A Perspective on the 101st’s Transition to Air Assault and Invention of the Air Assault Badge

Posted on: February 9th, 2014 by Will Rodriguez 20 Comments

Doing some research on the post Vietnam decision to go to one airborne division I came across this fascinating article by Charles S. Bloodworth.  I thought readers here would be interested.  It features some relatively unknown history about the development of the air assault badge and the Army’s transitioning of the 101st from an airborne to an air assault division.

An Excerpt from the “History of the 101st (Post-Vietnam)” By Charles S. Bloodworth

Edited by Will Rodriguez

When the 101st Airborne Division returned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, from Viet Nam in February 1972, about all that returned were the unit colors, and a command group with a few staff officers and senior NCOs. Almost all soldiers, SSG and below, were immediately discharged when they arrived at Oakland, California, or Seattle, Washington. The 101st Airborne, then called the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), returned to buildings vacated by the recently inactivated “U.S. Army Training Center, Fort Campbell, Kentucky.” Major General John Cushman was the Commanding General, but he had a headquarters with no hindquarters.

The 101st was almost exactly 1/3 airborne. That is, the Third Brigade (the former 173rd Airborne Brigade, with the Geronimos of 1-503rd and 2-503rd Infantry, and the Rakkasans of 3-187th Infantry) were on jump status. First Brigade (1-327th and 2-327th Infantry and 2-502nd Infantry) and Second Brigade (1-501st Infantry, 1-502nd Infantry, and 1-506th Infantry) were leg. One third of the division support elements were airborne on status, the other two-thirds were straight leg. So, for example, the 326th Engineer Battalion had one airborne company, but two leg companies. Same for the 501st Signal Battalion, the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, and so on.

This organization wasn’t really as bizarre as it sounds. After all, early during WWII the 101st wasn’t 100% parachute. Then it was 1/3 parachute and 2/3 glider forces. Under the theory of “the helicopter is the new glider,” the airborne were to provide a light, fast vertical envelopment/assault capability, while the airmobile elements would follow up with sustained and heavier forces. At one time the Division Museum (Pratt Museum) at Fort Campbell even had a spectacular mural painted the length of one wall. It showed the 3rd Brigade parachuting in and seizing an airfield in the manner of the Rangers at Point Salinas, Grenada. Once the airfield was secured, a fleet of C-130s and C-141s were depicted landing and disgorging the 1st and 2nd Brigades, with UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra helicopters. The airmobile elements then fanned out, linked up, and defeated the enemy. But it couldn’t happen without recruiting a division’s worth of soldiers, one third of them airborne.

A massive push was underway to recruit soldiers to refill the division. The draft had ended, this was the time of VOLAR (Volunteer Army). Soldiers had to be recruited, with slogans such as “Today’s Army Wants You.” Recruiters were given recruiting incentives, such as “Unit of Choice” (guaranteeing that the recruit would be assigned to a specific unit); “Station of Choice” (guaranteeing that the recruit would be assigned to a specific location); “Airborne Duty Option” (guaranteeing airborne training and a jump slot assignment); there were of course MOS guarantees, and so on. Every soldier in the Division was told he was to be an assistant recruiter. The Pathfinders and the 3rd Brigade did parachute demonstrations in front of county fairs, and at high schools. We showed movies at malls, and did static displays with parachutes, radios, AK-47s and other weapons in the court house square of cities all around Fort Campbell.

Obviously one of our biggest draws was to wear our Class A uniforms, with a garrison cap with glider patch, backgrounds on our wings, and trousers bloused into spit-shined jump boots. And it worked. We recruited hundreds of young men, perhaps thousands, who came into the Army under a much- reduced threat of being sent into combat. There was enhanced pay and GI Bill benefits, and the elimination of many of the irritants to service life that were part of the Army until that point: Saturday morning muster formations, weekend passes, KP duty. These men came into the 101st with a guarantee of Unit or Station of Choice 101st Airborne/Fort Campbell and airborne duty status. Jump pay for enlisted men was $55.00 per month, a considerable bonus for a soldier with $300 – $400 per month in base pay. Hazardous duty pay alone could provide a respectable car payment in 1972.

