Have you ever heard the old saying, “Never meet your heroes, because they’re sure to disappoint you?” Well, that was certainly true in my case. Before joining the Army, I had read everything I could get my hands on about paratroopers and the Green Berets, the Army’s Special Forces. And before there was a Special Forces — before even the OSS — there was the Airborne Test Platoon.
But first a bit of history…
Colonel Billy Mitchell was way ahead of his time in many ways, and the use of airborne troops was one of them. Shortly after World War I, Mitchell proposed the use of airborne troops and put on a demonstration at Kelly Field in San Antonio, TX. Mitchell’s demonstration involved only six soldiers parachuting from a Martin bomber and in less than three minutes, assemble their weapons, and moved on a notional objective.
The Army brass, which has always been distrustful and unreceptive to anything new or that smells remotely of elite units, shot down Mitchell’s concept as a bunch of nothing. But other countries’ governments, who attended the demonstration, were paying attention. Both the Soviet Union and Germany saw the possibilities of utilizing airborne troops and began developing their own.
After Nazi Germany invaded the Low Countries at the outset of World War II, the U.S. Army began to take notice. Chief of Staff of the Army General George C. Marshall, arguably one of the finest organizers and staff officers to ever wear the uniform, saw the value of airborne forces and finally acted. It was then that the War Department approved plans for the formation of a test platoon of Airborne Infantry to form, equip, and train under the direction and control of the Army’s Infantry Board. In June 1940, the Commandant of the Infantry School was directed to organize a test platoon of volunteers from Fort Benning’s 29th Infantry Regiment.
Over 180 soldiers from the 29th volunteered to be part of the Airborne Test Platoon. Its commander would be Lieutenant William Ryder, with LT. James A. Bassett designated as the Assistant Platoon Leader. The men’s selection was based on high standards of health and rugged physical characteristics. Only 48 enlisted men were selected from a pool of nearly 200 volunteers. The platoon was billeted at Lawson Field, and an abandoned hanger was obtained for use as a training hall and for parachute packing.
The training was tough and physically demanding. The platoon was moved to Ft. Dix, New Jersey to use the 250-foot jump towers that had been emplaced for the World’s Fair. The army was so impressed with those towers that they purchased four of them and emplaced them at Ft. Benning, where the Army’s Airborne School was located. Three of the original towers are still being used today, a testament to their construction and design; the fourth blew down in a storm in the 1950s.
Ryder designed the 34-foot towers that are still used today. The men simulated parachute landings by jumping out of the back of moving trucks. Ryder was credited with being the first U.S. paratrooper as he was the very first man to leap from a B-18 in flight. Pvt. William “Red” King was the first enlisted paratrooper as he jumped after Ryder.
From those humble beginnings, the United States produced airborne forces en masse. By war’s end five years later, the United States would have five airborne divisions, the 11th, 13th, 17th, 82d, and 101st along with several separate parachute infantry regiments and battalions.
Interestingly, all 50 of the Airborne Test Platoon’s men went to combat in World War II and every one of them survived.
Forty years after the initial test-platoon the veterans had their 40th reunion at Ft. Benning. That just so happened when yours truly was going through Ground Week of Airborne School. So, the cadre gleefully announced that sometime in the afternoon the original Airborne Test Platoon would be coming by to witness training and to check out the airborne students and cadre. In reality, other than the type of parachutes used, much of what we were doing was the exact same as they did in 1940.
Most of us younger guys thought it was really cool, while many of the officers and NCOs in the class groaned. “We’re gonna get smoked like a cheap cigar,” an NCO from Hawaii, who would be in my upcoming Special Forces class later that summer, said.
That afternoon, under the late June sun that would fry an egg on the hood of a car, we were conducting exits from the 34′ tower. That’s when we saw a large group of veterans, accompanied by their wives, making their way down to the towers.
And all hell broke loose. Eager to show the Airborne Test Platoon veterans that the training was still tough, every few seconds, the entire stick exiting the jump doors would be deemed unsatisfactory. Which required all of us to get down and do pushups. That day, we pushed the dirt in Ft. Benning down about six inches.
Things only got worse when one of the vets, (I believe it may have been Red King), jumped down to do pushups with the students while his wife snapped a picture. We made the mistake of smiling for the camera (bad idea) when the lady took a shot with one of those old Kodak Pocket Instamatic 110s. As soon as the vet was done, one of our “Black Hat,” as the airborne cadre were called due to their black ball caps, smoked us harder. “Now I’ll give you something to smile about!”
So, no, we didn’t get to actually talk to any of the Test Platoon vets. And yes, the experience was decidedly negative at the time. The years since then have softened it but it was a bummer.
An interesting footnote to the story was that then I thought those vets were older than Methusela on their 40th anniversary of the test platoon. This June, only three months from now, will be the 41st anniversary of my Airborne class, one year farther removed from Jump School than they were…
What the hell does that make us?