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                                                  Parachute Test Platoon

In 1918, it was Brigadier General William P. “Billy” Mitchell of the Army Air Corps, General John J. Pershing’s air service advisor in WWI, who first suggested the United States Army should utilize airborne troops.  Although “Black Jack” Pershing approved the idea, the concept never became reality due to the war ending of the war.

In 1940, the War Department approved the formation of a test platoon of Airborne Infantry under the direction and control of the Army's Infantry Board. A test platoon of volunteers was organized from Fort Benning's 29th Infantry Regiment, and the 2nd Infantry Division was directed to conduct tests to develop reference data and operational procedures for air-transported troops.

In late July 1940,
First Lieutenant William T. Ryder volunteered and was made the test platoon's platoon leader, Lieutenant James A. Bassett was designated assistant platoon leader, and forty-eight enlisted men were selected from a pool of 200 volunteers. The platoon moved into tents near Lawson Army Airfield, and an abandoned hangar was obtained for training and parachute
packing.


Lieutenant William T. Ryder, a 1936 graduate of West Point, who expressed interest in airborne operations long before the Army approved the formation of the Parachute Test Platoon. He studied Soviet and German tactics and training conducted in the late 1930s.

 

Prior to Lt. Ryder’s knowledge of the development of an airborne unit in the U.S. Army, Ryder submitted a number of papers to the Infantry Board covering the use of airborne units in combat. Ironically, when Lieutenant Ryder showed up with fifteen other officers who volunteered for the opportunity to lead the test platoon for a written exam, he was relieved to find the majority of the test covered articles he personally submitted to the Infantry Board in the past. In forty-five minutes, Ryder completed the two-hour examination and was quickly selected to command the test platoon.


Five of the best Army Air Corps’ parachutists and riggers, led by Warrant Officer Harry “Tug” Wilson, conducted the training for the Parachute Test Platoon. 
In the first two weeks, their training consisted of tough physical training combined with classes on the basics of the history of the parachute and its theories. Actual jumps were not performed because the platoon did not even have enough parachutes to conduct airborne training. This was truly an outfit that evolved and developed its tactics with each jump.

Eighteen days later,
Major William H. Lee, the officer in charge of overseeing the development of the airborne units, sent the platoon to Hightstown, New Jersey. Major Lee discovered that due to the New York City World’s Fair in 1939, there were two 150-foot parachute jump towers his platoon could utilize for training. Later, 250-foot towers were built at Fort Benning to facilitate other paratroopers’ training. The platoon trained in New Jersey for ten days before returning to Georgia to finish their final two weeks of training.
 

Impressed, the Army purchased two and erected them on what is now Eubanks Field at Fort Benning. Two more were later added, and today three of the original four towers are still in use. Parachute landing training was often conducted by the volunteers jumping from PT platforms and from the back of moving trucks to allow the trainees to experience the shock of landing.

The platoon made great strides, and after its time in New Jersey, the men were in outstanding physical condition and could all pack their own chutes. On the last day of week seven,
Lieutenant Ryder announced the completion of the ground phase of their training and the unit would make five jumps the following week. After his announcement, “Tug” Wilson explained there would be a demonstration where a dummy would be dropped out of an airplane and parachute to the ground. To the horror of every man at the demonstration, the dummy, nicknamed “Oscar,” was “pushed from the aircraft door, and plummeted to its destruction a mere 50 yards distance from the spectating volunteers.” Fortunately for the men, it was only a test dummy.
 

Less than forty-five days after it was formed, members of the test platoon made their first jump from a Douglas B-18 Bolo bomber over Lawson Field on 16 August 1940. Lieutenant Ryder and Private William N. (Red) King became the first officer and enlisted man to make an official jump as paratroopers in the United States Army. On 29 August, the platoon made the first platoon mass jump held in the United States.


Lieutenant Ryder, the leader of the platoon, was the first one out of the lead airplane for the inaugural jump, earning him the title of the “First American Paratrooper.” Three more jumps followed the initial test, each one prompted rules and changes to be made to their equipment and techniques. One of these rules included the requirement that every jumper look off into the horizon when standing in the door, rather than looking down. This prevented the soldier from freezing in the doorway, keeping him from slowing down the entire stick’s progress during exit.

The fifth jump the platoon conducted was to be a mass jump for a group of individuals requesting a demonstration of the accomplished work. The audience consisted of
General Lynch, Major Lee, General Marshall, and, unannounced, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. The performance of the jump greatly impressed those in attendance. The audience witnessed the Parachute Test Platoon conduct the army’s “first airborne tactical operation with well-drilled precision.” As a result of the platoon’s successes, the U.S. Army formed the first parachute battalion.
By order of the War Department, on October 1st,  1940, the 501stParachute Infantry Battalion officially activated at Fort Benning.

Members of the original test platoon formed the battalion cadre of the 501st Parachute Battalion, the first parachute combat unit. The second, the 502nd Parachute Infantry Battalion, was activated on 1 July 1941. As more airborne units were activated, a centralized training facility was organized at Fort Benning on 15 May 1942.

This innovative group of young men performed testing that would claim two lives from their ranks. The platoon took courageous risks required to develop airborne capabilities for the entire American Army for the entire war and for the future of the Airborne.




 

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