Lt Col Jon T. Hoffman, US Marine Corps Reserve. Official Study – War Department, Silk Chutes and Hard Fighting, USMC Parachute Units in World War II, History and Museums Division, Headquarters USMC – Washington DC – 1999
This historical pamphlet covers the Marine Corps’ flirtation with airborne operations during World War II. In tracing this story, I relied heavily on the relevant operational and administrative records of the Marine Corps held by the National Archives in Washington, DC, and College Park, Maryland, and the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland. The various offices of the Marine Corps Historical Center yielded additional primary materials.
The Reference Section holds biographical data on most key individuals, as well as files on specific units. The Oral History Section has a number of pertinent interviews, the most significant being Gen Joseph C. Burger, Gen Marion L. Dawson, Gen Gerald C. Thomas, and Gen Robert H. Williams.
The Personal Papers Section has several collections pertaining to the parachute program. Among the most useful were the papers of Eldon C. Anderson, Eric Hammel, Nolen Marbrey, John C. McQueen, Peter Ortiz, and George R. Stallings. A number of secondary sources proved helpful. Marine Corps publications include Charles L. Updegraph, Jr’s US Marine Corps Special Units of World War II, Maj John L. Zimmerman’s Guadalcanal Campaign, Maj John N. Rentz’s Bougainville and the Northern Solomons, and Isolation of Rabaul by Henry I. Shaw, Jr and Maj Douglas T. Kane.
A valuable work on the overall American parachute program during the war is William B. Breuer’s Geronimo! The Marine Corps Gazette and Leatherneck contain a number of articles describing the parachute units and their campaigns. Ken Haney’s An Annotated Bibliography of USMC Paratroopers in World War II provides a detailed listing of sources, to include Haney’s own extensive list of publications on the subject.
Many Marine parachutists graciously provided interviews, news clippings, photographs, and other sources for this work. Col Dave E. Severance, secretary-treasurer of the Association of Survivors, was especially obliging in culling material from his extensive files. I would like to thank Benis M. Frank, former Chief Historian for the History and Museums Division, for his insightful advice and editing. Many members of the division staff ably assisted the research and production effort: Charles D. Melson, Chief Historian; Jack Shulimson and Charles R. Smith of the Writing Section; Evelyn A. Englander of the Library; Amy C. Cantin of Personal Papers; Ann A. Ferrante, Danny J. Crawford, and Robert V. Aquilina of Reference Section; Richard A. Long and David B. Crist of Oral History; Lena M. Kaljot of the Photographic Section; Frederick J. Graboske and Joyce Conyers-Hudson of the Archives Section; and Robert E. Struder, W. Stephen Hill, and Catherine A. Kerns of Editing and Design.
Jon T. Hoffman
Lt Col, US Marine Corps Reserve
Silk Chutes and Hard Fighting: US Marine Corps Parachute Units in World War II is a brief narrative of the development, deployment, and eventual demise of Marine parachute units during World War II. It is published to honor the veterans of these special units and for the information of those interested in Marine parachutists and the events in which they participated. Lt Col Jon T. Hoffman, USMC (R), is an infantry officer currently on duty as a staff officer with the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Experimental. During his 15 years of active duty, he has served as platoon and company commander with 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines; inspector-instructor with 2nd Battalion 23rd Marines; history instructor at the US Naval Academy and action officer at Headquarters Marine Corps. His reserve service has been with the field history branch of the Marine Corps History and Museums Division, the II Marine Expeditionary Force Augmentation Command Element, and the adjunct faculty of the Marine Corps Command & Staff College. He is a distinguished graduate of the resident program of the latter institution. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Miami University, a law degree from Duke University, and a master’s degree in military history from Ohio State University. His 1994 biography of Gen Merritt A. Edson, once A Legend, received the Marine Corps Historical Foundation’s Greene Award and was selected for the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Reading List. His numerous articles in the professional military and historical journals have earned a dozen prizes, most notably the Marine Corps Historical Foundation’s Heinl Award for 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995. In the interests of accuracy and objectivity, the History and Museums Division welcomes comments on this pamphlet from key participants, Marine Corps activities, and interested individuals.
