The nation's crack 82d Airborne Division could conceivably find itself fighting in the streets of Tehran if President Carter decides to use force to free the US hostages held there -- something he recently hinted he might do should economic and diplomatic sanctions fail to pry them free.
"We don't practice landing on buildings and streets, but what's possible in a combat situation is just about anything," declares Maj. Roger Smith, the division's public affairs officer."If necessary we could do it. We're in business to be prepared." Speaking from the division's base at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, Major Smith says that its Initial Ready Company of some 100 to 200 men could be airborne in less than four hours. The entire division, he adds, could be deployed to the Persian Gulf in two weeks.
Many an 82d Airborne trooper eagerly anticipated action in ZAire in May 1978 when the division was placed on alert for the possible evacuation of US citizens from war-torn Shaba Province. The promise of African adventure with the nation's first-line reaction force even brought AWOL troopers scurrying back to barracks in the vast military complex near Fayetteville.
Disappointment was correspondingly keen when the alert was canceled after a few days. "Some of the guys were ticked off," Sgt. 1st Class Mike Mangiameli told this writer at the time. Then attached to the division's public affairs office, he noted: "It's like being on a football team. You practice, practice, practice but you never have a game."
It wasn't the first time that the 82d's sinewy troopers -- all volunteers -- had lounged by their jeeps at adjoining Pope Air Force Base waiting for an airlift that never happened. Put on alert in 1970 when Jordan and Syria came to blows and three years later when the Kremlin proposed using troops to police the Middle East cease-fire, the division's hopes to a little rough stuff in the sun faded in similar fashion as the crises cooled.
But the 82d has not always been cheated of combat. Since its transformation from 82d Infantry Division to 82d Airborne Division in August 1942 at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, it has battled Nazi armies in Italy and France, intervened in a bloody civil war in the Dominican Republic, fought Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units in Vietnam, and acted as constabulary on "civil disturbance missions" in Detroit in 1967 and in Washington four years later.
Although a formidable opponent, the 82d Airborne Division cultivates none of the elitist mystique and reputation for ruthlesness so beloved of French paratroops. "It has none of the swaggering nihilism of the paras," says Roger Beaumont, a noted authority on military elites and an associate professor of history at Texas A & M University.
But like the French paras, 82d Airborne troopers appreciate that much is expected of them. "I realize that a parachutist is not merely a soldier who arrives by parachute to fight," runs the parachutist's creed espoused by the division, "but an elite shocktrooper, and that his country expects him to march further and faster, to fight harder, to be more self-reliant and to soldier better than any other soldier." The work of an anonymous author, it continues in the same vein: "I shall display a higher degree of initiative than is required of the other troops and will fight on to my objective . . . though I be the lone survivor. . . . I belong to the finest fighting unit in the army."
Veterans of the division appear to have great admiration for the men who serve in it today. "The new guys are terrific," enthuses Shirley Gossett, chairman of the General Matthew Ridgway chapter of the 82d Airborne Division Association in Dayton, Ohio. Mr. Gossett, who served as a private in the division's 325th Glider Infantry Regiment and who won a Purple Heart for bravery in Holland in 1944, admits that today's troopers have "twice the training we had."
Numbering 17,000 men and commanded by Maj. Gen. G. S. Meloy, the 82d Airborne prides itself on its ability to move rapidly to any part of the world and come in fighting. The division is braced for action in a wide variety of terrain and climate. It trains in desert warfare at Ft. Bliss, Texas; in jungle warfare at Ft. Sherman at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal; and in ski warfare at Ft. Greely, Alaska. In recent years, the division has participated in joint service exercises in Greece, Turkey, and South Korea. Constant evaluation of the division is conducted by way of alerts, training tests, and field exercises.
While the 82d Airborne Division is supremely capable of parachuting to its objectives (along with its weapons and vehicles), it is also trained in beach assault, river crossing, speed marching, and rappelling down ropes from hovering helicopters. At its nuclear, biological, and chemical training site, the division trains for battle in a contaminated environment, using tear gas to simulate the lethal fumes that Soviet forces are known to possess in massive quantities.
