The Role of the 101st Airborne in World War 2: What They Did

The 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army played major roles in World War II. As a matter of fact, I would be willing to say that I believe the outcome would have been quite different if not for the 101st.

This was part of General Order #5 read by Major General William Lee:

The history we shall make, the record of high achievement we hope to write in the annals of the American Army and the American people, depends wholly and completely on the men of this division. Each individual, each officer and each enlisted man, must therefore regard himself as a necessary part of a complex and powerful instrument for the overcoming of the enemies of the nation. Each, in his own job, must realize that he is not only a means, but an indispensable means for obtaining the goal of victory. It is, therefore, not too much to say that the future itself, in whose molding we expect to have our share, is in the hands of the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division.”

In today’s post, I am going to explain the role of the 101st Airborne in World War 2, and what they did.


The first important role came in the early morning hours before the invasion of Normandy we know as D-Day. The 101st Airborne were tasked with dropping in behind enemy lines and securing several areas. Approximately 6,600 101st Airborne soldiers were loaded onto C-47 transport aircraft with 60+ pounds of gear attached to them.

They were to be dropped in several important zones to help prepare for the invasion of troops via the beaches.


The pathfinders were the first to go in. These were gliders that operated under the 101st. Many of them crashed.

The Missions

Drops were made inland from Utah Beach. Many drops did not go as planned because of fog and anti-aircraft fire. Certain Airborne soldiers were tasked with anchoring the Southern flank. They were to eliminate the German secondary beach defenses which would allow the 4th Infantry Division the ability to move inland once they had reached shore.

Other Screaming Eagles were to capture bridges that ran behind the beach. Others were tasked with capturing the la Barquette Lock and to destroy a bridge West and North of Carentan, along with a railroad bridge.

Even with the bad drops, men from the 101st proceeded with their missions. They secured beach exits and contacted the 4th Infantry Division. They captured and controlled the la Barquette Lock. They were not able to secure the river crossings because of heavy enemy fire.

Elements of the 101st were ordered to capture and secure the town of Carentan, which they were able to do.

Throughout this whole operation, the 101st suffered heavy losses, but they showed total resolve and a willing to win at all costs.

They were put to their first test, and they showed that they could get the job done. They were given time to replace equipment and personnel, and then the next mission was given.

Operation Market Garden

In September of 1944, the plan was to take control of Highway 69 running completely through the Netherlands. The 101st Airborne Division became a part of XVIII Airborne Corps, with Major General Matthew Ridgway as Commander. This was to be an allied operation under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.

The plan was for airborne divisions to capture and hold bridges all along this passage to allow British armored units easy access all the way into Northern Germany.

For the most part, the 101st Airborne and 82nd Airborne Divisions performed to their top level. They managed to secure most of the bridges they were tasked with, but the Son bridge was destroyed by the Germans. A Bailey Bridge was constructed so the armor could pass, but German resistance was high.

While the operation was a failure, the 101st performed to utmost standards.

Battle of the Bulge

The Germans had a plan to capture the complete Ardennes Forest located in Belgium and France. The allied forces could not allow that to happen. The 101st Airborne was ordered to defend the town of and area of Bastogne. Since the Commander, Major General Taylor was on leave State-side, Brigadier General McAuliffe was acting Commander. Making the long trip to Bastogne, the 101st prepared for intense fighting, which happened.

The Germans completely surrounded the area and cut off the 101st from all. The fighting was hard and the Germans offered the 101st the opportunity to surrender. This is when BG McAuliffe issued a famous answer to the Germans, “Nuts!”

The 101st held and finally, the 4th Armored Division and the 3rd Army broke through and drove the Germans into a retreat mode.

For their actions at Bastogne, the 101st Airborne Division was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation.

Ruhr Pocket

For a short time, members of the 101st were sent to what was known as the Ruhr Pocket in Germany. There was several German units still holding out in this area and they were tasked with killing or capturing them. In a short time, allied forces had nearly eliminated all German resistance.

To Hitler’s Retreat

The 101st was sent to Berchtesgaden. This is where Hitler’s vacation retreat was located. They captured key figures of the Nazi regime.

101st Airborne World War II Statistics

There are some amazing statistics attributed with the 101st Airborne in World War II. Just consider:

  • 2,043 Screaming Eagles Killed In Action

  • 1,193 Screaming Eagles Missing In Action

  • 336 Screaming Eagles were POWs

  • The 101st were responsible for capturing 29,527 enemy soldiers

Screaming Eagle Awards

  • 2 Medals of Honor

  • 47 Distinguished Service Crosses

  • 516 Silver Stars

  • and nearly 7,000 Bronze Stars

Final Thoughts

I will reiterate, I do believe the outcome of World War II would have been extremely different if the 101st Airborne would not had played their role in the War.

These soldiers stood strong in all missions they were tasked with. We owe them our gratitude.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any friends or family members who served with this Division during World War II?

Please post all comments or questions below. Thank you.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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