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)

Recuperation and Reevaluation

The 1st Parachute Battalion arrived in New Caledonia and went into a "dreadful" transient camp. For the next few weeks the area headquarters assigned the tired, sick men of the orphaned unit to unload ships and work on construction projects. Luckily Lieutenant Colonel Williams returned to duty after recovering from his wound and took immediate steps to rectify the situation. The battalion's last labor project was building its own permanent quarters, named Camp Kiser after Second Lieutenant Walter W. Kiser, killed at Gavutu. The site was picturesque; a grassy, undulating plain rising into low hills and overlooking the Tontouta River. Wooden structures housed the parachute loft and messhalls, but for the most part the officers and men lived and worked in tents. The two dozen transport planes of VMJ-152 and VMJ-253 occupied a nearby air field. The parachutists made a few conditioning hikes while they built their camp and began serious training in November. The first order of business was reintroducing themselves to their primary specialty, since none of them had touched a parachute in many months. They practiced packing and jumping and graduated to tactical training emphasizing patrolling and jungle warfare.

The 1st Battalion received company on 11 January 1943, when the 2d Battalion arrived at Tontouta and went into bivouac at Camp Kiser. The West Coast parachute outfit had continued to build itself up while its East Coast counterpart sailed with the 1st Marine Division and fought at Guadalcanal. During the summer of 1942, the 2d Battalion had found enough aircraft in busy southern California to make mass jumps with up to 14 planes. (Though "mass" is a relative term here; an entire battalion required about 50 R3D-2s to jump at once.) The battalion also benefitted from its additional time in the States, as it received Johnson rifles and light machine guns in place of the reviled Reisings. However, the manpower pipeline was still slow, as Company C did not come into being until 3 September 1942 (18 months after the first parachutists reported to San Diego for duty). The battalion sailed from San Diego in October 1942, arrived at Wellington, New Zealand in November, and departed for New Caledonia on 6 January 1943.

General Alexander A. Vandegrift
General Alexander A. Vandegrift, then commanding general of I Marine Amphibious Corps, reviews a formal parade by parachutists at Camp Kiser on 29 July 1943. Unbeknownst to the marchers, they already had executed their last training jump and Vandegrift would bring their organization to an end less than five months later. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 127-GW-371-57931

As the 2d Battalion prepared to head overseas, it detached a cadre to form the 3d Parachute Battalion, which officially came into existence on 16 September 1942. Compared to its older counterparts, the 3d Battalion grew like a weed and reached full strength by the end of December. The battalion commander, Major Robert T. Vance, emphasized infantry tactics, demolition work, guerrilla warfare, and physical conditioning in addition to parachuting. At the beginning of 1943, the battalion simulated a parachute assault behind enemy lines in support of a practice amphibious landing by the 21st Marines on San Clemente Island. The fully trained outfit sailed from San Diego in March and joined the 1st and 2d Battalions at Camp Kiser before the end of the month.

At the end of 1942, the Marine Corps had transferred the parachute battalions from their respective divisions and made them a I Marine Amphibious Corps asset. This recognized their special training and unique mission and theoretically allowed them to withdraw from the battlefield and rebuild while the divisions remained engaged in extended land combat. After the 3d Battalion arrived in New Caledonia in March 1943, I MAC took the next logical step and created the 1st Parachute Regiment on 1 April. This fulfilled Holland Smith's original call for a regimental-size unit and provided for unified control of the battalions in combat and in training. Lieutenant Colonel Williams became the first commanding officer of the new organization.

Just when things appeared most promising for Marine parachuting, the Corps shifted into reverse gear. General Holcomb and planners at Headquarters had not shown much enthusiasm for the program since mid-1940 and apparently began to have strong second thoughts in the fall of 1942. In October, Brigadier General Keller E. Rockey, the director of Plans and Policies at HQMC, had queried I MAC about the "use of parachutists" in its geographic area. There is no record of a reply, but I MAC later sent Lieutenant Colonel Williams in a B-24 to make an aerial reconnaissance of New Georgia in the Central Solomons for a potential airborne operation. In early 1943, I MAC dragged its feet on planning for the Central Solomons mission and the Navy eventually turned to the Army's XIV Corps headquarters to command the June invasion of New Georgia. In March, the Navy decided that Vandegrift would take over I MAC in July, with Thomas as his chief of staff. They had suffered the loss of some of their best men to the parachute and raider programs during the difficult buildup of the 1st Marine Division and both believed that "the Marine Corps wasn't an outfit that needed these specialties." They made their thoughts on the subject known to Headquarters.

Training Centers

Very early in the process of creating the parachute program, the Marine Corps sought out information on the parachute tower then being used as an amusement ride at the New York City World's Fair. A lieutenant with the Marine Detachment at the fair provided his report on 20 May 1940. He thought such a tower could he used to advantage if the Corps modified it to simulate the physical jolt that a jumper would experience when his parachute opened and radically slowed his rate of descent. Safe Parachute Company, the builder of the World's Fair ride, also owned two towers at Hightstown, New Jersey. Each stood 150 feet tall and used a large ring to lift a spread parachute with the jumper dangling from the risers. When the mechanism released its load, the descending chute automatically filled with air. One tower featured a controlled descent guided by four cables, while the other completely released the parachute for a free fall. Fortuitously, Hightstown was just 20 miles from the Navy's Parachute Materiel School at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey, the facility that trained sailors and a handful of Marines to pack parachutes for pilots. That made Lakehurst the obvious choice as the primary instruction facility.