The introduction of new equipment and techniques in recent years has increased the division's ability to deploy to trouble spots. The MC1-1 steerable parachute now used throughout the division gives troopers six to eight miles an hour of forward speed as they descend -- enabling them to home in on smaller drop zones. The parachute used in earlier years often knocked jumpers out with its opening shock. With the MC1-1 there is only a slight tug as the canopy opens. In addition, the parachute is fitted with an anti-inversion net which, a division spokesman insists, virtually eliminates malfunctions.
The ability of Military Airlift Command to drop men from its C-130 transports in all kinds of weather has improved the ability of the 82d Airborne to respond to crises.In addition, the use of parachutes to pull heavy supplies and vehicles from the low-flying transports has enhanced the division's fighting capabilities.
It's all a far cry from Camp Gordon, Ga., where the 82d Infantry Division was activated on Aug. 25, 1917. When it was discovered that the new division included men from every state in the union it was speedily named the "All Americans" and the men issued with red, white, and blue shoulder patches bearing two bulbous back-to-back "A's" which members of the 82d Airborne Division continue to wear on their formal uniform.
Ordered to France in 1918, in division fought in the Meuse-Argonne Forest offensive in September, seeing more consecutive days at the front than any other American division. Two of its men won the Congressional Medal of Honor in France. Corp. Alvin C. York from Pall Mall, Tenn., earned his medal for charging a German machine-gun position on Oct. 8, 1918. The division was inactivated the following year.
Reactivated on March 15, 1942, under the command of Maj. Gen. Omar Bradley, the 82d was designated the army's first airborne division five months later. In 1943 it was dispatched to North Africa from where it took part in the invasion of Sicily, jumping into battle from a fleet of C-47 transports over Gela to seize the high ground behind the beaches.
Even elite units are not immune from disaster: The drop misfired and 2,700 paratroops were scattered along the 60-mile invasion front. The bad weather and inadequately trained aircrews flying a difficult course over the sea at night were blamed for the mishap. A follow-up drop of 2,000 paratroops in 144 C-47s from Tunisian airfields proved even more disastrous. On Sept. 13, 1943, the 82d jumped to the rescue of Anglo-American forces, hard-pressed by German units at Salerno and with the help of the British 7th Armoured Division threw them back, wreaking such havoc that an exasperated German officer is said to have referred to them as "those devils in baggy pants."
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, the 82d along with the 101st Airborne Division (now a helicopter-borne air assault division based at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky) sprang from the skies over Normandy in a prelude to the D-dAy landings. Together the two divisions were to seize the eastern corner of the Cotentin Peninsula.
Again, the 82d was badly scattered on landing. Troopers found themselves 25 miles from the drop zone and the division lost 60 percent of its equipment. Many men, dropped directly over the village of Ste. Mere Eglise were slaughtered as they drifted to earth.
The 82d returned to England to rest after the Normandy campaign but on Sept. 17, 1944, it found itself heading for Holland and a combat drop just south of Nijmwegen as part of Field Marshal Montgomery's "Operation Market Garden" designed to outflank Germany's Siegfried Line, strike into the Reich and end the war in 1944. Success depended on seizing bridges across Maas, Waal, and Lower Rhine so armored units could pour across them.
Landing to discover the Waal bridge in German hands, the 82d's commander, then-Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin ordered a river assault to take it. Against extraordinary odds, men of the division's 504th Regiment, under murderous shell, mortar, and machine-gun fire, paddled across 400 yards of open water in canvas boats to take it.
Later in the year the 82d fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's last desperate gamble to hold avenging Allied armies at bay. Later it made assault crossings of the Rhine and Elbe, receiving the surrender of the German 21st Army -- 145,000 men in all -- at Ludwigslust on May 2, 1945.
The "All Americans" did not face hostile fire again until April 1965 when they were rushed into the Dominican Republic to prevent what was seen as an imminent communist takeover by leftist rebels bent on reinstating ousted President Juan Bosch. In support of right wing forces under Brig. Gen. Elias Wessin y Wessin, troopers, under intense rifle and machinegun fire, cleaned out snipers from Santo Domingo block by block.
Three years later the division's 3rd Brigade was dispatched to Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. After operations in the Hue-Phu Bai area, it was sent south to Saigon, returning to the United States in December 1969.
