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From the darkening mists of their memories, men who served in the armies of America during World War II may recall the nearly ineffable aura that enveloped the label of “Airborne.” To be sure, there were some tangible trappings to envy or relish. Highly burnished leather boots and a silver badge marked a “trooper” — even that designation distinguished him from the common “soldier.” Only fliers and the tiny elite Ranger units competed in glamour.
While recognizing the glory attached to parachutists, some with long military experience, as well as raw draftees, perceived them as harboring a death wish. More sensible people hesitated to hurl themselves from an altitude of several thousand feet, dependent only upon yards of silk or nylon to prevent a fatal plunge. While troopers drifted helplessly towards the ground, unable to unlimber their weapons, the enemy could slaughter them.
Still, the airborne never lacked recruits. Mel Trenary was one. “I volunteered for the paratroopers because I wanted to prove to myself that I had the ability to build my body into something worthwhile and at the same time I could do something that the average person wouldn’t want to do.
“My first jump was a surprise. We put on our chutes, sat on benches until finally we walked to the plane. The harness was so tight I could hardly stand up straight. As the last person on board, I sat right next to the door, looking out. This was my first time in an airplane and I was fascinated. It was hard to believe, at that time, that a heavy machine like this could go up into the air. I had, of course, seen planes but it was different being inside one as it went up.
“They had trained me right. It was all automatic. When the red light went on, I got up and stood at the door. I didn’t look down, but I could see the horizon because of the plane’s movements. When the green light came on, I felt a tap on my leg and I jumped out, just like they had taught me. I had my eyes closed, but I could feel my body going upside down. When the chute opened, it flipped me right side up and I knew everything was working right. I opened my eyes and watched others come out of the plane.
“I was the first one out and I had felt that if I didn’t go then some of the others might chicken out. Later, one of the guys told me that as he saw me get ready by the door, he thought, if Trenary can do it, so can I.”
Mel Trenary served his country as part of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team. The outfit began its thirty-three-month life in March of 1943 as an element in the 17th Airborne Division. Eventually nicknamed “The Battling Buzzards,” because of a singular emblem displaying an irate vulture against a parachute backdrop with appropriate numerals, the 517th went to war as a regimental combat team little more than a year later. It fought through five campaigns in Europe, collecting more than 1,500 Purple Hearts for wounds, and earned a multitude of medals.
From its roster the 517th produced eight general officers, including a pair who began as eighteen-year-old, lowly privates. Further evidence of the organization’s elan lies in the many who chose to make a career of the army after V-E Day. Unlike most men who considered military life onerous, the parachute combat team, in spite of its grim months of combat, gave these soldiers a home.
Kinfolks of the 517th during World War II, like the 17th, 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions in Europe, as well as the 6th and 11th Airborne Divisions in the South Pacific, fought bravely and effectively, but there were some unique features to the 517th which gave it a special quality and therein lie some truths about military effectiveness and military elites.
Commanders of great military organizations yearn for fighting forces that surpass the efforts of the ordinary soldiers although some of the very qualities that invest crack troops with super power create conflicts. In the U.S. even before Pearl Harbor, while the notion of airborne units barely existed beyond the paper stage, U.S. paratroopers already bore the status and the stigma almost inevitably stamped on an elite outfit.
James M. Gavin, who led four combat jumps in Europe and finished the war as commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, was part of the tiny group that created the paratrooper role. “We had an idea. We wanted to tell these guys that they were the most capable guys on earth. And when they land, it doesn’t matter who they meet; they can really lick them under any circumstances. And any parachute squad is worth a platoon of anybody else. We wanted these guys to find out that there’s nothing too good for them; no bed too soft, no food too good, no conditions too good for them to live. But, by God, when combat comes, then there’s not too much to ask from them. We really expected to ask anything of them and we expected them to come through.
“We tried to give a whole dimension of how to train human beings and how to get them committed, dedicated and believing in what they were doing and how to make them very combat effective, consistent with trying to find the kind of leadership that could lead these guys. You had to be as good at anything as they, and often better, and be willing to do anything you asked them to do.”
