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)


While the 1st Battalion prepared for its trial by fire at Koiari, the rest of the regiment temporarily enjoyed a morale-boosting turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day. (Many of the parachutists awoke that night with a severe case of diarrhea, probably induced by some part of the meal that had gone had.) On 3 December, the regimental headquarters, the weapons company, and the 3d Battalion embarked on five LCIs and joined a small convoy headed for Bougainville. The regiment received its first taste of action that evening when Japanese aircraft attacked at sundown. Accompanying destroyers downed three of the interlopers in a short but hot fight and the ships sailed on unharmed. The convoy deposited the parachutists in the Empress Augusta Bay perimeter the next day and they went into bivouac adjacent to the 1st Battalion. They did not have to wait long for their next fight.

parachutists crossing a stream
A file of parachutists crosses a stream on Bougainville in November 1943. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 127-GW-1064-68621

Early December reconnaissance by the 3d Marine Division indicated that the Japanese were not occupying the high ground on the west side of the Torokina River, just to the east of the perimeter. The division commander decided to expand his holdings to include this key terrain, hut the difficulty of supplying large forces in forward areas deterred him from immediately moving his entire line forward. His solution was the creation of strong outposts to hold the ground until engineers cut the necessary roads. On 5 December, corps attached the parachute regiment (less the 1st and 2d Battalions) to the 3d Division, which ordered this fresh force to occupy and defend Hill 1000, while other elements of the division outposted other high ground nearby.

To accomplish the mission, Williams decided to turn his rump regiment into two battalions by creating a provisional force consisting of the weapons company, headquarters personnel, and the 3d Battalion's Company I. The parachutists moved out on foot from their bivouac at 1130 with three days of rations and a unit of fire in their packs. By 1800 they were in a perimeter defense around the peak of Hill 1000, 3d Battalion (less I Company) on the south and the provisional unit to the north. Supply proved to be the first difficulty, as "steep slopes, overgrown trails, and deep mud" hampered the work of carrying parties. Division eventually had to resort to air drops to overcome the problem. While some parachutists labored to bring up food and ammunition, others patrolled the vicinity. Beginning on the 6th, the outpost line began to turn into a linear defense as the division fed more units forward. The small parachute regiment had a hard time trying to cover its 3,000 yards of assigned frontage on top of the sprawling, ravine-pocked, jungle-covered hill mass.

On 7 December a 3d Battalion patrol discovered abandoned defensive positions on an eastern spur of Hill 1000. The unit brought back documents showing that a reinforced enemy company had set up the strongpoint on what would become known as Hellzapoppin Ridge. The battalion commander, Major Vance, ordered two platoons of Company K to move forward to straight en the line. With no map and only vague directions as a guide, the unit could not find its objective in the dense jungle and remained out of touch until the next day. That night a small Japanese patrol probed the lines of the regiment and the enemy re-occupied the position on the east spur. On the morning of 8 December, a patrol from the provisional battalion investigated the spur and a Japanese platoon ambushed it. The parachutists returned to friendly lines with one man missing. They reorganized and departed an hour later to search for him and tangled with the enemy in the same spot. This time they suffered eight wounded in a 20-minute firefight and withdrew. Twice during the day the regiment received artillery and mortar fire, which it believed to he friendly in origin. The rounds knocked out the regimental command post's telephone communications and caused five serious casualties in Company K.

This photograph vividly portrays the action as Marine raider and paratroop units landed on a beach eight miles behind the Japanese lines to raid an enemy supply area. Here on the beach, at the edge of the jungle, Marines fire at snipers in the trees who are attempting to knock out a captured field gun which was turned against them. The boxes on the sand contain ammunition for the 37mm field piece. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 69783

In light of the increasing enemy activity, Williams decided to straighten out his lines and establish physical contact between the flanks of the battalions. This required the right flank of Company I and the left flank of Company K to advance. On the morning on 9 December, Major Vance personally led a patrol to reconnoiter the new position. Eight Japanese manning three machine guns ambushed that force and it with drew, leaving behind one man. At 1415, the left half of Company K attacked. Within 20 minutes, strong Japanese rifle and machine gun fire brought it to a halt. Although after-action reports from higher echelons later indicated only that Company I did not move forward, those Marines fought hard that day and suffered casualties attempting to advance. Among others, the executive officer, First Lieutenant Milt Cunha, was killed in action and First Sergeant I. J. Fansler, Jr. had his rifle shot out of his hands.