Outside the division's war memorial museum at Fort Bragg is a glass obelisk encasing bronzed reminders of the toll taken of the division in Vietnam -- a pair of worn jump boots and a steel helmet atop an inverted M-16 rifle. Inscribed beneath are the names of the 187 troopers who were killed there.
What does the future hold for the 82d Airborne Division? There seems little doubt that it will continue to be an extremely useful intervention force. But whether it will shoot its way into Tehran depends on the scale of any military operation the US might conceivably mount against Iran, observes Professor Beaumont.
But not every military observer feels that the 82d Airborne Division would be the most suitable unit to rescue the hostages from Tehran -- if President Carter were to authorize such an appalingly hazardous operation. For "a" really fast, surgical operation," such as would be required to free them, smaller units might be more appropriate, says Professor Beaumont -- units such as the Special Forces , Army Rangers, Recon. Marines, US Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams or the Air Force's 1st Special Operations Wing (successor to its defunct Air Commandos).
The "most far-fetched" mission any one of these units might perform, he exclaims, would be "to try to go into Qom and grab Khomeini and trade him off." If it could be done, he observes, "it would be the performance of the centry." The 82d Airborne Division could well play a diversionary role in such an operation, he adds, suggesting it "might be moved around a little bit" to give Soviet spy satellites "something to look at."
Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, a robust 85-year-old, who commanded the 82d from 1942 to 1944 in Sicily, Italy, and Normandy stresses the division's value as a "weapon of opportunity" and pronounces it "in splendid shape with morale of the highest order." But the general, who succeeded the fired Dougleas MacArthur as supreme commander of United Nations forces in Korea in 1951, has his doubts about dispatching the 82d to Iran.
"There's no question of your being able to get the division there," he says. "The question is can you support it after it gets there. That's the big question mark."
AS far as Gen. James Gavin is concerned, parachuting into Tehran to free the hostages is "out of the question." The division, he says, is "very capable of moving rapidly by air and landing and seizing airfields" but insists that "Tehran is not Entebbe" -- a reference to the daring rescue by Israeli commandos of 103 hostages in an Air France airbus at Uganda's Entebbe airport in July 1976 .
So, can the hostages be extricated from Tehran by military means -- whether by the 82d Airborne Division or another unit?
"That I don't know," declares Professor Beaumont. "It would depend on what the US may have on the shelf that we don't know anything about. Like the business with the Grenzschutzgruppe-9m [the West German border guard commandos] who went to Mogadishu and used special grenades."
It was in October 1977, that the commando unit stormed a hijacked Lufthansa Boeing 737 held at Mogadishu airport in Somalia by a Palestinian group and freed all 87 hostages. The grenades, a non-lethal variety which exploded with considerable detonation and accompanying flash, were used to divert the attention of the terrorists.
Reflecting on the seemingly interminable hostage crisis, Professor Beaumont declares: "This is the biggest victory that terrorism has had since this terrorist nexus began to operate. Just dealing with them is a victory: They've had the limelight for over 150 days. It may be worth playing some big cards and taking some chances in order to not only end it, but end it with such a clear-cut, heavy price being paid by the perpetrators that it'll throw cold water on whoever else is getting excited about this."
The "devils in baggy pants" would almost certainly like to exact that price. Only time will tell whether they will get an opportunity to do so. The 82d's hardware Troopers of the 82d Airborne Division are armed with fully automatic M-161A rifles and such platoon weapons as the M-60 light machinegun, M-203 grenade-launcher, and rocket-firing light anti-tank weapon.
The division also fields an impressive array of heavy weaponry. The heaviest of these is the Sheridan armored reconnaissance vehicle equipped with a 152mm gun that doubles as a launcher for its Shillelagh missiles. Lightweight and air transportable, the Sheridan is noted for its excellent cross-country mobility. Additional strike-power is provided by Huey-Cobra helicopter gunships, carrying a mixture of machineguns, cannons, rockets, and missiles.
Each of the division's three brigades is supported by an artillery battalion armed with light, airdroppable 105mm howitzers. Vulcan 20 mm anti-aircraft guns , six-barrelled weapons mounted on towed trailers that can fire 3,000 rounds a minute, and Redeye shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles provide air defense for the division.