U.S. Airborne History: WWII <<next>>
Shortly after World War I, General Billy Mitchell proposed that parachuting troops from aircraft into combat could be effective. During the demonstration of his concept at Kelly Field at San Antonio, Texas, six soldiers parachuted from a Martin Bomber, safely landed, and in less than three minutes after exiting the aircraft had their weapons assembled and were ready for action. Though American observers were not sold on the demonstration, Russian and German observers were impressed enough to pursue development of an effective military parachute force. It would be the success of the German spearhead assaults on Holland and Belgium that would drive the U.S. Military to develop this new form of warfare. In April of 1940, the War Department approved plans for the formation of a test platoon of Airborne Infantry to form, equip, and train under the direction and control of the Army's Infantry Board. In June, the Commandant of the Infantry School was directed to organize a test platoon of volunteers from Fort Benning's 29th Infantry Regiment. Later that year, the 2d Infantry Division was directed to conduct the necessary tests to develop reference data and operational procedures for air-transported troops.


Sixty-one years ago, 48 brave volunteer members of the U.S. Army Parachute Test Platoon pioneered a new method of warfare. Their successful jump led to the creation of a mighty force of more than 100,000 paratroopers. Members of this force were assigned to the legendary 11th, 13th, 17th, 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions and numerous other units that fought in every theater during World War II.

The soldiers of the Parachute Test Platoon also forged a unique warrior spirit, a relentless passion for victory, and a reputation that still strikes fear in potential adversaries. Beginning with the first combat jump by the men of the 2d Battalion, 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment, over North Africa in November 1942, airborne and special operations soldiers have made a total of 93 combat jumps. Since World War II, paratroopers have continually distinguished themselves in battle, earning 69 Congressional Medals of Honor and hundreds of other awards for valor.

From the President's Proclamation for National Airborne Day, Aug. 16


The first parachute combat unit to be organized was the 501st Parachute Battalion. It was commanded by Major William M. Miley, later a Major General and Commander of the 17th Airborne Division, and the original test platoon members formed the battalion cadre. The 502d Parachute Infantry Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William C. Lee with men from the 501st as cadre, was activated on 1 July, 1941. Airborne experimentation of another type was initiated on 10 October, 1941 when the Army's first Glider Infantry battalion was activated. This unit was officially designated as the 88th Glider Infantry Battalion and was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Elbridge G. Chapman, Jr. Lieutenant Colonel Chapman later became a Major General and commanded the 13th Airborne Division. Working rapidly in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the Army created a new Airborne Command with two components, the 82d and the 101st Airborne Divisions. The chief architect for subsequent airborne missions was Lt. Col. James M. Gavin, a commander from the 82d Airborne Division. Gavin, a student of the recent European experiences in airborne attack, was also informed by the difficulties experienced during the Louisiana maneuvers. Basically he focused on the need to drop paratroops as a cohesive, concentrated force. With enough airplanes, Gavin argued, a major airborne assault could achieve substantial victories and pave the way for the rapid advance of conventional ground troops. In the process of additional training and maneuvers, the 82d Airborne established a standard jump altitude of six hundred feethigh enough to reduce injuries and low enough to concentrate the jumpers in a compact area as a cohesive fighting force. Using formations of thirty-six to forty-five transports like the C47 (the military version of the DC3), it was possible to insert a battalion in two minutes and drop a regiment in ten minutes. Typically, mission planners picked a jump zone within a few miles of enemy positions where paratroops could seize a key area behind the lines and hold it until Allied forces broke through to meet them. These principles formed the basis for fourteen major airborne assaults by U.S. forces during the Second World War. In addition, numerous smaller actions and reinforcement missions took place in every theater of the war. <<next>>

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