By S.L. Fuller | November 10, 2017
There is something special about the members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. “Aura” might be the wrong word, but there’s a reputation that precedes the Screaming Eagles, upheld by the soldiers that are, and have been, part of the division. It’s been this way for decades, since its activation in 1942. This year, the 101st turns 75 years old.
From the time when the 101st parachuted into Normandy during World War II, to recent operations in the Middle East, to relief efforts in Puerto Rico after the hurricane and beyond, the 101st has set a standard in Army aviation. It is the force’s largest aviation division, based out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which serves as a projection platform and training and development center for 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) and houses others. Retired brigade commander Col. Jimmy Blackmon served with the 101st from 2003 to 2015. He joined the Army around the time of the height of tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the 101st was the pinnacle for an aviator.
“From the day I showed up at Fort Rucker, Alabama — if you wanted to be an aviator and you wanted to jump into the big pond where the best aviators went, everybody just said, ‘Well, that’s the 101st, of course,’” Blackmon told R&WI. “Everybody there said, ‘The best go to the 101st.’”
The 101st has more aviation than anywhere else in the Army, he explained, and as an air assault division, the focus is on the helicopter. Blackmon was a Bell Helicopter OH-58 Kiowa pilot. The 101st, he continued, was also the first in the Army to receive new aviation equipment and prove tactics, techniques and procedures. According to Blackmon, it had been that way since the Vietnam War, when during the “pioneer days,” he said, soldiers learned on the fly.
“If you want to know how to do helicopter operations in the Army, you pick up the phone and you call the 101st and they’ll send you something,” Blackmon said. “They’ve tried it; they’ve worked through it. No one even questioned that when I was young.”
When Greg “Turbo” Turberville, retired chief warrant officer 5 (CW5) and aviator, joined the 101st, some of the those “pioneers” from Vietnam were still serving. And even before he was assigned to the 101st in 1986, it was a Vietnam-era helicopter that inspired him to fly helicopters in the military. One day by chance, he happened to see a Bell Cobra fly by. Turberville said he didn’t know what the aircraft was at the time, but was enamored by it and did some research. After that, it was settled: He wanted to fly attack helicopters with the Army. The process of getting assigned to the 101st took some time. But when he was assigned, it turned out to be great timing.
“What was, in hindsight, good for me was there were still post-Vietnam characters in that unit,” Turberville told R&WI, “as well as the new crop, including myself and recruits. So it was a mix — a blend of old with new and experience with new. It was both of those things, and that created the environment.”
Those who had fought in Vietnam were an inspiration to Turberville, he said. The experiences they had were wisdom for him. There’s a difference, he explained, in learning about things on paper and from hearing stories, as opposed to having been in the fight.
Not too long into Turberville’s career with the 101st, the Vietnam-era Cobras were swapped out for Boeing Apaches. He served in the 1st of the 101st, known as the “Expect No Mercy” battalion, which Turberville said set the standard for attack aviation with the Apache during the formative years of its initial fielding. In 1992, he said he was assigned to the 3rd of the 101st to help it field the Apache as an instructor pilot.
“The 101st, of course, had a significant role in Desert Shield, Desert Storm with respect to the Apaches being a, I think, significant deterrent to Saddam Hussein continuing south with his invasion of Kuwait into Saudi Arabia,” Turberville said. “Because once we deployed there, they put us up front really early on in that invasion into Kuwait. Just our presence and the capabilities that the Apache brought to the fight — and particularly that aircraft — those systems, that organization, combined with the history of the Screaming Eagle, 101st, out front on the line of departure there. If I was Saddam Hussein or any enemy, I'd think twice before I poked the eagle.”
Blackmon experienced a transition of his own with the 101st as OH-58Ds were retired. In its 75 years of existence, the 101st has changed as technology and warfare have changed.
In 2003, Blackmon said, the Army could no longer use the same techniques it had implemented to fight the Soviet Union. Instead, Iraq presented a counter-insurgency war, which evolved into al-Qaeda and other militant organizations, while a civil war brewed between the Sunni and Shia.
“That order of battle that we had trained for so many years to fight the Soviets didn't work,” Blackmon said.
