The Last Jump

“It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us, as the confidence of their help.”

Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC)

Johnny Kilroy was frozen at attention with the rest of his platoon.  He was annoyed Bancroft had called the formation and surprised to see the other three platoons in their training company in formation with them.

Tradition held, and the rumors supported, the company would be granted a pass for post privileges for the weekend.  But something else was in the wind and the sense was the company would not be double-timing over to the mess hall.  If they were going to chow, they would not be in formation and straining under full field packs in the hot Georgia sun.

Johnny tried to occupy his mind.  He had to be prepared to handle whatever Bancroft had in store for them.  He gazed out over the landscape as he waited and just took in the vast expanse that was the Parachute School at Fort Benning.

Fort Benning was considered the home of the fledgling United States Army Airborne in the summer of 1942.  Even though the Airborne Command staff under Colonel William C. Lee had moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the action and the heartbeat of the airborne revolved around the Parachute School.  The history of the airborne was short, less than two years old, but everywhere in the training area were signs of powerful and deeply held traditions.  Paratroopers of legendary stature who circulated freely in the day rooms and beer gardens added to the mystical aura of this self-proclaimed invincible fighting force.

In early July of 1940, soon after the fall of France, the United States Army’s Parachute Test Platoon began training.  Formed from a pool of 200 volunteers from the 29th Infantry Regiment stationed at Fort Benning, the forty-eight enlisted men and one officer began the perilous process of experimentation and discovery into the feasibility of mass dropping heavily laden infantrymen into combat behind enemy lines.

The practicability of the theory had to be proven even though the idea was not entirely new.  Leonardo da Vinci designed, drew and described a “tent of linen” parachute in the 1500s.  In 1784 Benjamin Franklin pondered the idea of “ten thousand men descending from the clouds” to cause great mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them.  In October 1918, Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell, chief of American Expeditionary Forces Air Units, wrote a memo to his superior, General John Pershing, suggesting that an armed force be dropped by parachute behind German lines to fortify and hold a position from where the enemy could be attacked from the rear.  The War ended before the idea could be seriously considered but Mitchell has been credited with first suggesting the concept of “vertical envelopment” of an enemy force.

The concept of a Test Platoon had its genesis in an order from Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall in May of 1939.  He had been receiving reports from U.S. consulates in Europe regarding the advanced development of foreign parachute and air-landing infantry units, particularly in Russia and Germany.

Marshall named Major William C. Lee, one of the brightest and most conscientious staff officers in the infantry, to lead the project.  It received a boost from an unexpected source in May of 1940.  The German Wehrmacht attacked France and the Low Countries.  The Fallschrimjager, the German paratroopers, successfully spearheaded the attacks on Holland and Belgium by parachuting and seizing positions behind enemy lines.  The Nazis had been training large-scale airborne forces in Stendal, Germany since 1935.  The Americans were far behind and General Marshall hurriedly placed more emphasis on what he called the “air-infantry project”.

Lee designed a grueling eight-week course covering all phases of parachute activities, a strenuous physical fitness program and rigorous infantry training.  The Test Platoon double-timed everywhere.  Even though future training cycles would be reduced to four weeks, the rigor and high standards established by the Test Platoon were never compromised.

Under the command of Lieutenant William T. Ryder, the Test Platoon moved into a tent city on the heights overlooking Lawson Field adjacent to Fort Benning.  There they began their pioneering adventure into the unknown.  Fundamental procedures were developed, such as the position of the head, eyes, hands and feet when standing in the door ready to jump, body position in the air and landing technique.  After eight weeks they celebrated by performing a mass jump in front of a reviewing stand of VIPs including General Marshall.

By the end of September 1940, the War Department authorized the establishment of two parachute battalions, one army and one marine.  The marine battalion of about 400 men would be named the 1st Parachute Battalion and to avoid confusion the army named its force the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB).

The army sought out one of its finest young officers, Major William M. “Bud” Miley, to command its battalion.  A West Point graduate of the class of 1918, he threw himself into the job with great passion.  The first order of business was to find volunteers to flesh out his command.  Initially, enlisted men had to be unmarried, between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-two, weigh under 185 pounds, and have at least one year in the army.  In addition, the volunteer had to have a letter of recommendation from his CO and the necessary aptitude to enable him to learn map reading skills, demolitions and communications.  While some of these restrictions were relaxed after the United States entered the War, the graduation standards were never compromised.

Fortified by key leaders from the Test Platoon, the 501st PIB finished training in mid January 1941.  The battalion was jump-qualified and the officers and men were a fiercely proud group.  However, there still was no insignia or distinctive uniform to distinguish them from ordinary soldiers.

