The Army will honor the 75th anniversary of the American paratrooper with — what else? — a large jump into Fort Benning, Georgia.
The commemoration, led by the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, will mark 75 years since the War Department approved the formation of a test platoon of airborne infantry from Fort Benning's 29th Infantry Regiment. Less than 45 days after it was formed, on Aug. 16, 1940, members of the test platoon made their first jump from a Douglas B-18 over Lawson Army Airfield.
On Aug. 15, today's paratroopers, along with the Liberty Jump Team, a group of civilian World War II airborne reenactors, will jump into that very same airfield.
"This entire year, we've been very cognizant of the 75th anniversary," said Lt. Col. Korey Brown, commander of 1st Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Battalion, and commander of the U.S. Army Airborne School. "It's a very key year for the airborne community."
The United States was a little late to the game when it came to airborne operations, but today the Army is "the leading force in the world because of the soldiers who volunteer to be airborne," Brown said.
"Being an airborne soldier is all volunteer," he said. "The spirit that the paratrooper brings to a unit or to a fight is second to none."
The concept of airborne soldiers originated with founding father Benjamin Franklin, who envisioned a time when soldiers would be delivered to the battlefield from the air, Brown said.
In World War I, Britain's Winston Churchill proposed the creation of an airborne force.
The U.S. was "actually late" to adopt airborne capability, doing so after the Germans, the Soviets and other nations had done so, Brown said.
The Soviets were the first ones to develop an operational airborne force, but the Germans were the first to actually jump or glide into combat, said Luke Keating, the technical writer and historian for 1st Battalion, 507th Infantry.
"That really opened everybody's eye up to the significance of airborne forces and what they can do," Keating said.
In 1940, more than 250 soldiers from the 29th Infantry Regiment volunteered for the 40-man test platoon, Keating said. Some even gave up their rank, as the unit had very specific and limited requirements for officers and noncommissioned officers, to be part of the test platoon, Keating said.
The soldiers trained for seven weeks before their first jump.
Members of the 82nd Airborne relax on a hill near Point Salines Airport in Grenada, Nov. 2, 1983.
Photo Credit: Pete Leabo/AP
When the time came, Lt. William Ryder and Pvt. William "Red" King were the first officer and enlisted man to make an official jump as paratroopers in the U.S. Army.
King, a corporal who turned in his stripes so he could be in the test platoon, was the first enlisted soldier to exit the aircraft purely by chance, Keating said.
The soldiers held a lottery to determine who would get to jump first.
"They all wanted that No. 1 position," Brown said.
The soldier who drew the lucky No. 1 enlisted spot was offered up to $50 — equivalent to two months' pay at the time — to trade places with other soldiers in the test platoon, but he refused. Later, on that first flight, that soldier was a jump refusal, Keating said.
The soldier, whose name was never known publicly, jumped later that day, but his initial refusal cleared the path for King.
"He immediately took his position and jumped into history as the first enlisted man to exit an aircraft," Keating said.
On Aug. 16, 1940, the test platoon completed the last of its five jumps. To this day, soldiers must complete five jumps to earn their novice parachutist wings, Keating said.
Today, only one member of the test platoon, Thaddeus Selman, is still alive.
And airborne school is three weeks long; 14,000 to 16,000 soldiers attend the school each year, with more than 83 percent of them graduating, said Master Sgt. Robert Lucas, the operations sergeant major for 1st Battalion, 507th Infantry.
Since those jumps 75 years ago, there have been more than 46 static line operations into combat theaters and even more high-altitude, low-opening jumps, Brown said.
During World War II, paratroopers jumped into Algeria for Operation Torch, Italy for Operations Husky and Avalanche, France for Operations Overlord and Titanic, Holland for Operation Market Garden, the Philippines for Operations Topside and the Los Banos Prison Camp raid, among several other notable operations.
Since then, paratroopers have jumped into Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq, Brown said.
"A lot of people will question whether static line operations are relevant," he said. "I think history shows static line operations in the airborne are definitely relevant."
Paratroopers watch as C-17 Globemaster IIIs air drop combat cargo bundles carrying food and water on Oct. 11, 2007, in Paktika Province, Afghanistan.
Photo Credit: Spc. Micah E. Clare/Army
The jump on Aug. 15 will feature 12 members of the Liberty Jump Team, who will jump from the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the same aircraft used by World War II paratroopers, Brown said.
They will be followed by Pathfinders from 1st Battalion, 507th Infantry, who will jump from UH-60 Black Hawks.
Almost 300 paratroopers from airborne units across the Army will follow, jumping from one C-130 and two C-17s, Brown said.
Invitations were sent to all of the Army's airborne units, including the 82nd Airborne Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, to participate, he said.
The day's events also will include static displays as well as activities at the National Infantry Museum, which also is on Fort Benning, Lucas said.
Brown said he is expecting about 300 people to attend the day's events.
"There's a lot of pride with the airborne, and it's multi-generational," he said.
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.