Michael E. Monigan, Col USMC
Director of Marine Corps History and Museums
Parachute Troops for Military Forces
After their first successful operation jump in Stavanger-Sola during the German Campaign of Norway, on Apr 9, 1940, German Fallschirmjaeger spearheaded the German Army which had launched its offensive in western Europe by crossing the borders of neutral Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, Operation Fall Gelb (Plan Yellow). On May 10, 1940, by attacking through the Low Countries, the German Oberkommando der Wehrmacht believed that German forces could outflank the French Maginot Line and then advance through southern Belgium and northern France, cutting off the British Forces and a large number of French forces. This would force the French government to surrender.
To gain access to northern France, the invaders would have to defeat the armed forces of the Low Countries and either bypass or neutralize several defensive positions, primarily in Belgium and the Netherlands. Some of these defensive positions were only lightly defended and intended more as delaying positions than true defensive lines designed to stop an enemy attack.
However, some defenses were of a more permanent nature and possessed even considerable fortifications garrisoned by significant numbers of troops. The Grebbe-Peel Line in the Netherlands, which stretched from the southern shore of the Zuiderzee to the Belgian border near Weert, had a large number of fortifications combined with natural obstacles, such as marsh-lands and the Geld Valley, which could easily be flooded to impede an attack.
The main Belgian defensive line, the Line K-W, also known as the Dyle or Dijl Line, along the River Dyle, protected the port of Antwerp and the Belgian capital, Brussels. Between the K-W Line and the border was a delaying line along the Albert Canal. This delaying line was protected by forwarding positions manned by troops, except in a single area where the canal ran close to the Dutch border, which was known as the Maastricht Appendix due to the proximity of the Dutch city of Maastricht. There the Belgian military could not build forward positions due to the proximity of the border, and instead assigned an infantry division to guard the three bridges over the canal in the area, a brigade being assigned to each bridge. The bridges were defended by blockhouses equipped with machine-guns. Artillery support was provided by the Fort in Eben-Emael, whose artillery pieces covered two of the bridges. The German High Command became aware of the defensive plan, which called for Belgian forces to briefly hold the delaying positions along the Albert Canal and then retreat to link up with British and French forces on the K-W Line. The Germans developed a strategy that would disrupt this plan, by seizing the three bridges in the Maastricht Appendix, as well as other bridges in Belgium and the Netherlands. This would allow their own forces to breach the defensive positions and advance into the Netherlands.
At 0530, on the morning of May 10, 1940, German Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 52/3m towing DFS-230 type gliders carrying the men of the Sturmabteilung Koch (Assault Detachment Koch) were en route to the Fort in Eben-Emael. A couple of minutes before H Hour, 9 of the 11 DFS 230 gliders who had left Germany earlier swooped out of the dark sky and landed on a patch of ground that covered the roof of Gigantic Armored Fortress, one of the key position in the Liège Belt Defenses (Ceinture de Fortifications de Liège) in Belgium, along the Albert Canal. This part of the Fortification Belt had 3 major Fortresses in the defenses line of the Belgian Army: Fort Eben-Emael, Fort Battice and Fort Tancrémont.
The 60-odd men of a parachute-engineer detachment quickly debarked and set about their well-rehearsed work. Using newly developed shaped charges, they systematically destroyed the armored cupolas housing the fort’s artillery pieces and machine guns. Although Eben Emael’s 1200 defenders held out below ground for another 24 hours before surrendering, the fort had ceased to be a military obstacle. The paratroopers lost just six killed and 15 wounded. Simultaneously with this assault, a battalion of German parachute infantry seized two nearby bridges and prevented sentries from setting off demolition charges. These precursor operations allowed two Panzer-Divisions to cross the Meuse River on May 11 and collapse Belgium’s entire defensive line. Germany remaining five Fallschirmjaeger Battalions conducted similar missions in Holland and achieved substantial results. In the course of a few hours, 4500 Fallschirmjaeger had opened the road to an easy conquest of the Low Countries and laid the groundwork for Germany’s amazingly swift victory in the subsequent Battle of France. These stunning successes caused armed forces around the world to take stock of the role of parachutists in modern war.
