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Military History: The U.S. Airborne

Updated on August 30, 2011

The American paratrooper is trained to fight wherever in the world they are needed and they strike hard and fast behind enemy lines. From the bloody battlefields of World War Two to the present day, this is the story of the U.S. Airborne.

70 Years in the making

The United States Airborne are the original sky soldiers, attacking from above they can quickly overwhelm an enemies' defences before they have time to react. They are and always have been a specialist branch of the U.S. Army who throughout history have relied upon one mode of transport, the parachute.

Once they are in the battle zone, the paratroopers have no traditional means of back-up or supply lines. They must rely purely on what they can carry along with their skill and mental agility.

Since World War Two, the Airborne have remained one of America's premier large scale strikeforces. The basic method the paratroopers use to mass deploy to the combat zone has remained the same for nearly 70 years.

This is called the "Static Line Jump" where the paratroopers are atached to the aeroplane by a breakaway line that deploys their parachutes just 4 seconds after jumping from the plane.

This system gets the Airborne troops down to their "Drop Zone" or D.Z. as quickly and as efficiently as possible, but jumping from a plane travelling at 160 miles an hour, just 200 metres above the ground, can be fatal.

Paratroopers practice endless rigorous training on land well before they go airborne as mistakes could cost lives. Once the troops are well-drilled and their parachutes are checked and double-checked, only then can the Airborne soldier put his training into practice in the skies.

The T10 Parachute
The T10 Parachute
82nd Airborne Division Patch
82nd Airborne Division Patch
101st Airborne Division Patch
101st Airborne Division Patch

A New Form of Warfare

Unlike conventional ground troops who are supported by heavy armour and supply lines, the Airborne are vulnerable to counter-attack and therefore must attempt to dominate the battlefield despite the odds against them.

They are only equipped with lightweight weaponry and whatever they can get their hands on from the battlefield.

For any modern day paratrooper, the most important weapon in their arsenal is their T10 parachute, it has been in service since the 1950s and is considered a classic.

Once the T10 has been deployed from the paratrooper's backpack, the nylon canopy slows the descent of the paratrooper through downward drag or resistence. Instead of falling to the ground at around 200 kilometres an hour, the paratrooper is slowed to a descent of around 25 kilometres an hour, saving them from an almost certain death.

In the 1930s, military planners experimented with airborne troops all across the world, with the Russians first to notice the parachute's military capabilities and each country in turn followed suit.

German airborne units gained notoriety during World War Two as Hitler's 'lightning strike' across Europe in 1940, utilised gliders and paratroopers to seize key strategic targets.

The United States military reacted quickly to this and hastily formed the first American parachute platoon. At Fort Benning in Georgia, America's first paratroopers were led by Major General William Lee, a visionary who saw this new kind of warfare's deadly potential.

Known as "The Father of the Airborne", lee had trained two airborne divisions by the time America had entered the war, the 82nd Airborne known as the "All American" and the 101st Airborne known as the " Screaming Eagles".

They would train rigorously from 6:00am in the morning to 8;00pm at night, 6 or 7 days a week in order to become the best and those who weren't physically or mentally up to the challenge were sent home, only the elite would make it through.

The 101st Airborne at Bastogne, December 1944
The 101st Airborne at Bastogne, December 1944
Browning 50 Calibre Machine Gun
Browning 50 Calibre Machine Gun
General McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne
General McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne

The Paratrooper's Vital Weaponry

Paratrooper's needed deadly weapons at their disposal and one weapon above all else would be their stand-out weapon of choice for the Airborne during World War Two.

During the Battle of the Bulge in the Belgian Ardennes Forest in December 1944, three german divisions laid seige to the strategically important town of Bastogne.

The 101st Airborne's Screaming Eagles were attempting to hold the town in order for reinforcements and heavy artillery to get through.

The completely surrounded men formed a tight defensive perimeter and they posessed a highly effective weapon in the Browning 50 Calibre machine gun.

