THE CUSTER LEGACY
As the United States prepared to enter World War I, the 85th Infantry Division was being organized at Camp Custer in Michigan, and a nickname was needed. It’s not surprising the Custer Division was chosen as that name. Although many of us remember George Armstrong Custer only for the battle he lost at Little Big Horn to Gall and Crazy Horse, the people of Michigan knew him for his victories instead. He was a Midwestern fighter and a winner.
First, at Bull Run, he was cited for bravery only two months after graduation from West Point. The following spring found him in a balloon 1000 feet above the ground reconnoitering Confederate defenses. His vigor, bravery, and aggressiveness caught the attention of Generals Kearny, Smith, and McClellan, and two years after graduating last in his West Point class, he was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24. His success as a fighter continued through the war as he defeated forces that were four and five times larger than his. In the battle of Yellow Tavern, he defeated the legendary Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart. He led the Civil War’s final cavalry charge as a Division Commander at Appomattox Court House. His legacy is that of a fighter, and the Division, which took his name, kept faith with that tradition.
Although the 85th Division did not fight as a unit in World War I, its regiments campaigned in France and Russia. Custer Division soldiers died at Lorrainet St. Mihiel, Marbache, and in the Meuse-Argonne. In a little-known but fiercely fought campaign against the Bolsheviks in northwest Russia, the 339th Regiment, under Colonel George Stewart, distinguished itself against heavy odds. The contributions of the regiments are represented by the rainbow colored battle streamer which hangs from the Division colors, the blue and red flag which is carried opposite Old Glory and to the left of the Army colors by today’s color guard. The three other battle streamers were earned in some of the fiercest fighting and most severe conditions experienced by American soldiers in World War II. In the Italian campaign, the Division, under Major General John B. Coulter, quickly earned a reputation for stamina and backbone. The 85th Division earned the Rome-Arno battle streamer for smashing the German 94th Infantry Division, cracking the Gustav line, opening the way to the beleaguered Anzio beachhead and leading General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army to the gates of Rome in June of 1944. The North Apennines streamer was earned in September of 1944 for the Division’s breaching of Mount Altuzzo, a key position in the Gustav line. The Po Valley streamer was earned as the Division breached the Gioge Pass and attacked north from the Po River to the German and Austrian borders in the winter and spring of 1945. The Division saw eleven months of combat and defeated some to the best units the Germans had to offer – among them, the Herman Goering Panzer Grenadiers, the 26th Parachute Division, the Lehr Brigade, the 94th Infantry Division, and the 382d Grenadier Division. German Field Marshall Kesselring and American Fifth Army Commander Mark Clark considered the Custermen the elite assault troops in the Italian campaign.
Like their namesake, they were fighters. Four Custermen earned the Medal of Honor in World War II. After World War II, the Custer Division was reactivated as a Reserve element, first as an Infantry Division, then a Basic Training Division, and then as an Armor/Cavalry Training Division. As a Training Division, two of our battalions, the 1st Battalion 335th Regiment (Armor) and the 2d Battalion 353d Regiment (Chemical) were mobilized in January 1991 in support of Operation Desert Storm. The Division was re-designated as a Exercise Division in 1992 and became the first exercise Division to simultaneously conduct simulation and lane training. In 1999 they were reorganized to a Division (Training Support). In 2007 they were reorganized into the Regional Support Group-West. In 2008 they were reorganized into the 85th USAR Support Command continuing the Custer Legacy.