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The Big Red One: America’s Legendary 1st Infantry Division from World War I to Desert Storm

by James Scott Wheeler, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2007, $34.95.

Doing justice to the U.S. 1st Infantry Division’s 91-year history in a single volume is a daunting task. James Scott Wheeler manages, however, cramming his 527-page book with activity that conveys more than just the history of a single division. It is a saga of the American soldier, spanning nearly a century, from America’s entry into World War I through the Iraq War. During that period the Army transformed from a loose collection of frontier regiments into a modern force that fought and won two world wars, then struggled through two of America’s most protracted and controversial wars—Vietnam and Iraq. “The Big Red One,” named for the red numeral adorning its shoulder patch, was at the center of those wars, earning more battle honors and amassing more days in combat than any other division in U.S. history.

In a flowing style, reinforced by excellent battle maps and statistical tables, Wheeler unrolls a chronology of the Big Red One’s accomplishments, such as being the first American division to fight in World War I, and its pioneering efforts in the Army’s amphibious warfare doctrine before World War II, which it applied at a steep cost in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. Wheeler magnificently details tales of the Big Red One stopping desperate German counteroffensives in Tunisia, Sicily and the Ardennes and becoming the first American division to take a major city in Germany, on its 11-month march from Normandy to Bohemia.

The Big Red One later provided the foundation on which NATO’s ground defenses would be built, serving as the lone American division in Germany from 1947 to 1951. It was the test case for the Army’s “Gyroscope division and battle group rotation concepts of the 1950s and fought in Vietnam for five years during the 1960s, later returning to its former posts in Germany. In 1990 the 1st Division deployed to the Persian Gulf, where it became one of the spearhead divisions that evicted the Iraqi army from Kuwait. It was to return to Iraq a decade later as part of the coalition force trying to bring peace to that blood-soaked land.

Wheeler’s battle accounts convey the difficulties faced by everyday soldiers but give prominence to the roles played by their officers, a virtual who’s who of respected leaders, from General of the Army George Marshall to Maj. Gen. William DuPuy, as well as some of its most controversial, including Maj. Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen and Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here