The widely publicized airborne coup in the Low Countries created an immediate, high-level reaction within the Marine Corps. On May 14, the acting director of the Division of Plans and Policies at Headquarters Marine Corps issued a memorandum to his staff officers. The one-page document came right to the point in its first sentence: Gen Thomas Holcomb has ordered that we prepare plans for the employment of parachute troops. The matter was obviously of the highest priority since Col Pedro A. del Valle asked for immediate responses, which could be submitted in pencil on scrap paper. Perhaps as telling, the memorandum did not direct a mere study, but the creation of a course of action. Considering the Corps’ complete lack of expertise in this emerging field of warfare, HQs quickly translated staff plans into reality. The first small group of volunteers reported for training in Oct 1940 and graduated the following February. Succeeding classes went through an accelerated program for basic parachute qualification, but the numbers mounted very slowly.
Marine Parachute Pioneers
In October 1940, the Commandant sent a circular letter to all units and posts to solicit volunteers for the paratroopers. All applicants, with the exception of officers above the rank of captain, had to meet a number of requirements regarding age: 21 to 32 years; height: 66 to 74 inches and health: normal eyesight and blood pressure. In addition, they had to be unmarried, an indication of the expected hazards of the duty.
Applications were to include information on the Marine’s educational record and athletic experience, so Headquarters was obviously interested in placing above-average individuals in these new units. The letter further stated that personnel qualified as paratrooper would receive an unspecified amount of extra pay. The money served as both a recognition of the danger and an incentive to volunteer. Congress would eventually set the additional monthly pay for parachutists at $100 for officers and $50 for enlisted men. Since a private first class at that time earned about $36 per month and a second lieutenant $125, the increase amounted to a hefty bonus. It would prove to be a significant factor in attracting volunteers, though parachuting would have generated a lot of interest without the money. As one early applicant later put it, based on common knowledge of the German success in the Low Countries, many Marines thought that this was going to be a grand and glorious business. Parachute duty promised plenty of action and the chance to get in on the ground floor of a revolutionary type of warfare.
To get the program underway, the Commandant transferred Marine Capt Marion L. Dawson from duty with the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics to Lakehurst, New Jersey, to oversee the new school. Two enlisted Marine parachute riggers would serve as his initial assistants. Marine parachuting got off to an inauspicious start when Capt Dawson and two lieutenants made a visit to Hightstown, New Jersey, to check out the jumping towers (Safe Parachute Manufacturing Company). The other officers, Lt Walter S. Osipoff and Lt Robert C. McDonough, were slated to head the Corps’ first group of parachute trainees. After watching a brief demonstration, the owner suggested that the Marines give it a test. As Dawson later recalled, he reluctantly agreed, only to break his leg when he landed at the end of his free fall.
On Oct 26, 1940, Osipoff, McDonough, and 38 enlisted men reported to Lakehurst. The Corps was still developing its training program, so the initial class spent 10 days at Hightstown starting on Oct 28. Immediately after that they joined a new class at the Parachute Material School and followed that 16-week course of instruction until its completion on Feb 27, 1941. A Douglas R3D-2 transport plane arrived from Quantico on Dec 6 and remained there through Dec 21, so the pioneer Marine paratroopers made their first jumps during this period. For the remainder of the course, they leap from Navy blimps stationed at Lakehurst. Lt Osipoff, the senior officer, had the honor of making the first jump by a Marine paratrooper. By graduation, each man had completed the requisite 10 jumps to qualify as a parachutist and parachute rigger.
