They came out of the sky
By Rickey Robertson
Clarence, Louisiana is hardly a spot on a Louisiana road map. It is most identifiable by being a crossroads where present day LA. Hwy. 6/84 crosses U.S. Hwy. 71 and is located on the east bank of the red river. Nothing of importance ever happens in Clarence, Louisiana does it? Yes, there was one very great event that happened there in 1941 that forever changed the organization of the United States Army.
By late August 1941, over 470,000 men of the United States Army began to converge throughout the Sabine area, the large area denoted for these maneuver exercises in Louisiana. Complete divisions of men, vehicles, and equipment began pouring in and preparing for the upcoming maneuvers. Every unit that was to participate in the maneuvers had months to prepare for these exercises. That is, all but one. On August 29, 1941, only 16 days before the maneuvers were to begin, the 502nd parachute battalion received orders for one company to proceed to Louisiana. But there were many problems that hampered their movement to Louisiana. These problems included only 13 transport aircraft for the paratroopers, shortages of weapons, and shortages of equipment. Only 100 men would be available on such short notice. US Army General Headquarters announced that the parachutists would be made available secretly to both the red and blue armies in succession. General Headquarters believed that there would be no real test of airborne warfare during the Louisiana Maneuvers. How wrong were they to be!
September 17, 1941 was a warm clear day in Louisiana. Phase 1 of the maneuvers had begun on September 15, 1941 with Company A 502nd Parachute Battalion being assigned to General Kruegar's blue army. At Clarence, Louisiana it was harvest time. This little town was a farming community that had vast fields of cotton throughout the area. It was time for the cotton harvest and field hands, both white and black, had hit the fields early to get a start on the vast harvest. At 9:30a, the field hands heard heavy aircraft engines approaching. As they looked up to watch the aircraft pass over, something they had never witnessed happened. All of a sudden the 13 transport planes started dropping something! What in the world was happening?! What is that hanging under that white umbrella looking things?! No one knew but they all had one thing on their minds and that was to skedaddle out of there. What in the world is taking place? The owners of the fields and the field hands scattered and headed for safety. They all remembered in 1939 the Orson Welles radio broadcast of the "Men from Mars" that had landed in America and the first thing these folks thought of was that the martian's were landing right on top of them! They headed to their homes where they armed themselves with rifles, pistols, and shotguns for protection. But no, they weren't martian's. It was 127 men of Company A 502nd Parachute Battalion making a combat jump into the area. Yes, an actual airborne assault began right at Clarence, Louisiana.
Once the paratroopers hit the ground, everyone was able to see that these were US Army Soldiers that came out of the sky. One man exclaimed in excitement "they came out of the sky" while pointing skyward. No one had ever seen or even heard of a parachutist who came from the sky such as these men had. But the men of the 502nd, with meager parachute training and inadequate material and supplies had made a very well organized and executed air drop. Yet, it could have been different because at this time in early US Airborne Operations, the men jumped separate from their equipment and once on the ground they had to gather their equipment, supplies, ammunition, and weapons, then rally together and begin their advance towards the enemy.
And what a day of disruption and mayhem these paratroopers caused! They commandeered vehicles, captured red army troops and blew up a pontoon bridge. It was 2 hours before and resistance could be gathered by the surprised red army that consisted of an anti-aircraft battery firing their guns at the paratroopers on the ground. And one platoon of paratroopers raided the red second army headquarters at Winnfield then escaped back towards Clarence where they captured a red army division headquarters before being surrounded. When war game umpires arrived to sort out the destruction caused by the paratroopers and to access damage and casualties, something unexpected happened. Parachute troopers were not listed in the table of organization and equipment for the US Army and they were disqualified by the umpires even though that had accomplished unheard of results. No one in the US Army chain of command except general headquarters in Washington D.C. knew of this new type of unit in the US Army. Even the umpires in these large scale maneuvers were baffled by these parachute troops.
Even though this was more of a suicide mission with no link up available with other blue third army troops, these parachute troops succeeded in distracting and most importantly embarrassing the red second army. But most important general headquarters now had its eyes opened and was able to see the importance of airborne units in the upcoming war in Europe that loomed on the horizon. And something that changed the US Army form just a few parachute battalions came from the adventures of Company A 502nd Parachute Battalion's 127 men in the Louisiana Maneuvers. At Camp Claiborne, Louisiana the 82nd Infantry Division of Sergeant York, fame of World War I, was garrisoned. With orders from Washington, D.C. on August 15, 1942, the division formed for the last time at the parade ground on Camp Claiborne. The new orders were read organizing the 82nd Airborne Division (All American) and the 101st Airborne Division (Screaming Eagles) into America's first 2 airborne divisions. As names were called some men went to the 82nd and some to the 101st. Corporal Kennith Dixon of Anacoco, La. Was picked and went into the 101st Airborne. From Camp Claiborne these 2 units were shipped out for parachute and glider training. These became the 2 famous airborne units that landed on D-Day night in Normandy and completed disrupted the German Army so that the invasion landings could take place, and the rest is history!
So from 127 men who jumped into Clarence, Louisiana evolved America's Airborne Divisions. Louisiana has the bragging rights on this first combat parachute jump in United States Army history even thought it was maneuvers, and most importantly, the location and home where America's Airborne divisions were formed. And as we remember these great feats in our history in Louisiana, remember they were airborne! Airborne all the way! They came out of the sky!
- Corporal Joe Kinnith Dixon of Anacoco, La., member of the 82nd Infantry Division, was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. He fought throughout Europe and was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions at Bastogne. (Rickey Robertson Collection)
- American's first learned that the U.S. Army was training parachutist in the August 19, 1940 issue of Life magazine. (Rickey Robertson Collection)
- After the review the division was divided into the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Divisions. American Airborne history was made on this day. (Rickey Robertson Collection)
- Leaving their parachutes where they landed, parachutists of Company A 502nd Parachute Battalion sling their rifles over their shoulders and begin advancing against the Red Second Army (Rickey Robertson Collection)
- Men of Company A 502nd Parachute Battalion run for their weapons, ammunition, and equipment after safely landing in a cotton field at Clarence, La. (Rickey Robertson Collection)