By 1973 the mix of airborne and non-airborne soldiers, with the difference in pay and prestige, was causing serious morale problems. Fights were not uncommon. Airborne soldiers not assigned to a jump slot were occasionally jumping, either legally (with permissive no-pay orders) or illegally (sneaking onto aircraft with the connivance of jumpmasters who might be their roommate). In an effort to keep a uniform appearance, even the leg soldiers were permitted to wear the garrison cap with glider patch and bloused boots, but of course they had no wings. That was heresy to the truly Airborne. Then matters reached critical mass when the Department of the Army pulled the entire 101st Division off jump status.

That was an even greater morale crisis, as jump pay was stopped, but car payments continued. Also, it appeared that the 101st would be forced to revert wearing low quarter shoes and the round service hat (derisively called the “bus driver hat” by Airborne soldiers). The Army doesn’t use the expression “breach of contract.” The correct wording is “unfulfilled enlistments” and suddenly the 101st was facing hundreds, if not thousands of them. Those recruited under the Unit/Station of Choice and Airborne options couldn’t have both. They had three choices:

          Waive the Unit/Station of Choice and transfer to another unit on jump status. In 1973 this meant the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry in Italy (that’s pretty far from Tennessee/Kentucky); or the arch-rival 82nd Airborne Division, or;

          Waive the Airborne Duty Option and stay with the 101st at Fort Campbell, but possibly wear the same uniform every other leg in the Army was wearing, or;

          Demand an immediate Honorable Discharge, with VA benefits if they had been in 180 days. This last option looked pretty good to a lot of soldiers.

What was the command to do? MG John Cushman was being transferred to be Commandant of the Military Academy, and MG Sid Berry was his successor. In a stroke of genius, a solution was found that saved the day and created a new badge. Years before, the 101st had created and run what they called the Recondo School, a kind of mini-Ranger course. After instruction of hand-to-hand combat, patrolling, field craft, and intensive physical challenges the graduates had been awarded a “Recondo Badge.” It was a local wear item, much like the Jungle Expert badge in Panama, or the “Pro-Life Pin” of MG Hank “The Gunfighter” Emerson in Korea. You joined the unit, you attended a short course, you earned it, you wore it while you were in the unit, and when you left you took it off. The 101st dusted off the Recondo School program of instruction and created the Airmobile Badge. That’s right, it was originally called the Airmobile Badge. Locally designed and fabricated, the badge was deliberately crafted to mimic the glider wings of WWII, which hadn’t been issued since the 1950s. The nose of the Huey took the place of the glider body, and the horizontal rotor blade was the spitting image of the glider wing.

175px-USAAF_-_Glider_Pilot_4

Soldiers could attend a five-day yes, five-day training program and be awarded the Airmobile Badge. “In the tradition of the glider troops,” who, remember, were 2/3 of the WWII 101st Airborne Division, they could bear the badge with the cloth colored background as if they were on jump status. They could wear the garrison cap with glider patch and the coveted bloused boots. From five meters away they were indistinguishable from a real paratrooper. Now everybody in the division could look like an Airborne soldier.

Real Airborne soldiers took an immediate dislike to the Airmobile Badge. Look closely at one. Now imagine coloring in the two front windows of the Huey with a black pen. Now color in the two lower chin windows and the space between them. Finally, color in the wings left and right with two black circles. Yes, it bears a remarkable likeness to Mickey Mouse. We called them “mouse wings” and by the time I left the 101st in 1974 it was still not possible to post a picture of the badge at Fort Campbell without some Airborne trooper coming by with a black felt tip marker and turning it into “Mickey Mouse wings.”

250px-AirAssault

Well, it took a little more tuning up. The badge had to be renamed something sexier, like the “Air Assault Badge,” and the class was stretched to ten days, but to be frank, it was a gimmick. The Air Assault school didn’t teach anything the typical 101st soldier didn’t already know or was taught at the unit level. 101st soldiers were sling loading, rappelling, climbing up and down trooper ladders from the aft ends of hovering CH-47s and setting up PZs and LZs in combat in Viet Nam, years before the air assault badge was created. But it worked. We avoided the massive hemorrhage of soldiers. When the soldiers left the 101st Airborne Division, the badge came off, its mission accomplished.

Then how did the Air Assault Badge become a permanent wear item? As every Airborne soldier knows, there is one and only one Program of Instruction at Airborne School. From private to general, everybody goes through the same training minute by minute, mile for mile, pushup for pushup. The same rules apply for Ranger, Special Forces, and Pathfinder. I assume that also applies to SCUBA and HALO, but I haven’t been there so I don’t know. But early in its history the Air Assault School, in a stroke of genius, created an A Course, a B Course, and a C Course. The A Course is for the average soldier. They must stand inspection formations, get dropped for pushups, double-time everywhere, etc.

