This past week I attended the 99th reunion of America’s First Infantry Division, also known as the Big Red One, in Lombard, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.
It was an amazing event with some 400+ gathered to reminisce and honor our Fallen companions. The Big Red One (BRO) is America’s first and oldest Infantry Division, and our museum is located at Cantigny Park on the estate of Colonel McCormick, who was the 37-year-old owner of the Chicago Tribune. McCormick served in the BRO during World War I. The Big Red One can also claim President Teddy Roosevelt’s son, Teddy Jr., as a member of our Division in World War I.
And so it was, 100 years ago, the First Infantry Division was deployed to France conducting combat operations in places that we probably do not teach about – Cantigny, Sosissons, Saint Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne. Frank Buckles was the last American survivor of the “Great War,” so now we can only rely upon museums and history books to remind us of the sacrifices of those who went before us—how they stood against the evil of tyranny, left their families, homes, and businesses to go “over there.” And that was why we gathered at the Westin Hotel in Lombard, Illinois.
We were fortunate to have several World War II veterans of the First Infantry Division at our reunion. I share a little history with two of them, Ray Lambert and Andy Anderson, veterans of the 16th Infantry Regiment. They landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. But long before then, the First Infantry Division fought in the deserts of North Africa. Sadly, they suffered a horrific defeat at a place called Kasserine Pass—but they recovered. The Big Red One left North Africa and landed in Sicily to push the Nazis and the Italian fascists into retreat. After D-Day, the Big Red One pushed across Normandy, liberated Paris, and then was part of the juggernaut heading into Germany. They took part in the infamous Battle of the Bulge, and after that victory, they penetrated Germany and then onto Czechoslovakia where they liberated Nazi concentration camps.
The First Infantry Division did not participate in the Korean War, but it did take its place, along with others, to stand guard during the Cold War. And when needed, the Big Red One answered our nation’s call to service once again, this time in the far away jungles of a place called Vietnam. Never losing a battle they served, never surrendering ground, they did what this nation called them to do. Sadly, the same commitment and dedication they exhibited in those jungles was not replicated at the strategic level, back in the halls of the White House and Pentagon.
And, unlike previous generations of Big Red One combat soldiers, they did not receive the hero’s welcome. That was why all weekend the most popular two words spoken at the reunion were “Welcome Home”—words that still to this day can cause tears to well up in a grown man’s eyes, including mine.
As all things military, my time came to answer my nation’s call, and what an honor it was to do so as a Big Red One soldier. I was assigned to the First Infantry Division in 1988, Ft. Riley, Kansas. I served there as an artillery battery commander and as an infantry fire support officer (FSO). It was in that capacity that I deployed in 1991 to Operation Desert Shield/Storm with the famed and historic 2d Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment “Rangers.” Earlier this year, my former Battalion Commander, COL Fake, lost his battle with cancer, and passed away. We were well-trained and ready to live up to our simple Division motto, “Duty First.” Many prognosticators told us we would suffer massive casualties, and ol’ Saddam told us it would be the “mother of all battles.” Well, it was a 100 hour rout – Big Red One style. And there we were, 2d Brigade “Dagger” of the First Infantry Division, securing an airbase at Safwan – I would return there later in 2003 – for the surrender talks with the Iraqi Army. It was a proud day for me – for us all – when we got the news that we were authorized to sew the famed First Infantry Division patch on our right shoulder, designating our combat service.
Still today, the First Infantry Division serves our nation and honors the motto “Duty First” … in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and now in Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe.
However, this past weekend, as we sat and talked amongst ourselves, we pondered a very astute question: what did we fight for? The concern is that much of what the venerable First Infantry Division stood against now seems to be penetrating our America.
Men who landed on Omaha Beach to fight against National Socialists (Nazis) now live in an America with avowed Democratic Socialists (Demzis). The First Infantry Division once fought against Italian fascism, and now we have these black clad, hooded young people calling themselves Antifa, whose aim is to prevent certain people from exercising their free speech. During the Cold War and Vietnam, the men of the Big Red One stood on guard against the expansion of a communist political ideology, one that now has found a home in America.
Current generations of Big Red One soldiers have taken the battlefield against islamo-fascists, islamists, Islamic jihadists – we allow that belief system to find a home on our shores.
So, what is it that we, the men and women who wear the combat patch of the First Infantry Division, have fought to preserve? Easy, the last great hope of mankind, the place where government of, for and by the people shall reside, never to be erased from history. We fought for our brothers and sisters to our left and right. We fought for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. We took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Even though we see government agencies being turned against the American people and our Constitution being assailed, we know why we fought, and why we will still do so.
Having spent those great three days with the Society of the Big Red One 99th reunion, I am even more committed to our First Infantry Division motto, “No mission too difficult, No sacrifice too great … Duty First.”
March of the First Infantry Division
Toast of the Army, favorite son, Hail to the brave Big Red One,
Always the first to thirst for a fight, No foe shall challenge our right to Victory,
We take the field a grand sight to see, Pride of the Infantry,
Men of a great Division, Courage is our Tradition, Forward the Big Red One.
Allen West is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army. Mr. West is a Senior Fellow at the Media Research Center to support its mission to expose and neutralize liberal media bias.