Formed in 1920, the 45th Infantry Division was a part of the Oklahoma Army National Guard. While it began in obscurity, the “Thunderbirds” soon made an impact on American history becoming one of the first National Guard units called up following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
From there, the 45th participated in many of the major campaigns in the European Theater of Operations during World War Two including Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, and the capture of Rome. After the initial invasion in Normandy, France, the 45th landed in the country as a part of Operation Dragoon. While everyone did their part in World War Two, the 45th Division became members of a roll call of honor so distinguishing themselves in combat, that nine of its members received the Medal of Honor in World War Two. This award, this honor, is only given as a result of the uncommon valor that the members of the “Thunderbirds” displayed time after time. In fact, their combat heroism is equal to their liberating heroism as the 45th unintentionally became a liberating force for the persecuted of the Third Reich.
As the “Thunderbirds” approached Munich, Germany, they spotted an odd building complex surrounded by a concrete wall and barbed wire. They could see numerous apartment-like buildings as well as several with smokestacks. As they got closer, they observed a foreboding gate with this above it, “Arbeit macht frei”(Work shall make you free). They opened the gate and inside were thousands of Nazi prisoners, mostly Jews, who had been held there for years. Upon inquiring of the people inside, the “Thunderbirds” discovered that this was Dachau, the first German concentration camp. It was built in 1933 as a prison for Nazi “enemies”, which included Jews. Dachau operated until the day the 45th liberated the location April 29, 1945. The horrors the Division observed there were beyond anything imaginable. It was a memory these men would carry with them for the rest of their lives. However, despite the extreme evil observed in the camp, the 45th became angels of mercy and at once began distributing medical and nutritional care to the survivors of Dachau saving countless lives that would have otherwise been snuffed out.
After the surrender of Germany May 8, 1945, the 45th Infantry Division would continue to move “always forward” wherever its country would send it.