Lakehurst eventually had room to train a maximum of 100 men at a time. Given the length of the course (which often stretched to six weeks or more due to delays for weather), the Corps thus could produce no more than 700 qualified parachutists per year. By mid-1941 the school was not even achieving that pace, having fallen more than two months behind schedule. In July 1941, the officer in charge of the school recommended creation of an additional parachute training facility at the burgeoning Marine base in New River, North Carolina, but it would be awhile before the Corps found the resources to act on that suggestion.

In the meantime, Headquarters decided to shift its primary parachute school to San Diego to allow more efficient use of training time due to better weather and the proximity of Marine aviation units. In April 1942 the Lakehurst detachment began transferring its instructors to San Diego, a process completed in May after the last Lakehurst class graduated. The new San Diego school began training its first class on 27 May. The plan called for the program to start a new class of 36 students each week, with a possible expansion to 60 trainees per week in the future. The school initially operated out of San Diego's Camp Elliott, but the Corps built barracks, jump towers, plane mockups, and aviation fields near Santee and moved the entire operation there at the end of August 1942. The Commandant named this small base, dedicated entirely to parachute training, Camp Gillespie in honor of Brevet Major Archibald H. Gillespie, who had participated in the campaign to free California from Mexico in 1846.

The Marine Corps established another training facility at New River's Hadnot Point during 1942. In June the 1st Parachute Battalion had transferred one officer and 13 NCOs to form the instructor cadre. The school opened with a first class of 54 students on 10 August, but delays in constructing the jump towers and obtaining parachutes slowed training. The initial group finally graduated on 13 October. The New River school's designed capacity was 75 students per class, with a new class beginning every week. By the end of 1942 the Marine parachute program was finally in full swing and capable of producing 135 new jumpers per week, though actual numbers were never that high.

The Marine Corps had one more source of trained parachutists. During the 1st Battalion's initial period of recuperation from fighting on Gavutu and Guadalcanal, it had difficulty obtaining qualified jumpers from the States. To solve the problem, Lieutenant Colonel Williams organized his own informal school. It lacked towers and he ignored much of the syllabus used stateside, but during the program's brief operation it produced about 100 trained jumpers from volunteers garnered from other units located in New Caledonia.

The chronic shortage of aircraft also continued to hobble the program. In the summer of 1943 the Corps had just seven transport squadrons, with only one more on the drawing boards. If the entire force had been concentrated in one place, it could only have carried about one and a half battalions. As it was, three squadrons were brand new and still in the States and another one operated out of Hawaii. There were only three in the South Pacific theater. These were fully engaged in logistics operations and were the sole asset available to make critical supply runs on short notice. As an example, the entire transport force in New Caledonia spent the middle of October 1942 ferrying aviation gas to Guadalcanal, 10 drums per plane, in the aftermath of the bombardment of Henderson field by Japanese battleships. They also evacuated 2,879 casualties during the course of that campaign. Senior commands would have been unwilling to divert the planes from such missions for the time required to train the crews and parachutists for a mass jump in an operation. The Army's transport fleet was equally busy and MacArthur would not assemble enough assets to launch his first parachute assault of the Pacific war until September 1943 (a regimental drop in New Guinea supported by 96 C-47s).

Parachute trainees
Parachute trainees undergo their initial training at San Diego. This included leaps from platforms to practice the proper landing technique. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 127-GC-121-402906

The regiment was unable to do any jumping after May 1943 due to the lack of aircraft. The 2d Battalion's last jump was a night drop from 15 Army Air Corps C-47s. The planes came over Tontouta off course. Unaware of the problem, the Marines jumped out onto a hilly, wooded area. One parachutist died and 11 were injured. Thereafter, the parachutists focused on amphibious operations and ground combat. Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak drew rubber boats for his 2d Battalion and worked on raider tactics. In late August, I MAC contemplated putting them to work seizing a Japanese seaplane base at Rekata Bay on Santa Isabel, but the enemy evacuated the installation before the intended D-Day.

Marine learning to control parachute
At the completion of his jump from the Hightstown fly-away tower, a Marine learns how to control his parachute in the wind. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 127-GC-495-302373

Near the end of April 1943, Rockey suggested to the Commandant that the Corps disband the parachute school at New River and use its personnel to form the fourth and final battalion. He estimated that production of 30 new jumpers per week at San Diego would be sufficient to maintain field units at full strength. The reduction in school overhead and the training pipeline would relieve some of the pressure on Marine manpower, while the barracks and classroom space at New River would meet the needs of the burgeoning Women's Reserve program. Major General Harry Schmidt, acting in place of Holcomb, signed off on the recommendations. Company B of the 4th Battalion had formed in southern California on 2 April 1943. Nearly all of the 33 officers and 727 enlisted men of the New River school transferred to Camp Pendleton in early July to flesh out the remainder of the battalion. Transport planes were hard to come by in the States, too, and the outfit never conducted a tactical training jump during its brief existence.

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