In fact, the airborne units carrying American colors into battle during World War II fielded superior soldiers and officers. In the U.S. Army, no other form of fighting man, with the possible exception of the Rangers, earned such well-deserved praise. The 517th exemplified the training, spirit and record of paratroopers.
The parachute itself wasn’t that new: Leonardo da Vinci, along with his designs for manned flight, in his fifteenth century Codex Atlanticus, noted the possibility for safe passage from the skies. “If a man have a tent of linen of which the apertures have all been stopped up ... he will be able to throw himself down from any great height without sustaining any injury.” Alongside of his comment, da Vinci sketched four triangular panels jointed at the top from which a human figure dangled.
The concept languished until the hot air balloon of the eighteenth century lifted humans above the earth. In 1785, French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard put together a crude approximation of the device designed by da Vinci. However, rather than experiment with his own person, M. Blanchard bestowed the honor for the first parachute descent on his dog. Carnival and circus gasbag shows, forced by audiences to add more derring-do, first employed trapeze-type aerialists and then finally added the ultimate thrill, parachutists. Indeed, when baseball magnate Albert Goodwill Spalding collected a gang of all-star players for a round-the-world tour in 1888, he hired one “Professor Bartholomew” to add some show biz with a balloon ascent, trapeze act and climax of a parachute leap. Unfortunately, during one performance, the Professor bounced off a building cornice in Australia, forcing Spalding to leave Bartholomew in a hospital for repairs.
During World War I, only the Germans, in the waning days of the fighting, equipped some of their pilots with parachutes although both sides outfitted the balloon-borne observers with chutes. However, in October 1918, Col. Billy Mitchell, chief of the American Expeditionary Forces airmen, approached Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, the U.S. commander in France, with a daring plan.
“... [H]e should assign one of the infantry divisions permanently to the Air Service ... we should arm the men with a great number of machine guns and train them to go over the front in our large airplanes which would carry ten or fifteen of these soldiers. We would equip each man with a parachute, so that when we desired to make a rear attack on the enemy, we could carry these men over the lines and drop them off in parachutes behind the German position.”
Before any serious discussion of the tactic, the November armistice quashed further consideration. Still, under Mitchell’s prodding, shortly after hostilities ended, a standard, practical parachute was developed for use at least by pilots.
During the 1930s, Soviet, French and Italian forces embarked on parachute programs in varying degrees. Nazi Germany, forbidden to rearm by the Versailles Treaty, sponsored glider clubs whose craft showed an obvious potential in warfare and secretly started to build a paratroop corps.
The notion of airborne fighting men, “a sword of silk” in the rhetoric of one advocate, languished in the U.S. But in 1939, Gen. George Catlett Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, enlightened by intelligence reports of the European interest in airborne and parachute soldiers, ordered a feasibility study. The hastily done research, while it supported an experimental program to develop infantry traveling by air, remarked that combat groups dropped behind enemy lines could well be on suicide missions.
Not until fighting broke out in Europe was there an American effort to create paratroop units. The entire project received a boost with the news of the German successes, using parachutists to overwhelm the Netherlands and Belgium on the way to overrunning France in the spring of 1940. On June 25 of that year, the very day the French admitted their defeat to Adolf Hitler in the same railroad car that witnessed the German surrender in 1918, the commandant at Fort Benning, Georgia, received orders for a platoon of recruits to undergo parachute training.
In 1940, jumping out of an airplane, in spite of Leonardo da Vinci’s theoretical assurance that given enough canopy one could throw oneself down from a great height without fear of injury, seemed a highly dangerous business. The offhand suggestion by those who first investigated the tactics that their roles could become kamikaze-style missions added to the sense of risk.
Sensitive perhaps to excessive demands upon men while the country was not yet at war, the brass decided that no one should be forced to be a paratrooper. Those first candidates for the new type of soldier were thus asked to break the cliché First Commandment of the enlisted man, “Never volunteer!” The tradition, begun in 1940, has served as standard procedure for assignment to airborne forces ever since.
