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It's Raining Soldiers
April 1943 Popular Mechanics

May 1968 Popular Mechanics
May 1968 Popular Mechanics - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic over early technology. See articles from Popular Mechanics, published 1902 - 2021. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

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It's Raining Soldiers

The rain begins! Over Africa and New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, Yankee paratroopers like this man are pouring out of the skies to establish advance footholds for the ground forces and seize air bases

By Julian P. Leggett

Major, Air Corps

When American parachute troopers "hit the silk" and floated to earth, then seized important airfields in North Africa a short time ago, military experts sat back and said, "I told you so."

For these experts, including commanding generals of various divisions of the Army Air Forces, had predicted that one of Uncle Sam's most powerful striking forces would be an air-borne army. And the invasion of Africa provided the occasion for the first real test of this force.

Not too many details of the North African campaign have been revealed, but hints of the paratroopers' role in the swift advance from the coast to the very gates of the Axis' last stronghold on that continent have appeared from time to time in communiques. Right from the start, it is evident, the paratroopers leaped from aircraft and quickly encircled a number of landing fields from which the defenders might have launched warplanes. So rapidly did these Yankee "Commandos of the sky," working in conjunction with the British, perform their missions, not a single defending plane rose from the ground. The paratroopers landed from their carrier planes, assembled their weapons and attacked "on the double." With the airport in their hands, the Yankee and British forces then waited until fighter and bomber aircraft began to land and ground troops moved up to relieve the paratroopers.

Looks easy - and at this stage, it is. Before a parachutist makes his first real jump, he goes through all the motions in a four-foot leap from the open door of a "mock-up" of a transport plane

This is how a glider pilot cuts loose from his tractor plane, releasing the tow line when his craft is ready for a glide to earth. Below, beginners get the feel of parachute and harness before they start the rigorous aerial course at Fort Benning, Ga.

In the same manner, the paratroopers are employed in the seizure of important objectives behind the enemy lines. Dropped from the sky in advance of the Allies' ground forces, they can surprise a small defending unit, then hang on to the objective until their own men arrive.

Many details must be kept secret concerning the exact size, composition, tactics and objectives of these commandos of the sky, but it is a safe guess that many an American attack in the next few months will find them leading the way. Further, it can be told that in size, equipment and firepower, this air-borne army ultimately will exceed anything of the kind that the world has ever seen.

This army-on-wings includes more than paratroopers. According to General Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, it eventually will be composed of glider pilots and combat troops transported by aircraft, both airplanes and large gliders, as well as the already famous parachute soldiers. It is contemplated that the paratroopers frequently will be transported in large airplanes which will tow troop- and equipment-carrying gliders in battle areas.

In announcing formation of the air-borne force not long ago, General Arnold said:

"Glider pilots and air-borne combat troops will be in the forefront of attacks; the importance of these swiftly moving fighting teams cannot be over-estimated. This will be a self-contained force whose soldiers, equipment and supplies all are transported by air. It will be able to strike the enemy where he is least prepared."

Tactical training of the aerial commandos for lightning offensive action has been in progress for many months at a number of stations, which were set up to augment preliminary and advanced glider pilot schools and paratroop training establishments. Upon graduation, the new glider pilots join other units of the air-borne" army forces at the tactical stations to complete their training coordination with the combat groups.

One a second, they pour into the sky while the jump-master stands by watchfully. Boots of one paratrooper are still visible outside the door as the next man is halfway out. Notice ripcords still attached to cable

Marine paratroopers training at a Naval Air Station hook ripcords to cable and are ready for the plunge

Three big army transport planes pour out chutists in an aerial parade, precise as if hung from one string

The Yankee Commandos of the air are forming a huge glider army, too. Here air-borne troops leap from glider to attack

Reactions of student paratrooper are tested on tower from which jumper falls for 20 feet before harness checks him

When formation of this force was first announced, two complete air-borne divisions had been organized. These air units included parachutists, transport-borne troops and glider-riding soldiers - all formed into a powerful striking force similar to the infantry and with approximately the same fire power.

Of the various phases of this program, which has progressed with even greater speed than its creators had anticipated, the glider development is the newest, as well as the fastest-moving. Not many months ago, the glider had no place in the American air forces; few glider pilots were to be found among the nation's flying officers. But the picture has changed at a dizzy rate. Its outlines had been laid prior to the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese and today every detail is in sharp focus. Hundreds of pilots have been trained and hundreds more are in training; many gliders have been built and hundreds more are in the building. Even the actual size of the glider has been increasing. First, there were only one- and two-place ships, useful only for training purposes. Next came a glider capable of carrying nine fighting men of average weight; needless to say, it could be employed to advantage in transporting soldiers. Latest of the gliders to be announced is a 15-place ship; not only will it carry 15 aerial Commandos, but its weight-carrying ability is sufficient for transporting certain equipment as well.

Parachutes are still billowing on the ground as the troopers from the sky consolidate quickly into fighting teams, seize the equipment and supplies dropped with them, and rush into position. Below, air-borne infantry march up the ramp to board a Curtiss "Commando," the C-46. This twin-engine cargo plane is one of the largest aircraft in the world, being mass-produced for the Army Air Forces for transport service

Marines watch the terrain as they come in for a landing. Their transport plane carries a new type midget car and a 37-millimeter antitank gun

And beyond the 15-place glider probably are ships of still greater capacity. Dispatches from the fighting fronts have told of German gliders large enough to transport "baby" tanks, five- or six-ton machines, in all likelihood. American engineers have not even hinted that any of their efforts may be pointed in this direction; the practicability of moving tanks of any size by this means may be questioned.

But it is a safe bet that if "super-gliders" can be used to advantage, Uncle Sam's engineers will provide them and they'll outperform anything the enemy can produce.

