which the Army says outlines the organization’s plan to equip, organize, and train with partner units to establish military dominance in the region.

FWA and JBER’s geographic positions make them ideal locations for the Army’s readiness to deploy to cold-weather climates as far as India and Nepal. In a publication from the Department of the Army Headquarters issued on January 19th, 2021, “Regaining Arctic Dominance, The U.S Army in the Arctic,” this brings new opportunities to train and engage with various allies and partners across the globe who understand and operate similar terrains and climates.

“This strategy adopts a different perspective of the world as a globe rather than a map, a view that allows us to see the opportunities of “northern routes” that will speed force generation and deployment from Alaska to points around the globe,” the publication read. “For example, in meeting India’s autumn of 2020 request to provide cold-weather equipment, we gained an understanding of the requirements to operate in places like the Himalayas. In regaining our Arctic focus, the Army, with our allies and partners, will develop doctrine, training, and equipment to meet the unique requirements of cold weather, mountainous, and high altitude environments.”

That was part of the foreword of the publication, signed by McConnville, and Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy.

Over the course of several years, there has been a spike in soldier suicides among USARAK soldiers. This has raised concerns regarding soldiers’ quality of life. The Army hopes that this re-designation will help to unify the units as one, as assessments such as the behavioral health epidemiological consultation’s (EPICON) evaluation that was addressed in 2019, and prompted a Round Table Discussion in February 2022, in which Commanding General of US Army Alaska, Major General Brian Eifler said, “The question is why - why suicide is on the rise in Alaska. It is something we are trying to figure out.”

McConville said during a meeting with reporters, “Experience has told us that units that have a common unit identity is a source of pride. It’s extremely important, and the history of a unit, and the patch matter.”

As part of the new structure, the plan is to replace the heavy eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles with have shown not to perform well in the arctic environment. U.S military officials did state this will not change the number of soldiers in Alaska.

Soldiers gathered in formation during the 11th Airborne Division ceremony
Soldiers gathered in formation during the 11th Airborne Division ceremony(Julie Swisher)

That is now the hope for roughly 12,000 soldiers in Alaska who will unite under one flag. The 11th Airborne Division will wear the unit’s distinctive blue patch with a red and white emblem with angel wings to symbolize the unit’s call sign.

The division got the nickname “Angels,” after the return to Asia to fight in the Korean War. In 1960, the division was inactivated. Now, with a new re-birth, the rebranded 11th Airborne Division soldiers are now called the “Arctic Angels,” and will showcase an updated version of the division’s vintage insignia.

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