In fact, he continued, the Army had tried to fight the old way. The 11th Aviation Regiment and an attack battalion from the 1st Calvary Division attempted a deep attack in the early stages of the war. The aim was to take the Apaches deep and destroy the Iraqi Republican Guard, he said. Thirty helicopters went into that attack, and Blackmon said the next day that only one aircraft was flyable.
“It was just horrible,” Blackmon said,” because it wasn’t what we had trained for.”
But the Army learned very quickly, he continued, and transitioned its strategy in the middle of the war. Deep attacks were no longer needed because there was no army to go attack. Counter-insurgency required a different type of fighting. The Army transferred after returning from Iraq in 2004. The 101st’s 4th Brigade “Currahee” was stood up, and the division started task organizing its aviation forces, Blackmon said. Before, for example, Blackmon drove Kiowas in the cavalry squadron while Sikorsky Black Hawks were in assault battalions and general support aviation battalions might have had Boeing Chinooks. But the 101st transitioned, as did the entire Army, and the Screaming Eagles had to decrease its fleet size. But, the reorganization expanded capabilities in the 101st.
“When I later as a battalion commander went to Afghanistan, I had 16 Kiowa helicopters, but I had six Apaches. I had four Chinooks. I had eight Black Hawks. I had three medevac aircraft," he said. "So we task organized so you got a package of aviation instead of these pure battalions like we had always fought and operated.”
From the time when the 101st was training to fight the Soviet Union to fighting on fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan after the new millennium, the division went from implementing big formations and air assaults to using small teams.
The 101st, in recent history, went through another transformation as the U.S. Defense budget underwent sequestration. A brigade that both Blackmon and Turberville had served in — the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade — was shut down. Tuberville was transitioned to the 159th in 2007 as its aviation standardization officer. Blackmon was the 159th's last commander. The two deployed to Afghanistan during their time in that brigade. In the opinion of Blackmon, when the 159th was lost, so was a significant assault capability.
Now, a reconnaissance squadron might have an Apache with a Lockheed Martin modernized target acquisition designation sight (M-TADS) and an unmanned aircraft system. Although Blackmon enthusiastically recognizes that the Apache’s new sight greatly surpasses that of a Kiowa, he feels the aviators’ state of mind has changed. This is something Blackmon has written about as an author. Calverymen in Kiowas would fly without doors. Situational awareness would be heightened, allowing the aviators to notice details and suspicious activity in a way that pilots in an Apache — or a remote pilot — might not.
The 101st also gained capability. The 4th Battalion of the 101st was the first to be equipped with the UH-60M model. The 101st was also the first equipped with the CH-47F model. No longer did the Chinook have an analog cockpit — it transitioned into the digital, all-glass world.
“You can fly that thing looking at just the screens inside the cockpit,” Blackmon said. “It's incredible, the capability.”
But some things didn’t change. Turberville deployed with the 101st four separate times — twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan — over a nearly three-decade timeframe. Between his times with the 101st, he performed other duties with the Army. And every time he left the Screaming Eagles, he hoped to find a way to return. He did three times.
“When I was in the 101st, those first formative years, being a part of that team, experiencing that camaraderie, esprit de corps, being a Screaming Eagle, I took it for normal,” Turberville said. “You don't know where you are until you reflect on it and look at where you've been. And so I didn't know until I left. I was part of and experiencing what the standard of excellence could be or should be perhaps or aspire to be when I was in the 101st.”
He tried to explain the deep-rooted commitment to what the 101st stands for that he, and probably most others, feel. However, it’s not something easily described to those outside the division or outside the military. But the Screaming Eagles colors are something to rally around, Turberville said. It’s a brotherhood, a sisterhood, dating back to the beaches of Normandy and even further back in time. And in it’s 75th year, the intangible aspects that make the 101st Airborne Division so special remain.
“What did not change in my mind is each time I went back, you put that 101st patch on your shoulder and you hold yourself different in public. You thought of yourself different. Maybe not consciously,” Turberville said. “But your confidence was different. So that didn't change for me. In fact it's one of the things that drove me back, the magnetism, to the 101st, was perhaps that. I wanted to feel that within my psyche again — be part of that team.”