General Arnold further revealed that that the air-borne army is being equipped to perform missions of the now-familiar British Commando type. One phase of this development is the working out of some means by which army airplanes, while in flight, can pick up gliders from the ground. One has only to exercise the imagination a bit to realize the usefulness of such a development. It can be accomplished by a hook, which extends from the airplane in a downward direction, for engaging a pick-up device, similar to that used in airplane mail pickup service. Attached to the pick-up device is the tow line of the glider. Making the connection and hauling the glider into the air is only a matter of seconds, in contrast to the amount of time required for landing the plane, making the tow line connection and then getting both the airplane and the glider into the air. Too frequently, there is insufficient space for an airplane to land or take off, yet enough for the glider to be lifted into the air by means of this pickup system.

A circle of parachute students hook on to the practice "flyaway" chute at naval air station

Of more appeal to the imagination of the layman is the parachutist's role in the aerial Commando force. Youth's never-ending quest for thrills is fully satisfied in the paratrooper's daily routine. Using newly developed equipment and launching technique, the 'chute troops drop from carrier aircraft at a rate of one per second; then additional supplies of ammunition, guns, food and water can be dropped at will in aerial delivery containers developed and tested at Wright Field. Leaping, one after another, in a form of split-second aerial marching, the paratroopers land with almost uncanny precision on a predetermined area adjacent to a military objective. Often this is accomplished with. no more than a few hundred feet of altitude in which to clear the carrier plane, open the 'chutes fully and maneuver them to the landing area.

Speed, surprise and controlled mobility are attained only after long, hard periods of practice formation jumps with full field equipment. After a period of learning how to pack his own parachute - highly important because his very life depends upon his skill - the student is physically conditioned for the rough-and-tumble work of parachute jumping. He is given 30 minutes of "double time" - twice the regular marching rate - each day, plus morning exercises which strengthen and toughen him for the job ahead. Next he places a dummy parachute on his back, to get the feel of it, and practices "landing" from a dummy airplane on the ground; he slides down an inclined beam on a suspended harness which releases him above the ground, thus accustoming him to landing from a height. Next, the student learns to tumble and fall correctly so as to avoid fractures or sprains; also how to come to his feet instantly after landing. He climbs ropes hand-over-hand and is taught balance and coordination.

The drag line from a tractor plane has hooked a tow-line and in a few seconds will pull glider into air

Tower training is the next phase and here the student's reaction to "falling free" through the air for 20 feet are noted before he is allowed to descend from a 25-foot tower. First, he makes a controlled jump, with wires guiding his 'chute safely to earth, and then a "free" jump, in which the 'chute floats to earth with no control other than the student's manipulation of the shroud lines.

The fourth, and final phase is actual jumping. The student makes five classification jumps and must participate in at least two mass jumps of 12 men each. During this phase, the men are graded on their work. If the student declines to go aloft or to jump, he is disqualified. The paratroopers are volunteers.

Signaling with the "biscuit gun" at a glider school

Defenders were too quick for paratroopers in this army game and a chutist is stopped by a rifle behind his back as he lands in North Carolina below the exact spot

Knowing how to handle a wind-filled parachute after landing will save bruises and broken bones. Trick is to spill air immediately on landing

Of his work a paratroop officer said recently:

""In our Army, a parachutist is not one who merely parachutes. Parachuting is a great sport. The tedious preparation preceding the actual descent comes closer to being work. We parachutists are fanatically fond of our particular branch of the service; there has grown up among us a bond which the layman probably wouldn't understand."

Only a few short years ago, a handful of infantry officers and enlisted men gathered at Fort Benning, Ga., to form the nucleus of the first parachute group. Today, almost below the exact spot where these inexperienced but willing pioneers first stepped to the open door of their airplane and jumped out into "nothing," a huge parachute school is in operation, training paratroopers by the hundreds for Uncle Sam's powerful aerial army.

But what about the danger? That is a question that the layman poses frequently, but one easy to answer. Fort Benning records show that in two years of training, approximately 100,000 jumps were made with only three fatalities - all the result of mistakes made by the men. And that record is better than most sports - baseball, football and basketball - can boast.

It's apparent that the paratroopers themselves think little of that side of their job. Not long ago, a group of these aerial commandos participated in a large-scale mock invasion of an airport. On the transport carrying them to the "jumping off place," there was a marked absence of glumness; in contrast, they devoured oranges and cookies, cracked jokes and ribbed one or two of their group about landing on tree stumps or in a lake.

This same group had double-timed for two miles the day before in a bit of "warming up." And the day before that, they had marched 35 miles in less than eight hours at night under blackout conditions while carrying complete equipment.

Jumping from their aircraft and landing in a particular area is far from being the paratrooper's entire job. They are specialists of the first order, being trained in aerial photography, map reading, radio communication, compass orientation and the use of virtually every type of weapon, from the Garand automatic rifle to the trench mortar. And they know how to use some new - and still secret - weapons.

Being of the Commando type, the paratrooper also is taught how to operate all kinds of vehicles - armored equipment, trucks and motorcycles - as well as railroad trains. Such knowledge may be highly valuable in enemy territory. All this training, plus careful planning of each particular mission, makes the paratrooper one of the deadliest fighting men on earth.

Then there are the air-borne troops in this aerial striking force. They are transported to destination by glider and airplane, following closely on the heels of the paratroopers whose job it is to seize an airport where the aircraft may land. Their training is directed upon the importance of swift loading and unloading of their planes. One of the latest airplanes useful for this purpose is the Curtiss C-46, the Commando, which is capable of carrying some 50 men with full equipment. The Commando has a wide side door through which a jeep or a large gun can be loaded.

This, then, is the force which our military experts are confident will prove one of the most important in America's scheme of attack leading to victory.

 

 

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