Airborne in Europe, Part One
American experiments with parachute troops went back to the 1920’s, when the flamboyant Billy Mitchell dropped six parachutists from a bomber in a publicity stunt. Serious study of airborne troops had to wait until April 1940, when, inspired by Red Army maneuvers, the U.S. Army authorized a “test platoon” of jumpers.
For the next several months, bureaucratic warfare raged as the Army Air Corps and the Infantry Board battled over which branch would control the new troops, initially called Air Infantry (the Army Air Corps preferred “Air Grenadiers,” which would have given us a fine game title seven decades later). But the Infantry prevailed, thanks in large part to Col. William C. Lee’s energetic lobbying of President Franklin Roosevelt.
Allowed to form a test platoon in June, Lee drew the new troops from the 29th Infantry Regiment, an independent regiment stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. The 29th served as the Army Infantry School’s Demonstration Regiment, the U.S. Army’s equivalent to the German Army’s “Lehr” units and, like the German units, its men considered themselves elite. To command the tiny force he appointed a fresh West Point grad, Lt. William T. Ryder.
Leaping out of perfectly good airplanes seemed a logical mission for a demonstration unit, and 200 men agreed to do so. Ryder and his Assistant Platoon leader, Lt. James A. Bassett, picked the 48 men they considered the toughest and healthiest. The two lieutenants took their new 1st Airborne Test Platoon to New Jersey, where a set of 250-foot parachute towers featured in the just-concluded New York World’s Fair were made available for training. The new troopers jumped off repeatedly, and found that their chutes would open as promised. Pleased with the results, the Army bought all four towers and moved them to Fort Benning, where three of them still remain.
Paratroopers descend on the Netherlands, September 1944.
Back in Georgia, the test platoon kept jumping off the towers, and also jumped off moving trucks. Finally, in August they were deemed ready to jump out of airplanes. Ryder went first, and by the end of the month the whole platoon was jumping in unison. The test platoon was declared a success, and by the end of August it had been expanded into the new 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion; again, most of the troops came from the 29th Infantry Regiment. Training continued, with Private Aubrey Eberhardt starting a tradition by screaming “Geronimo!” as he leaped out of an airplane, to prove he wasn’t too scared to speak.
The 501st having proven the concept, three more battalions soon followed, numbered 502nd through 504th. In early 1942, the four battalions were expanded into three regiments (the 501st and 502nd became regiments carrying the same numbers, while the 503rd and 504th combined to form the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment). Even as the new regiments built up their strength, the Army had decided to create entire divisions of paratroopers.
At several points the entire concept came into question, and even once the airborne division earned its place in the American order of battle the mix of parachute and glider-borne elements remained constantly in flux. Airborne units of all sizes often found themselves deployed as elite light infantry, entering combat by conventional means (even including amphibious assaults) and incurring casualties among their jump-trained men who could not quickly be replaced.
While the divisions could be stood up quickly, thanks to their relatively lighter equipment needs, making them combat-ready proved a much longer process than that of an infantry or even an armored division. All told the U.S. Army fielded four airborne divisions plus one division-sized temporary unit in the European theater, and many independent smaller formations. One division (the 11th), an independent regiment (the 503rd) and some smaller units fought the Japanese, as did a small regiment of Marine paratroopers. Two independent regiments and a segregated battalion of black paratroopers never left the United States.
82nd Airborne Division
The first such formation would be a standard infantry division converted into an airborne unit. Formed in 1917 from new draftees, the “All American” Division (containing conscripts from all 48 states, including a highly unwilling conscientious objector from Tennessee named Alvin C. York) saw extensive action on the Western Front, fighting in the Meuse-Argonne and St. Mihiel offensives. Returning to the United States in the spring of 1919, the division quickly demobilized and spent the next two decades as a reserve headquarters.
In March 1942 the 82nd Division re-appeared, as a standard infantry division under the command of Maj. Gen. Omar N. Bradley. To staff his new division, Bradley collected the officers who would eventually be known as the “Airborne Mafia” and shape U.S. Army policy through the 1950’s and 1960’s: Matthew Ridgway, James Gavin and Maxwell Taylor.
Mortarmen of the 82nd’s 504th Parachute Infantry, Sicily 1943.
Conversion to airborne status came in August, with Ridgway now in command. After more training, the division moved to North Africa in early 1943 to prepare for the invasion of Sicily. Taking off from airfields in Tunisia, four battalions dropped behind the Gela beachhead with poor results. A drop two days later by two more battalions suffered terrible casualties from both Axis and Allied anti-aircraft fire. The rest of the division moved to the island by sea, and fought for about two weeks before returning to training and preparation for the invasion of Italy.
The near-disaster in Sicily almost ended the airborne experiment, with both Dwight Eisenhower and Leslie McNair (commander of Army Ground Forces) openly questioning the purpose of the airborne division. Under McNair’s observation, the 17th and 11th Airborne divisions carried out a complicated set of maneuvers in North Carolina. With McNair’s approval, new operations were allowed to go forward.
The 82nd landed its two parachute regiments at Salerno in a pair of daring night drops, providing crucial reinforcements. The glider troops came ashore in landing craft, and the division fought in the Salerno beachhead, with one regiment also fighting at Anzio in early 1944.
Withdrawn to England and reinforced by two new parachute infantry regiments, the 82nd Airborne jumped into Normandy in June 1944. That began 33 days of intense ground combat that cost the division over 6,300 casualties, over half the division’s combat strength and the worst losses suffered by any Allied airborne division. Rebuilt in England, the division jumped again in September, 57 miles behind German lines in an attempt to seize bridges across the Rhine and Meuse rivers in the Netherlands. The division took its objectives, and Maj. Julian Cook’s 3rd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment made a daring daylight river crossing to keep the British offensive moving forward. Withdrawn after 56 days of fighting, the division had suffered another 3,800 casualties.
The division had not been fully restored when it was rushed forward to stop the German attack in the Ardennes. Entering combat on 21 December, the paratroopers provided fierce resistance and brought the advance to a halt. Two months of ground combat cost the division 4,700 men. Returning to base to refit and plan an assault on Berlin, the division only entered combat again at the end of March 1945, again in a ground role. When the Germans surrendered in May, the 82nd would be chosen to parade through the ruins of Berlin.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold fears ocean waves.