Private First Class Henry J. Kennedy Father Joseph P. Mannion
Private First Class Henry J. Kennedy, right, an instructor, gives pointers to Father Joseph P. Mannion, left, before his first jump from the fly-away tower at New River. The Navy chaplain qualified as a parachutist with the 15th Platoon in May 1943. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 127-GC-495-5381

The inability of Company I to make progress enlarged the dangerous gap in the center of the regiment's line. Vance ordered two demolition squads to refuse K's left flank and Williams sent a platoon of headquarters personnel from the provisional battalion to fill in the remainder of the hole. Snipers infiltrated the Marine line and the regimental commander turned most of his command post group into a reserve force to backstop the rifle companies. The parachutists called in artillery to Company's K's front and Japanese fire finally began to slacken after 1615. The fighting was intense and Company K initially reported casualties of 36 wounded and 12 killed. That figure later proved too high, though exact losses in the attack were hard to ascertain since the parachutists had 18 men missing and took casualties in other actions that day. Major Vance suffered a gunshot wound in the foot and turned over the battalion to Torgerson.

The executive officer of the 21st Marines was in the area, apparently reconnoitering prior to his regiment taking over that portion of the front the next day. He responded to a request for assistance and had his Company C haul ammunition up to the parachutists. When those Marines completed that task, he offered to have them bolster the parachute line and Williams accepted. For the rest of the night the parachute regiment fired artillery missions at 15-minute intervals against likely enemy positions. The Japanese responded with occasional small arms fire. Division shifted the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, to a reserve position behind Hill 1000 and placed the parachute regiment under the tactical control of the 9th Marines, scheduled to occupy the line on their left the next day.

Parachute Accidents

Despite the inherent danger of jumping out of a plane high above the ground, the Marine parachute program had very few accidents. That may have been due in part to the system initially used to prepare the parachutes. From the very first training class, the Corps set the standard that each jumper would pack his own parachute. In addition, a trained rigger supervised the task and had to sign his name on the tag before the parachute was certified for use. (Later this procedure was dropped and riggers packed all parachutes for use in the FMF, but by that time Marines were making very few jumps.) The record indicates only one Marine accident that may have involved a malfunctioning parachute. During training on New Caledonia one man's main parachute failed to open properly. He pulled the ripcord on his reserve, but it just had time to begin deploying when he hit the ground. Observers thought, however, that the main parachute did not deploy because the suspension lines tangled up in the Marine's rifle.

Three other men died in Marine Corps jumping accidents not related to the performance of the parachute. Two men drowned after landing in water; one at Norfolk, Virginia, and one at New River, North Carolina. The final fatality occurred when a New River trainee lost his nerve just as he approached the door of the plane. He moved out of the line of jumpers, but his static line became tangled with the next man to go out. The non-jumper's parachute opened while he was inside the plane and the billowing chute slammed him against the aircraft body hard enough to wreck the door and sever his spine.

The most unusual accident occurred near San Diego, California, on 15 May 1941. Second Lieutenant Walter A. Osipoff and 11 enlisted men of Company A were making a practice jump over Kearney Mesa. Everyone else had exited the plane and he threw out a cargo pack, which possibly tangled in his static line. His parachute opened prematurely while he was still in the door of the plane; it billowed outside the aircraft and pulled him out, but the canopy and suspension lines tangled in the bundle of static lines streaming beside the transport. For a moment the cargo pack, Osipoff and his partially opened parachute were all suspended from the cable that held the static lines. Under this combined load the bracket holding one end of the cable gave way and it streamed out the door. The cargo pack fell away, but Osipoff and his parachute remained dangling from the cable and static lines, suspended behind the plane's tail. The accident also mined his reserve chute and ripped away the part of his harness attached to his chest. He ended up being dragged through the air feet-first, held only by the leg straps.

The crew of the plane attempted to pull him in but could not do so. Since the transport had no radio communications, the pilot flew it over the field at North Island to attract attention. Two Navy test pilots, Lieutenant William W. Lowery and Aviation Chief Machinist's Mate John R. McCants, saw the problem and took off in a SOC-1, an open-cockpit, two-seater biplane. The SOC-1 flew just below and behind the transport while McCants attempted to pull Osipoff into his cockpit. It was an incredible display of flying skill given the necessity to avoid hitting the Marine lieutenant with the SOC-1's propellers. McCants finally succeeded in getting him head first into the plane, though his legs dangled outside. Before McCants could cut the shroud lines, bumpy air pushed the biplane up and its propellers did the job (chopping off 12 inches of the tail cone of the transport in the process). Lowery landed his aircraft as McCants maintained his tenuous grip on the Marine parachutist.

