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)

Rendezvous at Gavutu

After four months of war, the 1st Marine Division was alerted to its first prospect of action. The vital Samoan Islands appeared to be next on the Japanese invasion list and the Navy called upon the Marines to provide the necessary reinforcements for the meager garrison. In March 1942, Headquarters created two brigades for the mission, cutting a regiment and a slice of supporting forces from each of the two Marine divisions. The 7th Marines got the nod at New River and became the nucleus of the 3d Brigade. That force initially included Edson's 1st Raider Battalion, but no paratroopers. In the long run that was a plus for the 1st Parachute Battalion, which remained relatively untouched as the brigade siphoned off much of the best manpower and equipment of the division to bring itself to full readiness. The division already was reeling from the difficult process of wartime expansion. In the past few months it had absorbed thousands of newly minted Marines, subdivided units to create new ones, given up some of its best assets to field the raiders and parachutists, and built up a base and training areas from the pine forests of New River, North Carolina.

The parachutists and the remainder of the division did not have long to wait for their own call to arms, however. In early April, Headquarters alerted the 1st Marine Division that it would begin movement overseas in May. The destination was New Zealand, where everyone assumed the division would have months to complete the process of turning raw manpower into well-trained units. Part of the division shoved off from Norfolk in May. Some elements, including Companies B and C of the parachutists, took trains to the West Coast and boarded naval transports there on 19 June. The rest of the 1st Parachute Battalion was part of a later Norfolk echelon, which set sail for New Zealand on 10 June.

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While the parachutists were still at sea, the advance echelon of the division had already bedded down in New Zealand. But the 1st Marine Division's commander, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, received a rude shock shortly after he and his staff settled into their headquarters at a Wellington hotel. He and his outfit were slated to invade and seize islands in the southern Solomons group on 1 August, just five weeks hence. To complicate matters, there was very little solid intelligence about the objectives. There were no maps on hand, so the division had to create its own from poor aerial photos and sketches hand-drawn by former planters and traders familiar with the area.

Planners estimated that there were about 5,275 enemy on Guadalcanal (home to a Japanese air field under construction) and a total of 1,850 on Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo. Tulagi, 17 miles north of Guadalcanal, was valuable for its anchorage and seaplane base. The islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo, joined by a causeway, hosted a sea plane base and Japanese shore installations and menaced the approaches to Tulagi. In reality, there were probably 536 men on Gavutu Tanambogo, most of them part of construction or aviation support units, though there was at least one platoon of the 3d Kure Special Naval Landing Force, the ground combat arm of the Imperial Navy. The list of heavy weapons on Gavutu Tanambogo included two three-inch guns and an assortment of antiaircraft and antitank guns and machine guns.

By the time the last transports docked in New Zealand on 11 July, planners had outlined the operation and the execution date bad slipped to 7 August to allow the division a chance to gather its far-flung echelons and combat load transports. Five battalions of the 1st and 5th Marines would land on the large island of Guadalcanal at 0800 on 7 August and seize the unfinished airfield on the north coast. The 1st Raider Battalion, slated to meet the division on the way to the objective, would simultaneously assault Tulagi. The 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, would follow in trace and support the raiders. The 2d Marines, also scheduled to rendezvous with the division at sea, would serve as the reserve force and land 20 minutes prior to H-Hour on Florida Island, thought to be undefended. The parachutists received the mission of attacking Gavutu at H plus four hours. The delay resulted from the need for planes, ships, and landing craft to concentrate first in support of the Tulagi operation. Once the paratroopers secured Gavutu, they would move on to its sister. The Tulagi, Gavutu-Tanambogo, and Florida operations fell under the immediate control of a task force designated as the Northern Group, headed by Brigadier General William H. Rupertus, the assistant division commander.

Marine Parachute Pioneers

In October 1940, the Commandant sent a circular letter to all units and posts to solicit volunteers for the paratroopers. All applicants, with the exception of officers above the rank of captain, had to meet a number of requirements regarding age (21 to 32 years), height (66 to 74 inches), and health (normal eyesight and blood pressure). In addition, they had to be unmarried, an indication of the expected hazards of the duty. Applications were to include information on the Marine's educational record and athletic experience, so Headquarters was obviously interested in placing above-average individuals in these new units.

