In 1924, the 45th Infantry Division was formed from Army National Guard units from around the southwestern United States to include Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. The unit was mainly inactive until it was mobilized for active duty in World War II in 1940.
They were nicknamed the "Thunderbird" division because the division’s insignia was a gold thunderbird on a red square. The thunderbird is a symbol of southwestern Native Americans meaning sacred bearer of unlimited happiness. The colors, red and gold, and the four sides of the patch, represent the four states which were originally settled by Spain.
The original 45th Infantry Division insignia was, ironically enough, the swastika until 1933. As the Nazis took control in Germany, the swastika insignia was dropped and eventually it was replaced by the thunderbird symbol in 1939. The swastika, before it was bastardized by the Nazis, was a symbol of harmony and happiness found in the native cultures of the western United States.
Deployment to WWII
The 45th Infantry Division was sent to North Africa in 1943. In July 1943, the 45th Infantry Division landed in Sicily and fought across Italy, landing in Anzio in the summer of 1944, fighting its way up to southern France. By the end of 1944, the 45th Infantry Division had reached the German border and in March 1945, the 45th Infantry Division crossed the Rhine River and in April captured two key German cities.
In April 1945, the 45th Infantry Division was one of three U.S. Army units sent to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. Upon arrival, the Thunderbird division discovered more than 30,0000 prisoners in the camp and thousands dead or dying. On a train at the camp, consisting of approximately 50 train boxcars, roughly 100 prisoners were jammed into each boxcar. The majority of those in the boxcars were dead.
45th Infantry Division officers reported later that they discovered crematoriums, a gas chamber and holding cells with corpses piled to the ceiling. The 45th Infantry Division would later be recognized as a liberating unit by the Army’s Center of Military History.
Although battle-hardened, many of the 45th Infantry Division’s soldiers were traumatized by what they saw at Dachau and some were accused of war crimes because they executed Nazi prison guards at the camp. A few of the soldiers from the 45th Infantry Division were so overcome by the atrocities they witnessed while liberating the camp that they could not restrain themselves. The the killings were known as the Dachau reprisals. There were court martials and convictions, including some proceedings for executions conducted against Italian military personnel prior to the arrival of the 45th Infantry Division at Dachau.
More than 124,000 Axis soldiers were taken prisoners by the 45th Infantry Division according to the U.S. Army. In all, the 45th Infantry Division spent more than 500 days in combat in World War II. Over the course of WWII, the 45th Infantry Division had 1,510 soldiers killed in action, 7,246 wounded in action, 1,436 missing in action, 266 were captured, and nine Medals of Honor, 61 Distinguished Service Crosses, 1,848 Silver Stars and 5,744 Bronze Star Medals were awarded to soldiers of the 45th Infantry Division during its WWII service. The 45th Infantry Division also earned eight campaign streamers.
Inactivation and Deployment to Korea
In December 1945, the 45th Infantry Division was inactivated and months later in 1946, the unit was reconstituted as an Army National Guard unit. At this time, the unit was solely comprised of units from Oklahoma and it became a part of the Oklahoma National Guard.
In September 1950, with rising tensions in Korea, the 45th Infantry Division was activated and in December 1951, the 45th Infantry Division was sent to Korea and to the frontlines. During the Korean War the 45th Infantry Division suffered 4,004 casualties; 834 killed in action and 3,170 wounded in action. The division was awarded four campaign streamers and one solider earned the Medal of Honor.
45th Infantry Brigade
In 1968, the 45th Infantry Brigade was formed from existing elements of the 45th Infantry Division and assigned training duties for active-duty army units until 1994 when the 45th was selected as a separate enhanced infantry brigade. In 1999, the brigade deployed two companies as part of the UN peacekeeping force to Bosnia and in 2003, units from the 45th deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, 45th units pushed through Baghdad. Later that year, the 45th deployed to Afghanistan to train soldiers of the Afghan National Army. In 2007, the brigade deployed again to Iraq to assist in handing over U.S. bases to Iraqi forces. In 2011, the brigade deployed once again to Afghanistan and it performed full-spectrum operations for the first time since the 1950s when it was a division.
The 45th Infantry Brigade is a part of the Oklahoma Army National Guard.