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America’s Elite Troops in World War II

The Airborne

Converted for the Web from “Beyond Valor: World War II’s Ranger and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat” by Patrick K. O’Donnell

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The largest elite unit was the airborne. The first practical plans for employing parachute troops in combat were conceived in the waning months of World War I by a U.S. aviation pioneer, Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell. Mitchell proposed outfitting troops of the 1st Division with a large number of machine guns and parachuting them behind the lines on the German-held fortress city of Metz. A ground attack would be coordinated with the paratrooper assault, known as a “vertical envelopment.” But the war ended before Mitchell’s innovative plans could be tried.

After the war, the concept of vertical envelopment was neglected in the United States. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, pushed ahead with large-scale airborne exercises in the 1930s. Germany took notice of the Soviet exercises and began building its own airborne program, made up of paratroopers and infantry that would ride in gliders.

With the outbreak of war, the Germans successfully used paratroopers to seize critical military objectives in Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium, where a small band of paratroopers and glidermen seized Fort Eben Emael, which many had considered impregnable.

These victories spurred the creation of the U.S. airborne program, and a fifty-man test platoon was formed on June 25, 1940. On August 16, Lieutenant William Ryder became the first member of the test platoon to make a parachute jump. In one demonstration jump, the famous airborne phrase “Geronimo!” was born when Private Aubrey Eberhardt yelled it after exiting the plane.

Over the next few months, parachute tactics and techniques were developed and techniques borrowed from Germany and Russia. The fledgling program expanded as volunteers formed the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion. A special élan was part of a program that stressed the role of the individual and the necessity that he be capable of fighting against any opposition. As the parachute program evolved, men were taught that they were the best, a lesson reinforced by rigorous training that had a high washout rate. Beyond the rhetoric, the troops began demonstrating their worth by smashing previous army training records.

Parachute training culminated with the individual completing five parachute jumps. The successful trooper earned the right to wear a pair of small silver jump wings designed by a young airborne officer, William Yarborough. Special leather jump boots and jump suits were also issued to paratroopers. An unofficial ceremony known as the Prop Blast, in which new paratrooper officers drank a secret concoction and toasted their success, marked the completion of airborne training. The recipe was then encoded into an old M-94 signal-encrypting device with “Geronimo” as the key word. The Prop Blast survives today.

The U.S. airborne program remained relatively small until a pivotal German airborne operation in May 1941, when the Germans captured the British-held island of Crete in the largest German airborne operation ever. Losses were enormous and Hitler was persuaded never again to launch a major airborne operation. Not privy to the magnitude of German losses, however, the U.S. command looked at Crete as a success and began building up its airborne.

The buildup was led by General George C. Marshall, who foresaw large-scale American airborne operations. A Provisional Parachute Group was created along with three new battalions. After the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into the war in December 1941, six new airborne regiments, consisting of roughly two thousand paratroopers, were authorized, and most of the men were handpicked.

The first division to be activated was the 82nd, at eight thousand men about half the size of a normal army division. A cadre of men from the 82nd later was set aside for the formation of the 101st Airborne Division. The army would create three other airborne divisions, the 11th, 13th, and 17th, plus several independent battalions and regiments, such as the 509th, 517th, 550th, and 551st. The units serving in Europe eventually became part of the First Allied Airborne Army, formed in the summer of 1944.

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Copyright © 2001 by Patrick K. O’Donnell. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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