This machine gun was originally designed to destroy First World War tanks and during the crucial fight at the Battle of the Bulge, the 101st Airborne managed to acquire a number of these from destroyed vehicles.

The gun has an enormous killing firepower and has been used not only in World War Two, but also Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was first developed in 1918 by John Moses Browning, and was capable of firing 500 rounds per minute, it was not surprisingly a highly valued weapon. It could launch a bullet nearly 2 kilometeres to it's target with a deadly impact.

It could cut through steel and concrete and that is why it has been kept in military service since the second world war. The effectiveness of the gun was matched by the steely resolve of the U.S. Airborne's men at Bastogne. Despite being heavily outnumbered General McAuliffe refused to admit defeat to the Germans and his response to their offer of an American surrender at the Battle of the Bulge has gone down in legend.

General McAuliffe's reply to the Germans was "NUTS" and the German officer had to report that reply back to his commanders who must surely have been stunned and angered by this petulent response.

Just 4 days later, the Airborne's 101st defenders were relieved, the firepower of the 50 Caliber had played a decisive part in the battle along with the Airborne's stubborn refusal to surrender.

The Bazooka in WW2
The Bazooka in WW2
The LAW in Vietnam
The LAW in Vietnam
The Javelin
The Javelin

WW2, Vietnam and beyond

Nearly 70 years later that stubborn resolve is still drilled into the Airborne's modern elite, unlike the conventional forces the Airborne can drop directly behind or deep within their enemies' territory, but still require back-up.

Until that back-up arrives the Airborne must fight with what they have carried with them into combat.

This of course means that they can be vulnerable to counter-attack with tanks or heavy armour.

The need for anti-tank weapon is therefore critical, during World War Two the Airborne relied upon the Bazooka as this weapon, but it usually took two men to operate it and lacked serious stopping power as it's small warhead had little or no effect on German heavy armour like the Tiger tank.

During the Vietnam war, the LAW (Light Anti - Armour Weapon) was the anti-tank weapon of choice for American troops. This 66mm weapon was more powerful than the Bazooka and could be operated by a single man.

The Airborne's troops much preferred this weapon as it was lightweight, easy to use and once easily extended, the weapon has automatic sights that also arm the weapon, so speed of engaging the enemy was rapid.

After Vietnam however, tanks became even more impenetrable as their armour became more effective.

As such, the Airborne were forced to improve their weaponry and in the 1990s weaponry experts developed a new shoulderfired weapon called the Javelin.

The Airborne troops called this the "Fire and Forget" weapon, they select their target with hi-tech sights, this information is then transferred to the missile prior to it's launch.

The Airborne soldier can then retreat to safety or select another target whilst the missile homes in on it's first target.

By the time the missile has hit it's target, the men will already have left the danger zone.

The Airborne have a long tradition of powerful arms, but their main weapon is their ability to surprise and confuse the enemy.

WW2 Thompson sub-machine gun.
WW2 Thompson sub-machine gun.
The M1 Garand Rifle
The M1 Garand Rifle
The MP18
The MP18
General Eisenhower meets with the 101st Airborne in England prior to D-Day.
General Eisenhower meets with the 101st Airborne in England prior to D-Day.

Sicily and the 'Tommy Gun'

In July 1943, the U.S Airborne were assaulting Sicily and due to extremely high winds paratroopers became dispersed all over and far from their designated D.Z. (Drop Zone). Some paratroopers never even joined up with their units in the entire Sicilian campaign.

But despite a disastrous drop, the Airborne achieved what they had set out to do. They posessed tried and tested firepower like the Thompson sub-machine gun.

The first sub-machine gun was the MP18 used by German troops in the First World War and the Thompson was a direct successor. Originally used in 1921, the 'Tommy Gun' was highly rated by the Airborne, mainly because of it's size, weight and hitting power.

As they were dropping deep inside enemy territory, the Airborne troops would require a weapon capable of being ready to fire as soon as they hit the ground.

