The 83rd Infantry Division was first activated in the fall of 1917, several months after the United States entered World War I. It was deployed to France in 1918.
On June 18, 1944, less than two weeks after the Allied D-Day invasion of western Europe, the "Thunderbolt" division landed on Omaha Beach and began advancing into France. By the end of September, the division had moved into Luxembourg. In late December 1944, the 83rd took part in the Allied effort to stop the German offensive in the Battle of the Bulge. Several months later, it crossed the Rhine and subsequently captured the German city of Halle on April 6, 1945. At war's end, the "Thunderbolt" division had established a bridgehead on the Elbe River.
On April 11, 1945, the 83rd encountered Langenstein, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp. The camp was created in April 1944 to provide concentration camp labor for the German war effort. In its one year of existence, the camp's population greatly expanded from 214 prisoners in April 1944 to about 5,400 in March 1945. The prisoners were detailed to build underground factory installations and to carry out forced labor for Organization Todt.
When the 83rd Infantry arrived in Langenstein, its troops found some 1,100 inmates in very poor physical condition. The unit reported that the prisoners had been forced to work 16 hours a day in nearby mines and that the SS had murdered those prisoners who became too weak to work. Deaths, the division's report continued, reached 500 per month. Upon overrunning the camp, US troops estimated that the newly liberated inmates weighed only 80 pounds each as the result of malnutrition at SS hands. They also estimated that, due to severe physical debilitation, prisoners continued to die at a rate of 25 to 30 persons per day.
To halt the spread of sickness and death, the 83rd ordered the local German mayor to supply the camp with food and water. The unit also requisitioned medical supplies from the US Army's 20th Field Hospital. In addition, the "Thunderbolt" division recovered the camp's documents for use by war crimes investigators.
The 83rd Infantry Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the US Army's Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993.
Casualty figures for the 83rd Infantry Division, European theater of operations:
- Total battle casualties: 15,910
- Total deaths in battle: 3,637
The 83rd Infantry Division received its nickname, the "Thunderbolt" division, after a division-wide contest for a new nickname held in early 1945. The earlier nickname, "Ohio," was based on the division's insignia (which includes the name "Ohio," where the division was raised during World War I). A new nickname was desired to represent the nationwide origins of the division's personnel during World War II.