Army Ground Forces, Study No. 1



Origins of Airborne Elements

The training and organization of airborne troops, whether parachutists or glider infantry, remained on a small scale throughout the period of GHQ. Nevertheless during the months preceding March 1942 the foundation was being laid for the creation of one of the elements of the Army Ground Forces, a separate Airborne Command. In this development of airborne forces General McNair exercised an important influence, and GHQ used airborne troops in maneuvers under its direction.

For some years the United States Army had experimented with the technical possibilities of parachute and air-lending forces. The German occupation of western Europe in May-June 1940 made clear the tactical possibilities of such forces, and as a result various offices in the War Department approached the subject with renewed interest. On 5 August 1940 General Arnold urged that the projected parachute units should be assigned to the Air Corps, but General McNair, in one of his first acts at GHQ, insisted that parachute troops be included among the ground arms, since they used airplanes only for transport and actually fought on the ground. General McNair’s recommendation prevailed. The Office of the Chief of Staff directed on 20 August that staff studies should be made of “the organization, equipment, and tactical employment of parachute and air-transported Infantry.”1

The first American parachute unit, specifically organized as such, was authorized on 16 September 1940 for immediate activation at Ft. Benning. It was designated the 501st Parachute Battalion and its table of organization called 34 officers and 412 enlisted men, all to be volunteers. GHQ played no ascertainable part in this action. The activation and training of parachute units, as of other air-landing units, remained until the dissolution of GHQ a function of the General Staff and the Chief of Infantry.2

The Transport Shortage and its Effects on Organization and Training

Development of airborne units was handicapped by the severe shortage of transports. Because production of aircraft was concentrated on combat aviation, little hope existed that this shortage would soon be overcome. At the end of June 1941 the United States Army possessed, except for a few planes converted from other types, only 2 transports in Panama, 1 in the Philippines, 49 used in Newfoundland and by the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps, 2 in Hawaii, and “12 planes set up separately for parachute troop and airborne infantry training” in the 50th Transport Wing, the only such wing that had been activated. Twelve transports carried merely one company with its equipment. No more planes were expected for the 50th Transport Wing until February 1942. In 1941 the need for transport planes became so great that a request was made even for the release of the plane used by GHQ and of the four allotted to the four army headquarters for the travel necessary in conducting their extensive inspections—a request to which General McNair could not accede.3

The air transport shortage naturally retarded the mobilization of new airborne units. In June 1941, when the size of the Army was approaching a million and a half, the 501st Parachute Battalion was its only airborne unit. Another, the 502d, was constituted on 1 July 1941 and the 503d and 504th in the next three months. As an administrative, nontactical headquarters for the parachute battalions a Provisional Parachute Group was set up in the summer of 1941 under command of Lt. Col. William C. Lee.


Meanwhile, the German conquest of Crete having fully demonstrated the value of airborne infantry, the first air-landing (as distinguished from parachute) unit of the United States Army was constituted in Panama in July 1941. This was the 550th Infantry Airborne Battalion. A company of the 501st Parachute Battalion was sent to reinforce it. In the continental United States the first air-landing unit was the 88th Infantry Airborne Battalion, constituted on 10 September 1941.4

Not only mobilization but also training suffered from the shortage of transports. Only by special arrangement was the 501st Parachute Battalion able to participate in two of the eighteen air-ground tests conducted at Ft. Benning, where some of the personnel of the 4th Motorized Division, who had practiced loading and unloading transports the year before, acted as air infantry. Useful lessons could be drawn from the tests, but it was felt that more thorough exploration of airborne operations was needed before plans for a full-scale development of airborne training could be made. When the commanding general of the VII Corps asked on 6 June 1941 for one company of parachutists, he was unable to obtain it for want of the twelve planes required. It was explained that all available transports were ferrying Air Force equipment to airplane manufacturers.5

Airborne Elements in the GHQ-Directed Maneuvers, 1941

The request of GHQ to use airborne elements in the GHQ-directed fall maneuvers of 1941 encountered the same difficulty. The question of transports for these maneuvers had been discussed since March. In August the suggestion of the Air Forces that to conserve planes a battalion be moved one company at a time was rejected by General McNair, who replied that a battalion to be trained as a unit must be moved as a unit. Finally on 3 September 1941, the Air Forces agreed to furnish 13 transports for both the September and the November maneuvers, plus an additional 26 transports on two occasions during the November maneuvers.6