But then there is the B Course, for field grade officers (majors and above) and senior NCOs. They were allowed to come to the school each morning an hour late, skipping the inspection formation and the accompanying push-ups and chickenshit. They were gently led to the front of every line, coached on tasks, allowed to enter and exit the classrooms first, and generally handled warmly. No harsh words, and no stress. Then there was the C Course, for general officers. The C Course lasted one week. They were spoon-fed the instruction, examinations were one-on-one, and nobody watched the clock too closely on the timed runs.

The result of the B and C Courses was predictable. In barely two years the Army had a large number of senior officers and NCOs who were not Airborne qualified, but who had breezed through a special program of instruction and received the Air Assault Badge while at Fort Campbell. They wore the badge, with the accoutrements of the Airborne. But since it was a temporary wear local item, they had to remove it when they left Fort Campbell. It wasn’t long before the Pentagon and the Military Personnel Center had a good number of field grade officers and senior NCOs who had received the Air Assault badge, but couldn’t wear it or put it in their personnel records. The result: the Air Assault Badge quickly became a permanent wear item. As Paul Harvey would say: “And now you know the rest of the story.”

 

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  • ArcticWarrior

    That was great. I didnt know the history of the transition period in that detail. I wasnt a big fan of the c-cap with patch look from that era, it looked good back in the day with an Ike jacket though. We called the badge “bullwinkle” wings.

  • TeufelshundeUSMC

    I was familiar with the Army jump wings since one of my DI’s wore one, the first time I ever saw an Air Assault badge, I was like what is that? I’ve been a fan of these badges since, the Navy has fancier ones, and I notice (at least for the Navy) the fancier they get the less weight they actually carry, like this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._Navy_Information_Dominance_Corps.

  • ArcticWarrior You know I thought the same thing and then it grew on me.  If it was good enough for our nation’s original paratroopers it should be good enough for their descendants.  
    When one considers we copied wearing maroon berets from the Brits I think we have a history as rich as out allies.  It goes back to a fundamental sense of insecurity we have being such a relatively young nation.  We have a habit of copying French, Prussian and British military style especially when they were considered the standard that the world wanted to reach.
    If I were king for a day the Rangers would wear the style of beret Rodger’s Rangers wore and paratroopers would wear the service cap with the paraglider patch.  SF has more lineage to the 1st SSF than the green beret but I could bend on that one since the green beret has become a misnomer for SF.

    Bottom line is we have a very rich military history that we tend to de-emphasize when we copy other nation’s styles and traditions.

  • ArcticWarrior

    Rod when I asked awhile back if you had ever heard of the Commander at the 18th Corp way back in the day who wore a 6 shooter – it was the aforementioned MG Hank “The Gunfighter” Emerson. Heard from an old SGM about him … quite the personality I was told….

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/74615773@N00/194421799/

  • One area I disagree with the author is the utility of the badge and the time/resources devoted to it.  Air Assault operations of the mid 70’s were less complicated because of the Huey’s limitations and very limited use of the Chinook.  
    Units can train these techniques but they often get watered down over time or centralized in specific personnel (usually the leaders) which isn’t good when units lose personnel.  Specific unit training suffers over time because you have to rely on unit leadership to hold/maintain standards and leaders change over time as well as their priorities.  A great example is machine gun training in Infantry units.  Some units run BN level schools to teach the skills necessary to employ medium machine guns to their full effect.  Other units don’t even have two man teams and NEVER use a tripod. Why?  The leaders!

    Also since the 70’s Infantry units have had to deal with more types of helicopters and a lot more equipment.  EG. in the 70’s an Infantry unit only had to worry about Chinooks hauling heavy loads and that expertise was focused in the support platoon of the logistics section.  Now units work with Blackhawks and Chinooks and have to sling pallets, gators, atvs & HMMWVs/trailers routinely.  There’s easily enough material to justify a two week course to teach the multitude of slingloading a modern division conducts as well as setting up/running LZ/PZa, rapelling and fast roping.

    Finally, while Air Assault school isn’t one of the toughest schools it is something units can build some justified esprit around and esprit is never a bad thing.

  • ArcticWarrior

    majrod Its not a hard school but you have to pay attention to the detail. Just like Pathfinder school knowing the myriad of sling sets, spacers and sling load theory is the real meat and potatos.