Miley, realizing the morale implications of this shortcoming, issued orders authorizing his men to wear their jump boots with all uniforms and to tuck the trouser legs into the top of their boots so the entire boot could be seen.  These visible boots, a unique source of great pride to paratroopers, always had a spectacular shine.  He also authorized the distinctive circular patch of a white parachute on a field of infantry blue to be worn on the left side of the garrison cap.

Having no qualification badge for paratroopers, Miley enlisted the creative assistance of Lieutenant William P. Yarborough.  Yarborough created a few designs from which they selected the paratrooper wings.  He had the first set of 350 wings struck by the firm of Bailey, Banks and Biddle of Philadelphia and they were awarded to everyone in the battalion.  Yarborough also designed a functional jump suit with slanted utility pockets so as not to be covered by the parachute harness.  He redesigned the jump boots, making them more streamlined to prevent shroud lines from getting caught in the exterior buckle.  His design reinforced the toe and cut the leading edge of the heel to a forty-five degree angle to prevent troopers from tripping on the metal tie down rings or structural ribs of a plane as they shuffled rearward to the door.  While it was not against regulations for non-paratroopers to wear jump boots, the unwritten law was that only jump-qualified soldiers could wear these boots.  Many a jaw was broken because a paratrooper caught a “straight-leg” soldier sporting unauthorized jump boots.

Having brought his command up to qualifying standards and developed training methods, equipment, customs and the insignia, Major Miley became an instant legend within the burgeoning airborne community.  His battalion was the model for all that would follow.  When the War Department authorized three additional parachute infantry battalions, Miley provided the cadre to lead them.  He recommended a permanent jump school and the Army General Staff authorized the Provisional Parachute Group at Fort Benning in March 1941 to train and qualify paratroopers.

Beads of sweat were forming on Johnny’s face.  He resisted the urge to wipe them off and kept his eyes straight ahead.  He concentrated on what he had been taught about the airborne since being in jump school.

The May 12, 1941 cover of LIFE Magazine sported a grim-faced army parachutist wearing a football helmet.  While it sparked interest and encouraged recruitment among civilians, it did little to accelerate growth and development in the military.  What did get the War Department’s attention on 20 May 1941 was the German attack and capture of Crete.

Hitler authorized 25,000 troops for the mission, 13,000 of which were Fallschrimjager, parachute troops.  Within two weeks they captured the island, which was heavily defended by 42,000 Allied troops.  To the outside world it looked to be an impressive victory for Germany’s airborne forces.  Unbeknownst to all outside the German High Command, the casualties were appalling.  The Germans suffered 3,000 killed and 8,000 wounded, a forty-four percent casualty rate.  Over 170 planes had also been lost.  German paratroopers would never again be deployed as parachutists on a large scale.  Crete was the death knell for the German airborne forces while ironically the impetus for the rapid expansion of the American airborne forces.

Paratroopers were getting a reputation as “best of breed” throughout the American army.  Ambitious and highly motivated officers and fierce individualists sought out the airborne.  Phone calls were made, old debts cashed in and the best soldiers found a way to cut the red tape and finesse a transfer into the elite battalions.  They attracted officers like Captain James M. Gavin, who completed jump school in August 1941 and eventually wrote the first manual of the army’s airborne doctrine, entitled The Employment of Airborne Forces.

Then…Pearl Harbor!

With America at war, the old restrictions went by the wayside.  While new equipment and more men would not appear overnight, there were no longer arbitrary limitations on what could be done.  On 30 January 1942, the War Department authorized the immediate activation of four Parachute Infantry Regiments (PIR) from the battalions already formed.  The Army Chief of Staff had also decided to transform two existing infantry divisions, the 82nd and the 101st, to airborne.

By war’s end, Army Airborne Command eventually created fourteen Parachute Infantry Regiments, four independent Parachute Infantry Battalions, ten Glider Infantry Regiments, twelve Parachute Field Artillery Battalions and nine Glider Field Artillery Battalions.  Most of these units along with jump-qualified medical and engineer formations were assigned to one of five full-strength airborne divisions.

Living up to the rich traditions of the elite airborne put great pressure on new trainees like Johnny and Jake Kilroy and Sky Johnson.  They had great expectations to surmount.  Names like Lee, Miley, Wolff, Yarborough, Ryder and Tucker had already achieved folklore status.  Lieutenant Colonel James M. Gavin took command of the newly activated 505th on 6 July 1942 and their own instructors had already volunteered for combat in that outfit.  It was up to the new leadership to infuse cohesion, teamwork and a strong fighting spirit into these new formations.

The extraordinarily high standards of the airborne weighed heavily on Johnny.  Add to that the ongoing feud with Jake and the possibility of going into combat with the hated Sergeant Bancroft, it was a wonder he had made it through the first three weeks.  But he had.  And here he was, sweating profusely and standing at attention late on a Friday afternoon at the end of C-Stage, waiting to hear what that bastard Bancroft had in store for him and the rest of his company.