Stephen F. Austin State University

Forming America's Airborne in 1942 (March 2015)



As we watch the nightly news report on TV, we often see units of our military dropping from the skies by parachute as they attack an objective. But have you ever stopped and thought that it has only been about 74 years since this new unit arrived and was adopted by the US military. Yes, prior to World War II there were no airborne divisions in the tables of organization of the US Army, with just a few companies and battalions that were testing the new airborne concept and the equipment that was needed for these type operations. But by 1942 all this changed. And where did this great change come about ? Yes, at Camp Claiborne located here in Louisiana. History was about to be made forever for the United States Army.

With Germany overrunning all of Europe and the Low Countries, military strategists saw a new weapon used in the mighty German war arsenal. The new German weapon was not a plane or rifle but something that would be known as a "fallshirmjager" or in English paratrooper. These new German soldiers conducted the very first airborne invasion when Germany invaded Denmark on April 9, 1940. In their assault they quickly captured bridges and airfields that led to the Germans quickly overrunning the country. And the American War Department could see the potential of having such a quick striking unit in the American Army.

Beginning in June 1940 the U.S. Army, after suggestions from Major William C. "Bill" Lee, formed the first parachute unit, known as the "test platoon". After training at Fort Benning, Georgia, these few men conducted the first test parachute jump. With this jump being successful, the army began to form several parachute battalions. During the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941, one company of paratroopers parachuted into Clarence, La. and captured a Red Army General and Headquarters. The 127 men of Company A 502nd Parachute Infantry Battalion landed in the vast cotton fields and fanned out after making the first combat jump in the history of the U.S. Army. And they accomplished unheard of feats. When they captured the Red Army Headquarters and the Commanding General, the umpires were called to assess the attack. The umpires were stumped and after conferring, they declared that the paratroopers were "disqualified" because there was no record of parachute troops in the Tables of Equipment and Personnel for the whole U.S. Army ! But people in General Headquarters in Washington had taken notice. Everyone would soon learn of the parachute troops !

With the outbreak of World War II, one of America's most famous infantry divisions of World War I fame, the 82nd Infantry Division, was re-activated at Camp Claiborne, La. on March 25, 1942. This division had one member that achieved fame in World War I. Sergeant Alvin C. York had won the Medal of Honor for his actions as a member of the 82nd Division during the war. And after the unit was re-activated, Alvin C. York came and addressed all the men of his old outfit. The 82nd's commander when it was re-activated was Major General Omar N. Bradley, who would become one of America's greatest fighting generals.

General Headquarters in Washington had watched as the few parachute units in its inventory became trained in airborne tactics. Headquarters could see that America would need several Airborne Divisions that would be used in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation to turn the tide against the Axis enemies. One unit that was being closely watched was the 82nd Infantry at Camp Claiborne. This unit had been training hard and had received many new recruits and was almost at the full allotment of men. Most units at this early part of World War II were still receiving recruits and were not full strength. Headquarters issued special orders. They were sending orders to Camp Claiborne that America was about to have its airborne divisions formed.

On August 15, 1942 the complete 82nd Infantry Division fell in and conducted its final parade. As the unit completed its parade orders were read that effective that date the 82nd Infantry Division was deactivated and was thereby reactivated as the 82nd Airborne Division. The 82nd was America's first airborne division with Major General Matthew Ridgway as its first commander. General Ridgeway addressed the troops and told them what would be expected of these new glider and parachute troops. Much hard training would now have to take place to prepare them for future airborne operations.

The next day on August 16, 1942 the new division was formed and another set of orders were read. Effective this date the new 101st Airborne Division was being formed under the command of Major General William C. Lee. After the orders were read, the troops formed and a roster of all the names were brought forth. As names were called, some went into the ranks of the 82nd and some into the 101st. Thus the ranks of the new airborne divisions were filled out. Once the new 101st Airborne had been formed, General Lee called his new command to attention. General Lee advised the newly formed unit that "the 101st has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny". And time and again from that day forward the 101st Airborne has kept that rendezvous with destiny.

Shortly afterward the new airborne divisions were shipped by rail to their new training camps. The 82nd went to Camp Bragg, Fort Benning, and Camp Mackall and the 101st went to Camp Tacoca. There these units trained and became paratroopers in parachute infantry, artillery, medical, and quartermaster units and also glider infantry, artillery, medical, and quartermaster personnel. These units were on maneuvers and in the field continually preparing for battle. And on D Day June 6, 1944 these 2 units were the first to land in Normandy as the Allied Armies attacked the Germans. And these 2 units acquired a very proud combat history there and continue to do so throughout the world in the Global War on Terror.

So when you see a soldier wearing the 82nd "All American "shoulder patch or a 101st "Screaming Eagle" insignia, remember that these two famous units began their history here in Louisiana at Camp Claiborne. And their combat exploits are now history and will continue as they fight for our freedom wherever they are sent. Airborne All The Way!

Shoulder Insignia of the famed 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions (Robertson Collection)

Sign showing the public the location where the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were formed at Camp Claiborne, LA (Robertson Collection)

New signs erected by the US Forest Service at the entrance to old Camp Claiborne (Robertson Collection)

The troops are formed and listening to the orders forming the two airborne divisions (Robertson Collection)

General Matthew Ridgway, new commanding general of the 82nd Airborne, enroute to the formation ceremony (Robertson Collection)

General William C. Lee reviewing his new command, the 101st Airborne Division at Camp Claiborne in 1942 (Robertson Collection)