  • ArcticWarrior

    I guess what’s missing is how the 101st became Air Assault over the 1st Cav who was Airmobile during Vietnam – for the non Army types think “We were Soldiers” (both a great book and movie – if you don’t tear up at the ending scene at the wall looking at the 7th’s names you need your man card pulled). I know 1st Cav transitioned to a type of cold war capability but never understood the hows and whys and I guess politics.

    The very concept of Airmobile was very forward thinking, so much so that its the norm.

  • Luddite4Change

    ArcticWarrior
    Politics, as well as expediency, no doubt played a part.  The Army needed more heavy units for Europe, and it just made more sense to send the 1st Cav back to its historic home in Texas and convert.

    Being and old 1st Team Trooper, I’d had the opportunity to talk with senior NCO and Officer who went through the transition from Vietnam Airmobile to Tank and Mech Infantry.  The 11B who found themselves now M48 and M60 tankers in the VOLAR were not overly enthused.  As a method of raising esprit across the board the Army leadership instituted some fairly progressive uniform modifications.  Some, like the final version of the Air Assault Badge, stuck and became uniform across the force while others (think multi-colored berets for each branch/unit) were not adopted.

  • YankeePapa

    .
    …When the first jump wings were designed for the Army, the one restriction up front was that the wings could not be straight… like pilots wings.  The story of all of this is interesting, and the name of a General named Yarborough keeps coming up.
    .      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_P._Yarborough
    …Of course, the glider troops, for a long time… got no special pay… As one of their songs said “And the pay is exactly the same…”  Lot of brave soldiers died in bad glider landings.
    .
    …Jump boots of course looked far sexier than leggings and the later “flap top” boots.  Some senior officers started wearing them… Lads couldn’t do anything about that, but when rear area types started “intercepting” shipments in WWII and wearing them in rear areas… they learned that it could be a mistake… Local command might not say anything, but paratroopers on pass certainly had something to say…
    .
    …There was a brief TV series called “The Saga of Western Man…”  in the 1960s.  One program about a missionary in the Pacific…  another called “Custer to the Little Big Horn…” and the third was about the Air Cavalry Division that had recently deployed to RVN.  Showed them still jump training as many men as possible in the early days in RVN…

    .
    …My step-brother Jimmy was with the 101st Airborne in RVN in 1969 after it was designated Airmobile.  I was elsewhere in RVN… Jimmy wasn’t good about writing long or frequent letters to the folks.  I got a letter from my mother asking about his return address which included “101st Airborne Division (AMBL)” as I recall.  She was asking me if Jimmy had tranferred to an ambulance unit… …
    .
    …When the Airmobile got ready to deploy to RVN there had been some switching of colors and they became the 1st Cavalry Division…  After the return of the 1st Air Cav to CONUS it seems that the Army started mucking with the unit… even trying to turn it into something called a “TriCap” Division… 
    .
    …As to insignia… I am reminded of reading about Ranger School in the 1950s… account by young officer who was an instructor there.  It seems that at one point a new C.O. appointed by the Pentagon.  Not Ranger qualified, nor was his aide…  He solved that problem on day one.  He handed a Ranger patch to his aide, who then handed one to him.  Glad they got that problem out of the way… … … The young officer immediately requested a transfer…  
    .
    -YP-

  • YankeePapa Yes, I’ve read about many a fight back in the day over someone wearing jump boots that wasn’t authorized and even in the 80’s it was very frowned upon.

    The boot itself while being very sharp looking is not the best boot.  I learned that the hard way.  When I went to the field leg boots and jungle boots were MUCH better for walking.  I didn’t even like to jump in them.  I felt the ankle support was better in the other boots I mentioned.

  • ArcticWarrior

    majrod YankeePapa Corcs looked good spit shined with your Class A’s and beret, otherwise that big blocky toe and lack of low ankle support were a no go. Jungle boots, you could walk in those all day long. I preferred my issue blacks for jumping if a lack of humping was involved.

    Todays hybrid civie hiker/mil spec boots are far and away better but the jungle boot ruled for a long time.

    When we flagged 25th ID, 4th BCT was ABN, so in the beginning many people questioned the beret with the chili pepper, being clueless of what USARAK was comprised of. That nearly started a few fights.

    Nothing beats the look of Corcs and a M1942 jumper, makes you want to get a Mohawk…..