World War Two paratroopers landed with a range of weapons, like the M1 Garand Rifle that had to be assembled on the ground and this cost precious time when under enemy fire.

The Thompson didn't have these limitations, releasing 700 rounds per minute it was designed by general John T. Thompson, the 'Tommy Gun' was first known as 'The Annihilator'.

The Thompson fired thick bullets and had a lethal impact against German and Italian troops in Sicily in World War Two, but it was slow and expensive to manufacture.

M3 .45 Calibre Sub-Machine Gun or "Grease Gun"
M3 .45 Calibre Sub-Machine Gun or "Grease Gun"

Developing Future Weaponry

When parachuting into combat zones the weaponry needed to be lightweight and the next stage of weapon development resulted in the cheaper, mass produced machine gun called the M3.

It was produced by the General Motors Company at half the cost of the Thompson and fired 450 rounds per minute, but only weighed just over 3 kilos. This weapon could be held close to the chest in the cramped C-47 aircraft prior to the paratrooper's jump, reducing the chances of their weapons becoming caught up in their jump lines or other equipment.

The Airborne's sub-machine guns proved essential as they advanced through Europe in world War Two. In Sicily, Airborne reinforcements were hit by deadly 'friendly fire' as they flew over the Allied invasion fleet.

The Navy mistook them for enemy aircraft and disastrously shot down 23 Airborne planes, resulting in over 300 casualties.

Witnessing the disastrous Airborne campaign in Sicily, General Eisenhower came close to terminating all airborne forces in the United States. The Airborne had to learn quickly from it's mistakes in Sicily and on the 5th june 1944, the day before D-Day, the troops that had managed to land in Sicily still caused widespread terror and confusion, this time in France.

The 'Cricket'
The 'Cricket'
Rupert the WW2 dummy paratrooper
Rupert the WW2 dummy paratrooper

Jumping into Normandy

Allied leaders realised that this was exactly what was required if they were to take on Hitler's forces in Europe. Over 13,000 Airborne troops descended from the skies into Nazi occupied France intent on disrupting enemy forces as they hoped to destroy the vast invasion fleet as it hit the beaches on D-Day.

High winds and anti-aircraft fire faced the paratroopers as they jumped into France, scattering the men far and wide along the Normandy coast.

The men on the ground had to somehow regroup and become an effective fighting force as quickly as possible.

One simple piece of equipment would help them in this endeavour, the 'Cricket', a simple toy that would prove invaluable for the men to locate each other.

As they were landing in the dark and unaware of where their fellow troops were, the clicking of the Cricket would enable the men to identify each other from enemy troops.

Another unconventional device helped the paratroopers confuse the enemy, decoy inflatable rubber paratroopers called Rupert.

Although unconvincing in daylight, under the cover of darkness in the early hours of D-Day, 500 of these inflatable dolls were dropped miles away from the landing beaches in order to confuse the Germans into believing an airborne invasion was taking place elsewhere...and it worked perfectly.

The chaos and confusion dramatically contributed to the Germans' defeat on D-Day and the mission was accomplished. Helped by the Airborne, the Allies were able to advance from their beach-heads.

But the overriding importance of the Airborne is the ability to drop directly into the combat zone and sometimes it's all about the aircraft.

Night of Nights by Dave Harris
Night of Nights by Dave Harris
The WACO Glider
The WACO Glider
The Lockhead C130 Hercules
The Lockhead C130 Hercules
The C47 Dakota
The C47 Dakota

The Airborne's Birds

The U.S Airborne rely on a range of aircraft to transport them to their combat zone, but after nearly 70 years of innovation the preferred choice is the Lockhead C130.

This Hercules has a special affinity with the Airborne, they train with it every day, it's used in combat operations and for the paratrooper, this aircraft puts the Air in Airborne.

