First in War: World War II
Shortly after war broke out in Europe in September 1939 the U.S. began strengthening its armed forces. By the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the 1st Infantry Division (1 ID)—having now added “infantry” to its title—had grown from 8,000 soldiers in early 1940 to over 20,000 and was trained for war.
Setting the Stage
By 1942, as Axis forces controlled most of Europe and North Africa, 1 ID deployed to North Africa where it participated in its first amphibious assault (Operation Torch) on Algeria in November 1942. From that foothold the division quickly captured Oran, turned east towards Tunisia, and fought powerful German armored divisions. By May 1943 the 1 ID liberated North Africa and prepared for another assault (Operation Husky) on Sicily.
North Africa and the Mediterranean
As you walk through the Mediterranean section of FDM’s WWII gallery learn details about the 1 ID’s first two amphibious assaults and campaign against German Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa and the fight to liberate the island of Sicily. You can follow each 1 ID advance by viewing its movements across North African and onto Sicily on a huge map-board. This section also has dioramas with American, German and French colonial (Moroccan) soldiers as well as weapons and other artifacts related to 1 ID soldiers and their battle-hardened enemy.
Exhibit Highlight: D-Day Theater
Continue into FDM’s D-Day Theater (which is a LCVP—Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel, aka Higgins boat) where you can take a seat and learn about the planning and preparation for the largest amphibious assault in history (Operation Overlord). Walk off the landing craft symbolically replicating what Big Red One soldiers would have faced as they stormed onto Omaha Beach. Once on the beach learn about the deadly opposition they faced from German obstacles, machine guns, and artillery. Learn how landing crafts were scattered, dispersing the division’s platoons and their leaders, causing chaos on the beach.
Learn how under furious fire, soldiers pushed through bodies and debris to reach land. And learn how the Big Red One ultimately won the day. After experiencing this gallery-section you will understand why D-Day was the 1st Infantry Division’s deadliest day of World War II.
Continue your journey by walking through the entryway of a German bunker to discover how 1 ID played a key role in the push through France and liberation of Europe. The division fought through forests, across fields and in cities on its way to the pivotal Battle of the Bulge. View a diorama that includes a real Sherman tank to learn about the division’s bitter cold experience during the Battle of the Bulge. Thereafter, the Big Red One pushed into Nazi Germany, helped destroy the Nazi’s armed forces, and forced their unconditional surrender.
As the war culminated 1 ID soldiers liberated the Falkenau concentration camp in the modern-day Czech Republic. They found an abandoned Nazi slave labor camp with hundreds of starving, sick, dead or dying victims. Visitors can watch chilling footage recorded by Samuel Fuller, a corporal in the 1st Infantry Division, that bares witness to the Nazi atrocities. This film includes graphic content that may not be suitable for all audiences. Once Germany surrendered the 1 ID provided security and support for the Nazi war crime trials in Nuremburg. The division stayed in Germany as an occupying force during the Korean War.
This gallery section will soon interpret the Women’s Army Corps (WACs), the African American 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, Rosie the Riveters, Combat Medics and several other interpretations associated with Americans who contributed to Big Red One successes.