Those in charge of those first volunteers screened for both attitude and athletic ability. It seemed obvious that the physical demands upon a parachutist demanded intensive conditioning. The original 1940 platoon exercised, marched and ran beyond the norm. In the absence of towers to learn how to cushion the impact with the ground, the would-be troopers jumped off the backs of trucks and for more advanced practice leaped off the vehicles while they were moving.
The art of tumbling to avoid injury seemed critical. Anyone who failed to roll in the prescribed manner immediately received a critique that ended with a command of “Gimme ten!” on the basis that extra pushups cured carelessness. Well before behavioral scientists publicly proclaimed the virtues of “aversive training,” those running the infant paratroop program employed punishment as a way to instill an instinctive resort to the right techniques. This system to build in automatic responses is another legacy that endured.
Those first volunteers spent days learning how to pack their silk. Not until well into World War II did the art of parachute rigging become a responsibility of specialists while the troopers themselves concentrated on their roles as airborne fighters.
The gear issued to the first would-be paratroopers consisted mostly of hand-me-downs. Each volunteer for that original platoon received two pairs of air corps mechanics’ coveralls, a leather flying cap like those sported by World War I aces and a pair of boots with a strap across the instep designed to give support to ankles stressed by that first contact with the earth. One genuine innovation made at the very start of the program was the reserve chute carried on a man’s chest. Throughout World War II, American troopers were the only ones afforded a second chance if the main chute failed to deploy. Members of the 517th would eventually see gruesome evidence of the reserve’s value.
The instructors placed great stress upon the way in which a man exited the airplane door over the drop zone. However, in a mass jump, only the first man had an opportunity to follow the manual. The rest were lucky if they went out feet first, many wound up diving head down. Any delays upon leaving the aircraft, even if counted in seconds, meant the stick of twelve to fifteen troopers would be strung out over a considerable distance, reducing effectiveness.
After the first successful jumps of the test platoon, the brass scheduled a mass demonstration to indicate the tactical power of airborne soldiers. Several members of the platoon, on their way to the barracks after watching a Western film at the Fort Benning post theater, discussed the added dangers of such an untried maneuver. One man teased Pvt. Aubrey Eberhardt that he would be so scared he wouldn’t remember his own name. Eberhardt retorted with typical bravado. In a sudden inspiration he said he would shout the name of the Indian warrior bedeviled by the U.S. cavalry in the movie. True to his word, Eberhardt, as he exited the door of the C-47 the next day, yelled, “Geronimo!”
Although celebrated in the popular media, the invocation of Geronimo actually was a short-lived tradition. Experts soon taught men to forget about the chief and count, “One thousand, two thousand, three thousand...” and if the main chute had failed to open, it was time to yank the ripcord of the reserve. Furthermore, succeeding classes of paratroopers considered the cry juvenile. Russel Brami, a member of the 517th and who made a lifetime career of being a paratrooper, says, “I never heard anyone yell ‘Geronimo!’ We used to claim the translation of Geronimo was, ‘Who pushed me?’ The usual comment, if any, when a guy jumped was, ‘Oh, shit.’”
The tangible morale builders for paratroopers followed soon after the graduation of these initial recruits. In January of 1941, the men received authorization to wear their boots with trouser legs tucked into the tops while in dress uniforms. The patch with the white parachute against a blue background for the soft overseas cap followed. Airborne artillery used a red backdrop. The silvery badge with the wings curving up from the base of a chute to meet the canopy added an adornment. A two-piece jumpsuit with plenty of pockets replaced the mechanics’ coveralls. Redesign of the boot improved its function and style; the leather’s potential for burnishing gave new meaning to spit and polish.
Even as the American and the British enthusiasm for airborne units swelled, the German version staggered from a near-fatal blow. The Nazi war machine, rushing to the rescue of its ally Benito Mussolini’s Italian army floundering in its invasion of Greece, drove the British to a last-ditch defense on Crete, the largest island of the Mediterranean Sea and a strategic block to the Aegean Sea.