The letter further stated that personnel qualified as parachutists would receive an unspecified amount of extra pay. The money served as both a recognition of the danger and an incentive to volunteer. Congress would eventually set the additional monthly for parachutists at $100 for officers and $50 for enlisted men. Since a private first class at that time earned about $36 per month and a second lieutenant $125, the increase amounted to a hefty bonus. It would prove to be a significant factor in attracting volunteers, though parachuting would have generated a lot of interest without the money. As one early applicant later put it, based on common knowledge of the German success in the Low Countries, many Marines thought "that this was going to be a grand and glorious business." Parachute duty promised "plenty of action" and the chance to get in on the ground floor of a revolutionary type of warfare.

To get the program underway, the Commandant transferred Marine Captain Marion L. Dawson from duty with the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics to Lakehurst, New Jersey, to oversee the new school. Two enlisted Marine parachute riggers would serve as his initial assistants. Marine parachuting got off to an inauspicious start when Captain Dawson and two lieutenants made a visit to Hightstown, New Jersey, to check out the jumping towers. The other officers, Second Lieutenants Walter S. Osipoff and Robert C. McDonough, were slated to head the Corps' first group of parachute trainees. After watching a brief demonstration, the owner suggested that the Marines give it a test. As Dawson later recalled, he "reluctantly" agreed, only to break his leg when he landed at the end of his free fall.

On 26 October 1940, Osipoff, McDonough, and 38 enlisted men reported to Lakehurst. The Corps was still developing its training program, so the initial class spent 10 days at Highstown starting on 28 October. Immediately after that they joined a new class at the Parachute Material School land followed that 16-week coursed of instruction until its completion on 27 February 1941. A Douglas R3D-2 transport plane arrived from Quantico on 6 December and remained there through the 21st, so the pioneer Marine paratroopers made their first jumps during this period. For the remainder of the course, they leapt from Navy blimps stationed at Lakehurst. Lieutenant Osipoff, the senior officer, had the honor of making the first jump by a Marine paratrooper. By graduation, each man had completed the requisite 10 jumps to qualify as a parachutist and parachute rigger. Not all made it through — several dropped from the program due to ineptitude or injury. The majority of these first graduates were destined to remain at Lakehurst as instructors or to serve the units in the Fleet Marine Force as riggers.

By the time the second training class reported, Dawson and his growing staff had created a syllabus for the program. The first two weeks were ground school, which emphasized conditioning, wearing of the harness, landing techniques, dealing with wind drag of the parachute once on the ground, jumping from platforms and a plane mockup, and packing chutes. Students spent the third week riding a bus each day to Highstown where they applied their skills on the towers. The final two weeks consisted of work from aircraft and tactical training as time permitted. Students had to complete six jumps to qualify as a parachutist. The trainers had accumulated their knowledge from the Navy staff, from observing Army training at Fort Benning, and from a film depicting German parachutists. The latter resulted in one significant Marine departure from U.S. Army methods. Whereas the Army made a vertical exit from the aircraft, basically just stepping out the door, Marines copied the technique depicted in the German film and tried to make a near-perpendicular dive, somewhat like a simmer coming off the starting block.

Marine paratroopers used two parachutes in training and in tactical jumps. They wore the main chute in a backpack configuration and a reverse chute on their chest. When jumping from transport planes, the main opened by means of a static line attached to a cable running lengthwise in the cargo compartment. Once the jumpmaster gave the signal, a man crouched in the doorway, made his exit dive, and then drew his knees toward his chest. The parachutist, arms wrapped tightly about his chest chute, felt the opening shock of his main canopy almost immediately upon leaving the plane. If not, he had to pull the ripcord to deploy the reserve chute. (When jumping from blimps, the parachutists had to use a ripcord for the main chute too.) A parachutist's speed of descent depended upon his weight, so Marines carried as little as possible to keep the rate down near 16 feet per second, the equivalent of jumping from a height of about 10 feet. At that speed a jumper had to fall and roll when hitting the ground so as to spread the shock beyond his leg joints. Training jumps began at 1,000 feet, while the standard height for tactical jumps in the Corps was 750 feet. The Germans jumped from as low as 300 feet, but that made it impossible to open the emergency chute in time for it to be effective.

After a feverish week of unloading, sorting, and reloading equipment and supplies, the parachutists boarded the transport USS Heywood on 18 July and sailed in convoy to Koro Island in the Fijis, where the entire invasion force conducted landing rehearsals on 28 and 30 July. These went poorly, since the Navy boat crews and most of the 1st Marine Division were too green. The parachute battalion was better trained than most of the division, but this was its very first experience as a unit in conducting a seaborne landing. There is no indication that planners gave any thought to using their airborne capability, though in all likelihood that was due to the lack of transport aircraft or the inability of available planes to make a round-trip flight from New Zealand to the Solomons.

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