Osipoff suffered severe cuts and bruises and a fractured vertebra. He spent three months in a body cast, but fully recovered and returned to jump status. Lowery and McCants received Distinguished Flying Crosses for their successful rescue.

That was not the only action for the parachutists on 9 December. That morning the provisional battalion had sent a platoon of Company I reinforced by two weapons company machine gun squads on a patrol to circle the eastern spur and investigate the area between it and the Torokina River. The unit moved out to the north east and reached the rear of Hellzapoppin Ridge, where it came upon two Japanese setting up a machine gun along the trail. The Marine point man observed the activity and alerted the patrol leader, Captain Jack Shedaker, who killed both in quick succession with his carbine. Unbeknownst to the Marines, they were in the midst of a Japanese ambush and the enemy immediately returned fire from positions in a swamp on the left side of the trail. The first burst of fire killed one Marine, but the parachute machine gunners quickly got their weapons in action and opened a heavy return fire into the swamp. While the tail-end Marine squad tried to flank the enemy position, other parachutists moved up onto the higher ground on the right side of the trail to obtain better fields of observation and fire. The Japanese soon withdrew under this withering response, but not without heavy losses since they had to cross open ground in full view of Marines on the slope above them. The patrol estimated that it killed 16 Japanese, though regiment later downgraded the claim to 12. The reinforced platoon retraced its steps to the Marine perimeter, its only loss being the one man killed at the start of the ambush.

parachutists with sign overhead
A sign at San Diego, California, in 1942 reminds parachutists that it is up to them to "pack well" if they want to survive to pack another parachute on another day. It was only toward the end of the parachute program that the Marine Corps rescinded the rule requiring each Marine to prepare his own parachute. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 127-GC-121-400846

At least one other patrol made contact that day and one of its machine gun squads became separated in the melee. A third patrol sent to search for the missing men came up empty handed. Three of the machine gunners made it back to friendly lines the next day, but a lieutenant and three enlisted men remained missing.

The enemy continued to harass the parachutists with small arms fire on the morning of 10 December and drove back a patrol sent out to recover Marine dead on Hellzapoppin Ridge. To deal with the problem, Companies K and L with drew 200 yards and called down a 45-minute artillery barrage. When they advanced to reoccupy their positions, they had to fight through Japanese soldiers who had moved closer to the Marine lines to avoid the artillery. Later in the day, the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, relieved the left of the parachute line and the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, took over the right. Williams dissolved the provisional battalion and the rump regiment remained attached to the 9th Marines as its reserve force. Over the next few days the parachutists ran patrols and began building their portion of the corps reserve line of defense. The reserve mission was not entirely quiet, as the parachutists suffered three casualties in a patrol contact and an air raid. Two machine gunners from the weapons company took matters into their own hands and went forward of the front lines searching for their comrades missing since 9 December. Their unofficial heroics proved fruit less. Meanwhile, the 21st Marines spent the period of 12 to 18 December reducing Hellzapoppin Ridge. Their efforts were successful only after corps supported them with a lavish outlay of aerial firepower (several hundred 100-pound bombs) and the dedicated assistance of a specially sited 155mm artillery battery.

Marines pack parachutes
Marines pack parachutes in the paraloft at San Diego in 1942. Each paratrooper had to prepare his own parachute under the supervision of a certified rigger. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 127-GC-1243-402913

The Army's XIV Corps headquarters relieved I MAC in command of the operation on 15 December and the Americal Division began replacing the 3d Marine Division on 21 December. As part of this shift of forces, the regimental companies and 1st Battalion of the parachutists fell under Colonel Alan Shapley's 2d Raider Regiment, with Williams assuming the billet of executive officer of the combined force. While the 3d Parachute Battalion continued as the reserve force for the 9th Marines, the raider and parachute regiment took over the frontline positions of the 3d Marines on 22 December. This placed them with their right flank on the sea at the eastern end of the Empress Augusta Bay perimeter. Army units relieved the 9th Marines on Christmas Day and the 3d Parachute Battalion departed Bougainville soon thereafter. The 1st Battalion conducted aggressive patrols and made its only serious contact on 28 December. Company A crossed the Torokina River inland and swept down the far bank to the sea. Near the river mouth it encountered a strong Japanese position and quickly reduced 8 pillboxes, killed 18 of the enemy, and drove off another 20 defenders. Three parachutists died and two were wounded. Shapley joined the company to observe the final action and commended it for an "excellent job." The last parachutists left Bougainville in the middle of January 1944 and sailed to Guadalcanal.

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