  • YankeePapa

    majrod YankeePapa,
    .
    …In the BSAP in Africa, choice of boots for anti-terr duty up to the patrol officers.  There was a special unit referred to as the “black boots” … Special Support Unit… But everybody else did their own thing.
    .
    …One lad that was with us had WWII type wrap straps attached to his “riot” boots… They weighed a ton, but he was an Afrikaner kid who was built like Frankenstein’s monster.
    .
    …I went with very lightweight desert boots.  Each pair lasted only a few patrols but they were extremely comfortable.  After seconding I had to wear more something more substantial. 

    .
    …The commanding officer of the 1st Special Service Force in training in 1942 was extremely busy and at last found time to schedule the jumps to qualify him.  It is worth noting that he jumped every time in house slippers… … …
    .
    -YP-

  • ArcticWarrior

    Anyone follow the link for Bloodworths article and the helo crash he describes????
    Showed a retired (68-93) Infantry SgtMaj the above article at work, he was down with it. Told me to ask about the old nuclear capable Division of the cold war with the theatre nukes.

  • Pro Deo et Patria

    This fable has circulated the internet for years and was probably written by a disgruntled pseudo military wannabe!  I have a factual difference of opinion that I will share with all of the real veterans.  Let me start with Basic Airborne School at least as it existed in the 1980’s.  There are several different categories at airborne school, Officers and Cadets being two who are extended special treatment in the abundance of slots available to those without an airborne assignment. It is almost impossible for a junior enlisted to obtain an airborne slot an become a “five-jump-chump”. Air Assault School at least as it existed in the 1970’s was way more intense, the first Day is not Day One but Day Zero that tells you something!  This fable also contains the myth of what he calls the A,B, and C courses at Air Assault School which I can tell you unequivocally do not exist.  A recent graduation from Air Assault School at Ft Bragg had 74 students on Day Zero and 64 on Day One the class finally graduated 34 Air Assault qualified personnel.  That is a graduation rate of 45%!  Having attended both schools I am proud of my jump wings but I earned the Bullwinkle ones.

  • Pro Deo et Patria Did you go to Air Assault School in the 70’s?  I went to Air Assault school in ’86 at Campbell.  Zero day consisted of the obstacle course and a two mile run at an eight minute pace, not exceptionally hard.  There was only one course then but even then there was a lot of discussion of how the course used to be.
    I don’t think it’s unrealistic to believe there were “gentlemen courses” back in the day.  There are many historic examples of leaders attending short courses.  Heck, I understand the commander of the Special Service Force made his five jumps in one day supposedly in slippers.  🙂

  • YankeePapa

    majrod Pro Deo et Patria,
    .
    “…supposedly in slippers…”
    .
    …House slippers… Detailed in (Warning, Book Acquisition Alert) “The Devil’s Brigade” (history… not the Hollywood film…)
    .
    http://www.amazon.com/Devils-Brigade-Robert-Aldeman/dp/1591140048
    .
    -YP-

  • RobertLWebster

    ArcticWarrior  Interesting since LTG Emerson was the Corps Commander when I got to the 82nd. Another item, The wings in discussion happens to be the second version of the Air Assault Badge. And for those of you speaking about LTG Yarborough, let’s also just say that I knew him personally, he was my sponsor for membership in The Company of Military Historians.

  • Robert Williams

    This is a very interesting discussion. I served with the 2/502 Strike Force in Vietnam during 68 & 69 as a squad leader. I did all of those things and more and didn’t draw jump pay. Maybe I should ask for pro-rated pay for that period and maybe it would be acceptable for all of us that had served in the field with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam to be awarded the Air Assault badge. I personally served with CSM Walter M. Sabalauski as he was my Sargent Major in the 2/502 during that period. The Air Assault School was named in honor of CSM Sabalauski. I knew him very well

  • PETE SHEA

    I enjoyed your article because I was in the 1/503 at that time. You forgot the blue beret they went to for the whole post. Other then that you were spot on .

  • Michael Cox

    I’m retired with 6 years active and 14 in the National Guard. I’m also a Vietnam Veteran 68 – 71 of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. My 2nd 3 years of Active Duty was 80 – 83. I served in the 101st and went to Air Assault School and Graduated in 81. Like any Badge in the military you have to go to the school to earn the Badge. I did just that to be awarded Air Assault Wings. VERY FEW VIETNAM VETS HAVE THESE WINGS. Regardless what you did in Vietnam does NOT give anyone the right to wear any wings as a GIVE ME AWARD !!! I had to earn them like my Parachute Wings and my CIB.