Marines in World War II
The Jump into Parachuting
Rendezvous at Gavutu
Edson's Ridge
Recuperation and Reevaluation
The Closing Shock
Special Subjects
Overseas Models
Marine Parachute Pioneers
Marine Corps Airborne Doctrine
Air Transport
Training Centers
Tables of Organization
Parachute Accidents

SILK CHUTES AND HARD FIGHTING: US. Marine Corps Parachute Units in World War II
by Lieutenant Colonel Jon T. Hoffman (USMCR)

The Jump into Parachuting

The widely publicized airborne coup in the Low Countries created an immediate, high-level reaction within the Marine Corps. On 14 May the acting director of the Division of Plans and Policies at Headquarters Marine Corps issued a memorandum to his staff officers. The one-page document came right to the point in its first sentence: "The Major General Commandant [Thomas Holcomb] has ordered that we prepare plans for the employment of parachute troops." The matter was obviously of the highest priority, since Colonel Pedro A. del Valle asked for immediate responses, which could be submitted "in pencil on scrap paper." Perhaps as telling, the memorandum did not direct a mere study, but the creation of a course of action.

Marines landing
Marines hit the dirt in a drop zone at New River, North Carolina, in November 1942. Parachutists used a tumbling technique to absorb some of the impact of the landing. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 127-GC-495-5049

Considering the Corps' complete lack of expertise in this emerging field of warfare, Headquarters quickly translated staff plans into reality. The first small group of volunteers reported for training in October 1940 and graduated the following February. Succeeding classes went through an accelerated program for basic parachute qualification, but the numbers mounted very slowly. Throughout 1941 the Marine Corps produced just a trickle of jumpers and remained a long way from possessing a useful tactical entity. Most members of the first three training classes reported to the 2d Marine Division in San Diego, California, to form the nucleus of the Corps' first parachute unit. The 2d Parachute Company (soon redesignated Company A, 2d Parachute Battalion) formally came into existence on 22 March 1941. The first commanding officer was Captain Robert H. Williams. The majority of the fourth class went to Quantico, Virginia, and became the nucleus of Company A, 1st Parachute Battalion, on 28 May. Its first commanding officer was Captain Marcellus J. Howard. From that point forward, graduating classes were generally detailed on an alternating basis to each coast. In the summer of 1941, the West Coast company transferred to Quantico and merged into the 1st Battalion. Williams assumed command of the two-company organization.

The concentration of the Corps' small paratrooper contingents at Quantico at least allowed them to begin a semblance of tactical training. The battalion conducted a number of formation jumps during the last half of July, some from Marine planes and others from Navy patrol bombers. In no case could it muster enough planes to jump an entire company at once. Captain Williams used his battalion's time on the ground to emphasize his belief that "paratroopers are simply a new form of infantry." His men learned hand-to-hand fighting skills, went on conditioning hikes, and did a lot of calisthenic exercises. A Time magazine reporter noted that the parachutists were "a notably tough-looking outfit among Marines, who all look tough." One of the battalion's July jumps demonstrated the consternation that paratroopers could instill by their surprise appearance on a battlefield. A landing at an airfield near Fredericksburg, Virginia, unexpectedly disrupted maneuvers of the Army's 44th Infantry Division, because its leaders thought the Marines were an aggressor force added to the problem without their knowledge. The same jump also indicated some of the limitations of airborne operations. An approaching thunderstorm brought high winds which blew many of the jumpers away from their designated landing site and into a grove of trees. Luckily, none of the 40 men involved sustained any serious injuries.

Marines of the fledgling 1st Parachute Battalion land near Fredericksburg, Virginia, following a tactical jump in July 1941. Their unexpected arrival in the midst of an Army maneuver demonstrated the disruption that parachutists could cause to unwary opposing units. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 127-GC-495-504479

Overseas Models

The Soviet Union was the first nation to take a serious interest in parachuting as a means to introduce ground forces into battle. The Red Army created a test unit in 1931 and by 1935 was able to employ two battalions of parachute infantry in field exercises. Beginning in the mid-1930s, several other European nations followed suit. Germany launched a particularly aggressive program, placing it in the air force under the command of a former World War I pilot, Major General Kurt Student. The German parachutists were complimented by glider units, an outgrowth of the sport gliding program that developed flying skills while Germany was under Versailles Treaty restrictions on rearmament. By 1940 Hitler had 4,500 parachutists at his disposal, organized into six battalions. Another 12,000 men formed an air infantry division designed as an air-landed follow-up to a parachute assault. A force of 700 Ju-52 transport planes was available to carry these troops into combat and each Ju-52 could hold up to 15 men.

The Soviet Union made the first combat use of parachute forces. On 2 December 1939, as part of its initial abortive invasion of Finland, the Red Army dropped several dozen paratroopers near Petsamo behind the opposing lines. They apparently came down on top of a Finnish unit, which shot many of them before they reached the ground. Subsequent Soviet attempts during the Finnish campaign to employ airborne forces, all small in scale, met equally disastrous fates.

Germany's first use of airborne forces achieved favorable results. As part of the April 1940 invasions of Norway and Denmark, the Luftwaffe assigned a battalion of paratroopers to seize several key installations. In Denmark, two platoons captured a vital bridge leading to Copenhagen, while another platoon took control of an airfield. In Norway, a company parachuted onto the airfield at Stavanger and quickly overwhelmed its 70 defenders, thus paving the way for the landing of 2,000 air infantrymen. Although these operations were critical to German success in the campaign, they received little attention at the time, perhaps due to the much larger and bloodier naval battles that occurred along the Norwegian coast.