Not all made it through. Several dropped from the program due to ineptitude or injury. The majority of these first graduates were destined to remain at Lakehurst as instructors or to serve the units in the Fleet Marine Force as riggers. By the time the second training class reported, Dawson and his growing staff had created a syllabus for the program. The first two weeks were ground school, which emphasized conditioning, wearing of the harness, landing techniques, dealing with wind drag of the parachute once on the ground, jumping from platforms and a plane mock-up, and packing chutes. Students spent the third week riding a bus each day to Hightstown where they applied their skills on the towers. The final two weeks consisted of work from aircraft and tactical training as time permitted. Students had to complete six jumps to qualify as a parachutist. The trainers had accumulated their knowledge from the Navy staff, from observing Army training at Fort Benning, and from a film depicting German parachutists. The latter resulted in one significant Marine departure from US Army methods. Whereas the Army made a vertical exit from the aircraft, basically just stepping out the door, Marines copied the technique depicted in the German film and tried to make a near-perpendicular dive, somewhat like a swimmer coming off the starting block.
Marine paratroopers used two parachutes in training and in tactical jumps. They wore the main chute in a backpack configuration and a reserve chute on their chest. When jumping from transport planes, the main opened by means of a static line attached to a cable running lengthwise in the cargo compartment.
Once the jumpmaster gave the signal, a man crouched in the doorway, made his exit dive, and then drew his knees toward his chest. The parachutist, arms wrapped tightly about his chest chute, felt the opening shock of his main canopy almost immediately upon leaving the plane. If not, he had to pull the ripcord to deploy the reserve chute. (When jumping from blimps, the parachutists had to use a ripcord for the main chute, too.)
A parachutist’s speed of descent depended upon his weight, so Marines carried as little as possible to keep the rate down near 16 feet per second, the equivalent of jumping from a height of about 10 feet. At that speed, a jumper had to fall and roll when hitting the ground so as to spread the shock beyond his leg joints. Training jumps began at 1000 feet, while the standard height for tactical jumps in the Corps was 750. The Germans jumped from as low as 300 feet, but that made it impossible to open the emergency chute in time for it to be effective, which is probably the reason why they never used an emergency ‘reserve’ parachute.
Throughout 1941 the Marine Corps produced just a trickle of jumpers and remained a long way from possessing a useful tactical entity. Most members of the first three training classes reported to the 2nd Marine Division in San Diego, to form the nucleus of the Corps’ first parachute unit. The 2nd Parachute Company (soon re-designated Able Co, 2nd Parachute Battalion) formally came into existence on Mar 22, 1941. The first commanding officer was Capt Robert H. Williams.
The majority of the fourth class went to Quantico, Va, and became the nucleus of Able Co, 1st Parachute Battalion, on May 28. Its first commanding officer was Capt Marcellus J. Howard. From that point forward, graduating classes were generally detailed on an alternating basis to each coast.
In the summer of 1941, the West Coast company transferred to Quantico and merged into the 1st Battalion. Williams assumed command of the two-company organization. The concentration of the Corps’ small paratrooper contingents at Quantico at least allowed them to begin a semblance of tactical training. The battalion conducted a number of formation jumps during the last half of July, some from Marine planes and others from Navy patrol bombers. In no case could it muster enough planes to jump an entire company at once. Capt Williams used his battalion’s time on the ground to emphasize his belief that paratroopers are simply a new form of infantry. His men learned hand-to-hand fighting skills, went on conditioning hikes, and did a lot of calisthenic exercises. A Time magazine reporter noted that the parachutists were a notably tough-looking outfit among Marines, who all look tough.
One of the battalion’s July jumps demonstrated the consternation that paratroopers could instill by their surprise appearance on a battlefield. A landing at an airfield near Fredericksburg, Va, unexpectedly disrupted maneuvers of the Army’s 44-ID, because its leaders thought the Marines were an aggressor force added to the problem without their knowledge. The same jump also indicated some of the limitations of airborne operations. An approaching thunderstorm brought high winds that blew many of the jumpers away from their designated landing site and into a grove of trees. Luckily, none of the 40 men involved sustained any serious injuries.
