The 85th Infantry Division was first assembled in August of 1917 at Camp Custer in Michigan and comprised of just the 169th and 170th Infantry brigades and the 160th Field Artillery Brigade. They badges bared the letters “CD” and they were known as “Custer Division” in honor of U.S. Cavalry Commander George Armstrong Custer who was a Michigan native.
After training for a year, the 85th left for England with some of its regiments being shipped off to Russia to support the White Army’s fight against Bolshevik forces during that nation’s civil war. Meanwhile, the remainder of the Division’s men were sent to France and dispersed to support other Allied units fighting German-led armies on the Western Front. Following World War I, also known as the Great War, the 85th Division stayed in Europe to occupy Germany until the final men returned home and the Custer’s Division was disbanded in 1919. A few years later, it was reactivated to serve as army reserves in June of 1921.
On May 15, 1942, the 85th Infantry Division was reactivated to join the United States was now involved in WW II months after the attacks on American forces by Japan and the declaration of war from Germany’s leader Adolf Hitler.
Major General Wade Haislip took command of the Division when it reformed at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. Haislip and his commanders reorganized Custer’s Division from its WWI structure; some regiments merged, others reassigned, and a few phased out. Instead of 2 main infantry brigades, the 85th Division consisted of the 337th, 338th, and 339th Regiments with artillery and other supporting battalions as well. This new Division would be made up thousands of more troops than in the previous world war conflict.
In June, troops arrived at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, for basic infantry training. By next spring, it relocated to Louisiana for large-scale army training then onto Camp Coxcomb in California for desert warfare training by the late summer. In the fall, the men of the 85th were transferred to Fort Dix, NJ, to prepare for their shipment overseas. By this time, Major General John B. Coulter was assigned Commander.
The 85th Division left the United States at Christmas in December 1943 then landed Casablanca in North Africa in early January 1944. Troops received amphibious training at Port aux Poules near Arzew and Oran, Algeria, for all of February into mid-March. By the end of the month, ships carrying men from the Custer Division, left Africa sailing to Italy since it too was a part of the Axis. After porting in Naples, the 85th Division served as part of the II Corps of the U.S. 5th Army under Mark Clark. This followed weeks of intense fighting to take the shores – being the first true attack on the Axis’s homefront. By April, the Division had secured the area then began to march towards the Gustav Line.
In May, it launched a massive attack with regiments ordered to take hills held by the enemy in Castellonorato, Formia, and Itri. After Terracina fell, the road to the Anzio beachhead was pried opened with many American casualties. This was the first major battle these men had fought to date. Weeks passed until The Gustav Line was taken from the enemy and controlled by 85th. After a much needed rest, the Division moved along the highways leading to the nation’s capital, Rome. As the Allied forces began their D-Day Invasion of the beach in Normandy, France, General Coutler entered the eternal city.
Coutler ordered more training for troops to prepare for his next offensive. Soldiers exercised amphibious training and hiking skills which would be critical in the battles to come. They claimed positions along the Arno River as part of the plan to attack the German defenses nestled in the mountains on the Gothic Line. In mid-September, Allied forces broke the Line and moved towards the last Line, known as the Po Line that follows the Po River. For months, soldiers trudged through rainstorms and mud slowly advancing to reach areas to occupy and rest before a full-fledged attack on the Po Line.
In March, the 85th began a major offensive through Lucca and Pistoia into the Po Valley. By this time in 1945, the Allied forces were attacking the Germans on all fronts in Europe and it was taking a toll. The Italian Army had collapsed and the Nazis were now left to defend Italy and Europe by themselves. By April, the Po Line had been passed and enemy resistance was minimal and surrendering was increasing. Custer Division was poised to enter southern Austria when German armies began to surrender with World War II ending on May 7. The Division was located in Belluno where they stayed for the majority of the summer.
In late August, they left Italy sailing for their return to America. Upon their return to ports at Hampton Roads and was soon deactivated at nearby Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia. Some men were discharged while other were held in reserve for several weeks.