German airborne forces achieved spectacular success just one month later. One battalion breached Belgium's heavily fortified defensive line during the offensive of May 1940. Four battalions reinforced by two air infantry regiments captured three Dutch air fields, plus several bridges over rivers that bisected the German route of approach to the Hague, Holland's capital, and Rotterdam, its principal port. In each case the airborne units held their ground until the main assault forces arrived overland. The final parachute battalion, supported by two regiments of air infantry, landed near the Hague with the mission of decapitating the Dutch government and military high command. This force failed to achieve its goals, but did cause considerable disruption.

The last major German use of parachute assault came in May 1941. In the face of Allied control of the sea, Hitler launched an airborne invasion of the Mediterranean island of Crete. The objective was to capture three airfields for the ensuing arrival of air landed reinforcements. Casualties were heavy among the first waves of 3,000 men landed by parachute and glider, but others continued to pour in. Despite an overwhelming superiority in numbers, the 42,000 Allied defenders did not press their initial advantage. Late in the second day the Germans began landing transports on the one airstrip they held, even though it was under Allied artillery fire. After a few more days of bitter fighting, the Allied commander concluded that he was defeated and began to withdraw by sea.

In the course of the battle, the Germans suffered 6,700 casualties, half of them dead, out of a total force of 25,000. Allied losses on the island were less than 3,500, although an additional 11,800 troops surrendered and another 800 soldiers died or were wounded at sea during the withdrawal. The Allies decided that airborne operations were a powerful tactic, inasmuch as the Germans had leapfrogged 100 miles of British-controlled waters to seize Crete from a numerically superior ground force. As a consequence, the U.S. and British armies would invest heavily in creating parachute and glider units. Hitler reached the opposite conclusion. Having lost 350 aircraft and nearly half of the 13,000 paratroopers engaged, he determined that airborne assaults were a costly tactic whose time had passed. The Germans never again launched a large operation from the air.

The first tactical employment of Marine parachutists came with the large-scale landing exercise of the Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet, in August 1941. This corps, under the command of Major General Holland M. Smith, consisted of the 1st Marine Division and the Army's 1st Infantry Division. The final plan for the exercise at New River, North Carolina, called for Captain Williams' company to parachute at H plus 1 hour onto a vital crossroads behind enemy lines, secure it, and then attack the rear of enemy forces opposing the landing of the 1st Infantry Division. Captain Howard's company would jump on the morning of D plus 2 in support of an amphibious landing by Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson's Mobile Landing Group and a Marine tank company. Edson's force (the genesis of the 1st Raider Battalion) would go ashore behind enemy lines, advance inland, destroy the opposing reserve force, and seize control of important lines of communication. Howard's men would land near Edson's objective and "secure the road net and bridges in that vicinity."

For the exercise the parachutists were attached to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, which operated from a small airfield at New Bern, North Carolina, just north of the Marine base. The landing force executed the operation as planned, hut Holland Smith was not pleased with the results because there were far too many artificialities, including the lack of an aggressor force. A shortage of transport planes (only two on hand) handicapped the parachutists; it took several flights, with long delays between, to get just one of the under-strength companies on the ground. Once the exercise was underway, Smith made one attempt to simulate an enemy force. He arranged for Captain Williams to re-embark one squad and jump behind the lines of the two divisions, with orders to create as much havoc as possible. Williams' tiny force cut tactical telephone lines, hijacked trucks, blocked a road, and successfully evaded capture for several hours. One after-action report noted that "the introduction of paratroops lent realism to the necessity for command post security."

Smith put great faith in the potential value of airborne operations. In his preliminary report on the exercise, he referred to Edson's infantry/tank/parachute assault on D+2 as a "spearhead thrust around the hostile flank" and emphasized the need in modern warfare for the "speed and shock effect" of airborne and armor units. With that in mind, he recommended that his two-division force include at least one "air attack brigade" of at least one parachute regiment and one air infantry regiment. (The term "air infantry" referred to ground troops landed by transport aircraft.) He also urged the Marine Corps to acquire the necessary transport planes. Despite this high-level plea, the Marine Corps continued to go slowly with the parachute program. At the end of March 1942, the 1st Battalion finally stood up its third line company, but the entire organization only had a total of 332 officers and men, less than 60 percent of its table of organization strength (one of the lowest figures in the division). The 2d Battalion, still recovering from the loss of its first Company A, had barely 200 men.

Manpower and aircraft shortages and the straightjacket of the parachute training pipeline accounted for some of the bottleneck, but a lack of enthusiasm for the idea at Headquarters also appears to have taken hold. By contrast, the Corps had not conceived the original idea for the raiders until mid-1941, but it had two full 800-man battalions in existence by March 1942. The Marine Corps was not enthusiastic about the latter force, either, but it expanded rapidly in large measure due to pressure from President Franklin Roosevelt and senior Navy leaders. Without similar heat from above, Headquarters was not about to commit its precious resources to a crash program to expand the parachutists and provide them with air transports. Marine planners probably made a realistic choice in the matter, given the competing requirements to fill up divisions and air wings and make them ready for amphibious warfare, another infant art suffering through even greater growing pains.

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