Italy and the Soviet Union were among the first to demonstrate the military possibilities of airborne infantry in the 1930s with a series of maneuvers held in 1935 and 1936. Though somewhat crude, in fact, the Soviet paratroopers had to exit their slow-moving Tupolev TB-3 transporters through a hatch in the roof and then position themselves along with the wings to jump together, the exercise managed to land 1000 troops through air-drops followed by another 2500 soldiers with heavy equipment delivered via air landings. The gathered forces proceeded to carry out conventional infantry attacks with the support of heavy machine guns and light artillery. It is interesting to note that among the foreign observers present was Hermann Göring.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, several other European nations followed suit. Germany launched a particularly aggressive program, placing it in the air force under the command of a former World War One pilot, Kurt Student.
The German paratroopers (Fallschirmjaeger) were complemented by glider units, an outgrowth of the sport gliding program that develops flying skills while Germany was under Versaille’s Treaty restrictions on rearmament. In 1940 Hitler had about 4500 Fallschirmjaeger at his disposal, organized into six battalions. Another 12.000 men formed an air infantry division designed as an air-landed follow-up to a parachute assault. The Luftwaffe (Air Force) had also a force of 700 Ju-52 transport planes available to carry these troops into combat. Each Junker-52 could hold up to 15 men with arms and ammunitions.
The Soviet Union made the first combat use of parachute forces during the Winter War in Finland. At the beginning of the month of Dec 1939, as part of its initial abortive invasion, the Red Army dropped several dozen paratroopers near Petsamo behind the opposing lines. Apparently, Soviet paratroopers landed also, with machine guns, on the Karelian Isthmus, in the vicinity of Vilmannstrand about 70 km north-west of Viborg. The Red Army group of about 100 paratroopers were either killed or captured. Another report mentions a group of 200 Red Army paratrooper landing along the Finish-Norwegian border, at Salminarji in the nickel mountains of northern Finland. After a short skirmish, all the members of this group were also killed or captured. Every Red Army tentatives to drop paratroopers in Finland met equally disastrous fates.
Germany’s first use of airborne forces did not really achieve favorable results. In April 1940, as part of the invasion of Norway and Denmark, the Luftwaffe assigned a battalion of paratroopers to seize several key installations. The first group of Fallschirmjaeger captured the defended airbase of Sola, near Stavanger. The second group, an entire company, encountered its first defeat during the Norwegian Campaign. The paratroopers were dropped around the village and the railroad junction of Dombås on Apr 14, 1940, and after a five-day battle, the force was destroyed.
During the German invasion of Poland in 1939, German Fallschirmjaeger were sent to occupy several airfields between the Vistula and Bug rivers. Although these operations were critical to German success in the campaign, they received little attention at the time, perhaps due to the much larger and bloodier naval battles that occurred along the Norwegian coast. German airborne forces achieved spectacular success just one month later. One battalion breached Belgium’s heavily fortified defensive line during the offensive of May 1940.
Four battalions reinforced by two air infantry regiments captured three Dutch airfields, plus several bridges over rivers that bisected the German route of approach to the Hague, Holland’s capital, and Rotterdam, its principal port. In each case, the airborne units held their ground until the main assault forces arrived overland. The final parachute battalion, supported by two regiments of air infantry, landed near the Hague with the mission of decapitating the Dutch government and military high command. This force failed to achieve its goals but did cause considerable disruption. The last major German use of parachute assault came in May 1941. In the face of Allied control of the sea, Hitler launched an airborne invasion of the Mediterranean island of Crete. The objective was to capture three airfields for the ensuing arrival of air landed reinforcements. Casualties were heavy among the first waves of 3000 men landed by parachute and glider, but others continued to pour in. Despite an overwhelming superiority in numbers, the 42.000 Allied defenders did not press their initial advantage.