The first American airborne units could be found during the (American) Civil War: artillery spotters climbed into hot air balloons anchored to the ground by a rope and directed artillery fire.
In 1918, Colonel Billy Mitchell, commander of the American aviation units in France, proposed for the first time the use of paratroopers. The 1st Infantry Division (The famous “Big Red One”) was selected (not on her own will) to be air dropped from bombers … over Germany!
But the operation was cancelled as the war ended in November 1918.
The very first airborne test platoon was created on June 25, 1940. It was activated on July 1st of the same year at Fort Benning (Georgia). This unit was formed with 48 soldiers chosen among 200 volunteers from the 29th Infantry Regiment. Due to the high risks of injury or death, only bachelors could apply for the test platoon.
The test platoon was led by Lieutenant William T. Ryder. After 7 weeks of intensive training, the platoon was ready for its first jump. It took place on August 16, 1940. As the commanding officer, Lt. Ryder was the first to jump. The very first volunteer among the enlisted men was Private William “Red” King.
39 pioneers are:
First Lieutenant William T. Ryder
Private First Class Specialist 4th Class Tyerus F. Adams
Second Lieutenant James A. Bassett
Private John E. Brown
Private Leo C. Brown
Private First Class Willie F. Brown
Private First Class Floy Burkhalter
Private First Class Specialist 6th Class Donald L. Coles*
Private Jules Corbin
Private First Class Louis D. Davis
Private Ernest L. Dilburn
Private First Class Edgar F. Dodd
Private Joseph E. Doucet
Private First Class Aubrey Eberhardt*
Private First Class Johnnie A. Ellis
Private First Class Mitchel Guibeau
Sergeant John M. Haley
Private First Class Specialist 6th Class George W. Ivy
Sergeant Benedicy F. Jacquay
Private Frank Kassell, Jr.*
Private First Class Specialist 6th Class Richard J. Kelly*
Private Sydney C. Kerksis
Private William N. King*
Private First Class Specialist 6th Class John M. Kitchens
Private First Class Edward Martin
Sergeant Loyd McCullough*
Private First Class Lester C. McLaney
Private John O. Modisett
Private First Class Tullis Nolin
Private First Class Joseph L. Peters
Sergeant Lemuel Pitts*
Private Specialist 6th Class Robert H. Poudert
Private First Class Specialist 4th Class John F. Pursley, Jr.
Private First Class Benjamin Reese
Sergeant Grady A. Roberts*
Private Specialist 6th Class Albert P. Robinson
Private First Class Specialist 6th Class Alsie L. Rutland
Private Thad P. Setman
Private Robert E. Sheperd
Private First Class Louie O. Skipper
Private First Class Raymond G. Smith
Private Arthur W. Swilley
Private Hugh A. Tracy
Private Specialist 6th Class Steve Voils, Jr.*
Sergeant Hobert B. Wade
Private First Class Specialist 4th Class John A. Ward
Private First Class Thurman L. Weeks
Private First Class Specialist 6th Class Obie C. Wilson
It was on the eve of the second jump that the battle cry “Geronimo” was born: that day, some members of the test platoon were watching a western movie at the base’s theater. In the movie, the US cavalry was pursuing the famous Apache chief, Geronimo. After some beer drinking, the apprentice paratroopers started to tease one of their own, Pvt. Aubrey Eberhart, telling him that the next day, when ready to jump, he would be so scared that he would be incapable of speaking. Eberhart replied then that not only he would be able to speak but that he would shout “Geronimo” when leaving the airplane.
The next day, Eberhart, a 1.90 meter tall muscular man, shouted so loudly when he jumped that he was heard by the soldiers on the ground. All the other members of the platoon also jumped while shouting “Geronimo”. The tradition was born …
Things were going so well that on September 16, the War Department activated the very first paratrooper battalion, the 501st Parachute Battalion. Obviously, all the members of the test platoon were incorporated into the new unit.
The method was refined, the training was intensified and a new drop zone was created.
On February 25, 1941, with the development of the airborne forces, provisional paratrooper groups were formed.
On July 1st, 1941, the 501st Battalion provided the cadres for the creation of the 502nd Parachute Battalion.
Unit of Airborne infantry:
During the formation of the airborne forces, the [number of] units increased quickly. Some of them were designed to operate as a Regimental Combat Team (RCT), a Task Force and others as a Division.
The nucleus of these different combat units was the parachute regiments and the glider regiments.
The Paratroopers :
The parachute units were composed of volunteers as it is difficult to force someone to jump from a flying airplane.
It is true that fear increases strength tremendously and it is impossible to move someone who sits curled up at the back of a C-47.
The paratroopers considered themselves, and rightly so, as the elite of the armed forces. They received indeed a better pay that any other GI.
The units were either regiments or battalions. They would fight as independent units or as part of an airborne division.
Some units would never be sent to combat, others would participate to all the campaigns and operations of World War II, and would eventually be dissolved unceremoniously.
The troops of parachutists are composed of volunteers because it is difficult to oblige to make jump somebody of a plane in flight !
It is true that the fear multiplies by ten the forces and thus it is impossible to make move somebody recroquevillé in the content of C-47. These men were considered, and rightly like the elite of the armed forces. It received the best besides balances than any GI S.
The units were either of the regiments or of the battalions. They fought independently or related to an airborne division.
Some never fought, of other took part in all the campaigns and all the operations of the Second World war to be finally dissolved without any ceremony
The major differences with the paratroopers were that the men incorporated in the glider units were not volunteers, did not receive any bonus or special pay, and did not even have a distinctive insignia compared to the other infantry units.
However, training was as dangerous as parachute jumping. Gliders were fragile and many men would not survive training.
But the men landing with gliders would have to wait for the new uniform in 1943 to become the equal to the paratroopers.
The Tactical support:
Like any other infantry units, the airborne forces could not fight without tactical support.
Therefore, as the same time as paratrooper units were formed, engineer and artillery units were also created either as parachute or glider units.
The organization during the Second World war:
On January 30, 1942, the War Department ordered the creation of 4 parachute regiments between the months of February and May 1942. Recruiting and formation were intensified.
The new airborne divisions were smaller than a “regular” infantry division: they were composed of approximately 8,400 men versus 15,000 for an infantry division. In the same way, a parachute regiment included 2,000 men and a glider regiment 1,600 men while an infantry regiment had 3,000 men.
At the beginning, the Table of Organization and Equipment (TOE) mentioned that a division would be composed of one parachute regiment and two glider regiments. But this organization was not rigid and was changed very often.
With the lessons learned in combat, the size of an airborne division was increased to approximately 16,800 men and 870 vehicles. A division was now composed of three Parachute Infantry Regiments (PIR), two Infantry Regiments carried by gliders (Glider Infantry Regiments - GIR), one Parachute Field Artillery Battalion (PFAB), two Field Artillery Battalions carried by gliders (Glider Field Artillery Battalions - GFAB), one Airborne Engineer Battalion (AEB), and the various auxiliary and support units typically attached to an infantry division: military police, maintenance, administration, medical staff, etc.
In theory, a regiment (PIR or GIR) was organized about the same way as an infantry regiment i.e. 3 battalions and 12 companies. In reality, on the ground, only the regiments of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne divisions would reach these numbers.