Thunder from Heaven: The 17th Airborne Division

Published 7:02 am Friday, July 6, 2018

Last week an obituary came across my desk for one John Calvin Phillips of Austin. He passed away at the age of 93 and, like so many men of his generation, was a World War II veteran.

But what made him stand out in my mind was that, according to the obituary, he served in the 17th Airborne Division during World War II.

As a historian as well as a journalist, I am familiar with the 17th Airborne. With the motto “Thunder from Heaven,” the 17th served in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) from 1944-45. They were known as the “Golden Talons” because of their patch, which featured a black circle with a golden eagle talon in the middle topped with the “airborne” tab.

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But unlike their ETO airborne counterparts, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the 17th is not widely known. Part of that comes from history. While the 82nd and 101st are still active U.S. Army divisions today, the 17th only existed from its activation on April 15, 1943, at Camp Mackall, North Carolina, until its deactivation on Sept. 15, 1945 at Camp Myles Standish, Massachusetts.

Another reason is that the 82nd participated in more combat jumps than any division in World War II, while the 101st has been prominently featured in films like “Saving Private Ryan” and the Home Box Office miniseries “Band of Brothers.”

Led throughout the war by Maj. Gen. William M. Miley, the 17th Airborne spent 1943 and much of 1944 stateside before departing on Aug. 20, 1944, from Boston. The division arrived in England five days later.

From Dec. 23-25, 1944, the division was flown to France via emergency night flights as the Army scrambled to respond to a Dec. 16 surprise attack by German forces in the Ardennes Forest. In the ensuing month-and-a-half long fight, known as the Battle of the Bulge, the 17th Airborne joined other Army divisions in fighting back the German attack, enduring the bitter cold of one of the worst snowstorms the European continent had seen in decades. Some of the worst fighting for the division came on Jan. 5, 1945, at Dead Man’s Ridge, where they drove German forces out of Rechrival and Flamierge in Belgium.

The 17th later led the assault into Germany during Operation Varsity on March 24, 1945, making an airborne assault east of the Rhine River north of Wesel, Germany. The division then captured the city of Diersfordt, where it repulsed vicious German counterattacks. The rest of the division crossed the Rhine River at Wesel on March 31.

After clearing resistance in the Mulheim-Duisburg sector of the Ruhr region, the 17th accepted the formal surrender of Duisburg on April 12, 1945. The division then engaged in military government duties until Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. They were stationed in Essen, Germany, when Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, and returned to the United States on Sept. 15, 1945.

In all, 1,191 Golden Talons were killed, 4,904 were wounded and 191 died from their wounds. The division received three campaign stars (Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace and Central Europe) and had four Medal of Honor recipients, all of whom were killed in action. And, while they are not as well known as the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, their efforts helped hasten the end of the greatest war in history.

So, I give a salute to the Golden Talons of the 17th Airborne Division, Thunder from Heaven!