Although unarmed and unarmoured, the C130 uses it's four massive turbo-propped engines to lift more than 20,000 kilos of hardware into action. In Airborne operations it's two rear doors allow the exit of 64 paratroopers on a static line at speed. It entered service in 1956 and holds the record for the longest continuous use of any aircraft in military history.

The classic C47 Dakota used by the Airborne in World War Two could withstand a lot of punishment and was the most developed plane in the world at that time. It was affectionately known as the "Vomit Comet", because of the turbulent ride it gave when nearing the Drop Zone.

Despite this the C47 was used for every major U.S Airborne operation of World War Two. It could carry almost 3,000 kilos of men and equipment and it was a welcome sight to the 101st Airborne when they were surrounded without supplies during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

Throughout world War Two the C47 also worked in conjunction with gliders which allowed the Airborne to transport heavier weapons, more supplies and more men to the landing zone. Jeeps, trailers, artillery and anti-tank guns were transported in the trailers, equipment which would not have otherwise been available on the battlefield.

The Airborne mainly used the Waco glider, constructed to be as light as possible and made out of canvas and aluminium. Once the glider's towrope had been detached from the towing C47 it was on it's own. Slow moving and with little manouevrability, they were completely at the mercy of enemy guns.

When they hit the ground they could be virtually impossible to control and so the number of fatalaties was high. The glider was eventually phased out as a form of military transport for this reason and the introduction of the helicopter finally sealed the fate of the glider.

Commander James Gavin
Commander James Gavin
The Huey
The Huey
A C130 unloading an M551 Sheridan Light Tank
A C130 unloading an M551 Sheridan Light Tank

The Rise Of The Helicpter

During the Vietnam war, 800 paratroopers were dropped near the Cambodian border as part of Operation Junction City.The Airborne operation was a success, but it would prove to be the only major drop of the conflict. Vietnam's thick jungle environment and rapidly changing frontlines never became a paratrooper's war.

The Airborne used revolutionary new helicopters during the campaign, mainly to exit the battlefield.

Commander Jim Gavin who had led the Airborne assault on Sicily in World War Two was the men at the forefront of the helicopters' inclusion into military campaigns. He saw the helicopter as the "New Cavalry" in Air Assault to capture key terrain or to engage and destroy the enemy.

By the Vietnam war, the Airborne's new Air Assault units relied upon helicopters rather than parachutes. One helicopter in particular became an icon of this era, the Huey.

Each Huey was capable of carrying 2 crewmen and 12 heavily laden troops into the combat zone. Once they were on land, the men of the Airborne had to take on both the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. The elite of the Airborne formed long range reconnaissance patrols that headed deep into enemy territory.

In December 1989, the U.S invaded Panama in order to depose the military leader there Manuel Noriega. it was a huge invasion involving thousands of troops and the Airborne played a key role.

They went in hard and fast under rthe cover of darkness during Operation Just Cause to seize control of Panama's International Airport. The men were backed-up by lightweight tanks that were also parachuted in by Hercules C130's. It was the first time that the Airborne had tanks dropped in with them.

The Sheridan M551 light tank weighed in at just 17 tonnes, the tank required extra protection to survive impact with the ground, so a platform was fitted underneath the tank which would be detached by it's also parachuting crew.

This tank was heavily relied upon by the Airborne during the invasion of Panama and being outgunned was no longer a problem for the Airborne troops. it undoubtedly aided the success of the operation as U.S forces quickly overwhelmed the enemy, seized control of the airport and deposed Noriega and his forces.

The Apache
The Apache

The Modern Day Airborne

It wasn't long before the Airborne were in action again, this time in helicopters in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 in Iraq.

The Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne launched the largest helicopter assault in history. Around 300 helicopters, including the deadly Apache, fought against the Iraqi Republican Guard and largely aided in the eventual victory in the campaign.

The pride held by the Airborne goes back nearly 70 years, joined together, the branches of the U.S Airborne's family reflect their unique origins and development over the decades.

They are America's first choice strikeforce, an elite body of men, they are the united States Airborne.


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