In the September maneuvers of the Second vs. Third Army the only airborne unit used was one company of the 502d Parachute Battalion. Men and equipment were dropped from different planes—a practice recognized by all as bad, since men might be landed without equipment, but unavoidable until enough suitable transports could be employed.7 In the November maneuvers of the First Army vs. IV Corps transports were available in considerable numbers for the first time. An airborne task force was organized under the Provisional Parachute Group. It consisted of the 502d Parachute Battalion and the 3d Battalion of the 9th Infantry, substituting for the as yet untrained 88th Airborne Battalion. Three missions were performed. One ended in a confused swarming of parachutists and defenders on the field. One was changed to a demonstration for reporters and photographers. The third resulted in a tactical accomplishment, the surprise capture and “destruction” of an important bridge. The chief recommendation made to GHQ, in consequence of these operations, was that transport planes should be assembled at home stations of parachute troops for training and rehearsal at least two weeks prior to the action intended. Unfortunately planes were still not available to carry out this proposal.8

Projects for Further Airborne Development

Nevertheless, on the level of long-range planning, ideas were turning to more extensive development of airborne troops. Army journals discussed the problem, and in an outstanding article, written at a time when the Army could show nothing above the battalion, Lt. Col. William C. Lee envisaged the formation of special airborne divisions. In July 1941 the Air Forces began to experiment with gliders for transportation of men and materiel. In August G-3 of the War Department General Staff called upon the


Air Forces to develop new cargo planes, explaining that the testing of an airborne combat team was contemplated. This force was to consist of an infantry battalion, an antitank company, a field artillery battery, and a medical detachment. Tests were conducted by the Field Artillery in dropping the 75-mm pack howitzer by parachute. The complications arising where a new military problem had to be dealt with through the old chiefs of branches were illustrated by the organization of a parachute battery in February 1942.9 The Chief of Field Artillery was ordered to organize this unit, which was to receive its parachute training under the Chief of Infantry, only after confirmatory tests had been carried out by the Chief of Infantry and after the necessary howitzers had been obtained from the Chief of Ordnance.

The multiplication of airborne activities raised the question of higher echelons of command. On December 11, 1941, General Twaddle, G-3 of the War Department, submitted a memorandum to GHQ. He observed that:

(1) When the existing parachute battalions were set up, it was believed that parachute troops would operate in small numbers, and therefore required only an administrative, not a tactical, superior headquarters. This had been provided in the “Provisional Parachute Group.”

(2) Subsequent experience in Europe, and in the November maneuvers, showed that in the future parachute troops would be employed in larger number, and in connection with airborne troops, glider troops and troops on the ground.

(3) The November maneuvers showed the inability of the Provisional Parachute Group to operate successfully as a tactical command.

General Twaddle therefore recommended that for the four existing parachute battalions, three in the United States and one in Panama, a Parachute Group Headquarters with staff sections and a headquarters detachment be set up. General McNair concurred with reservations. He preferred a definite policy of organizing a higher headquarters for every three battalions, and he wanted the higher organization to be called a regiment.10

His advice was taken in this matter. A War Department directive of 24 February 1942 constituted four parachute regiments.11 Each regiment was to receive, as its first component, one of the four existing parachute battalions, whose numerical designation passed to the regiment. The 501st Parachute Battalion, for example, became the 1st Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry. No similar action was yet taken for air-landing troops, but a beginning was made for the organization of airborne troops in the usual echelons of the Army. With regiments constituted and batteries contemplated, the way was open toward the creation in August 1942 of the first airborne divisions—the 82d and the 101st.12

In the last days of GHQ the air army existed largely on paper, but the basic preparations had been made for its development. Control over the 501st Parachute Battalion and the 550th Airborne Infantry Battalion was not inherited by the Army Ground Forces, since both were stationed in Panama. One of the first acts of the Army Ground Forces was to create, on 23 March 1942, an Airborne Command.13 The headquarters of the old Provisional Parachute Group became the headquarters of the new command and Colonel Lee the first Commanding Officer. The Airborne Command began its work with high enthusiasm and many projects, but with very few actual troops. Much work remained to be done before American units would be able to carry out an action similar to the German operation against Crete.



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Last updated 18 February 2005