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Airborne Warfare

Airborne Warfare. The first concept for the use of American airborne troops occurred during World War I in 1918, when Gen. Billy Mitchell proposed a mass drop of paratroopers against German trenches on the western front. The following year, Gen. John J. Pershing endorsed Mitchell's plan, but the armistice of November 1918 made the airborne assault unnecessary. Isolationism and small budgets between the world wars prevented the development of an airborne force, but the U.S. Army kept a close eye on developments in the Soviet Union and Germany where paratrooper and glider units participated in large training exercises. The dramatic, successful assault in May 1940 on Fort Eben Emael in Belgium by German parachute and glider troops, followed by a successful German mass airborne assault against Crete in 1941, convinced military planners that America needed an airborne capability for the coming war.

On 16 August 1940, a test platoon of U.S. paratroopers made their first jump at Fort Benning, Georgia, and by April 1942, four months after U.S. entry into World War II, a parachute school was in full operation. In August 1942, the army formed its first two airborne divisions, the 82nd and the 101st. Their mission was vertical envelopment: to land behind enemy lines in order to disrupt command, control, and communications and to impede the enemy's ability to fight. From the beginning, U.S. paratroopers exhibited characteristics that remain central to the airborne fighting spirit. All were volunteers, physically and mentally tough, filled with esprit de corps, and capable of acting alone in a crisis.

The U.S. Army formed six airborne divisions of parachute and glider regiments during World War II, and the most famous exploits of these elite units under commanders such as Maxwell D. Taylor, James M. Gavin, and Matthew B. Ridgway occurred in Europe. The first combat action took place in November 1942, during the North Africa campaign, followed by a larger airborne assault during the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Early airborne operations had significant problems; but in September 1943, paratroopers proved their worth when the 82nd Airborne made an emergency jump into the beachhead at Salerno, Italy, and helped prevent a potential Allied debacle. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were among the best in the war and fought valiantly in June 1944 as the airborne vanguard of the D‐Day landing. Despite some units being dropped in the wrong place, they captured key bridges and road junctures and impeded the German Army's ability to react to the amphibious assault. In August, a provisional division of airborne and glider troops supported Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France. The 82nd and 101st Airborne jumped again that September and fought at Eindhoven and Nijmegen in Holland as part of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery's abortive British Operation Market‐Garden to seize the Arnhem Bridge on the Rhine. During the Battle of the Bulge, the 82nd Airborne helped to defend the northern shoulder of the German salient near St. Vith. Meanwhile, the 101st rushed to Bastogne by truck and fought a dogged defense of the village, denying the Germans control of an important road junction even while surrounded. In March 1945, the 17th Airborne Division participated in Operation Varsity, the airborne assault supporting the British crossing of the Rhine River in northern Germany. The 11th Airborne Division fought in several campaigns in the Pacific and distinguished itself in 1945 during the liberation of the Philippines.

The Cold War saw a dramatic transformation in airborne forces. Significant reductions in airborne units occurred after World War II. During the Korean War, the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team made two jumps in an effort to cut off retreating North Korean forces at Sukchon in October 1950 and at Musan‐ni in March 1951. The Korean War saw a greater use of helicopters, and in 1952 the army formed its first helicopter battalions for vertical envelopment and soon eliminated all glider units.

The unconventional nature of the Vietnam War precluded normal airborne operations and led to air‐mobile warfare in which helicopters transported soldiers to the battlefield. The army's first air‐mobile division, the 1st Cavalry Division, deployed to Vietnam in August 1965 and fought the war's initial, major air‐mobile Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. Later, the 101st Airborne Division converted from parachutes to helicopters, and air‐mobile “search and destroy” missions came to dominate U.S. operations. The 173rd Airborne Brigade conducted the only major parachute drop of the Vietnam War near Tay Ninh City in February 1967.

In the post–Vietnam War era, airborne and air‐mobile forces remain vital to the U.S. military. The 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Divisions deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1990 and saw action during the Persian Gulf War. In 1994, the 82nd Airborne was en route from North Carolina to a parachute drop to help overthrow the military junta in Haiti, but was recalled in the air due to successful political negotiations. Today, the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Divisions retain their elite status, maintain a high level of readiness, and possess the strategic mobility to respond rapidly to crises across the globe.
[See also Army Combat Branches: Aviation.]


S.L.A. Marshall , Night Drop, 1962.
John R. Galvin , Air Assault, 1969.
James M. Gavin , On to Berlin, 1978.
Gerard M. Devlin , Paratrooper!, 1979.
Clay Blair , Ridgway's Paratroopers, 1985.
William B. Breuer , Geronimo!, 1989.

Michael D. Doubler

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