Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – Eighty years ago here, on August 16, 1940, while World War II was raging but before the United States had entered the war, a platoon of Soldiers completed four days of parachute jumps in a test that led to creation of the Army's elite paratrooper units, known as the Airborne.
Russia and Germany already had parachute forces, and now the United States, not yet in the war, sought to build such a force of its own.
It established the U.S. Army Parachute Test Platoon, which began that first series of test jumps that ran from Aug. 13 through Aug. 16. Soon, U.S. Army Airborne units were formed.
Later, with the nation in the war on both sides of the globe, it was some of those same units that made history parachuting into the darkness over Nazi-occupied France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. They seized key terrain and disrupted German communications ahead of the massive Allied amphibious landings that began hours later on the Normandy coast.
August 16 is National Airborne Day, which President George W. Bush in 2001 established to commemorate the Test Platoon's foundational efforts.
The day holds additional importance for Fort Benning, which, because of the test platoon, counts itself proudly as "the birthplace" of America's Airborne. Moreover, it's also home of the U.S. Army Airborne School, which trains paratroopers for the Army and for the other armed services.
"First and foremost, Fort Benning is the birthplace of the Airborne," said Command Sgt. Maj. Robert K. Fortenberry, senior enlisted leader of the prestigious U.S. Army Infantry School here, and himself a veteran paratrooper and Infantry Soldier. The Airborne School is part of the Infantry School.
In past years, Fort Benning has marked National Airborne Day with spectator events in which historical re-enactors in World War II paratrooper uniforms jump onto Fryar Drop Zone from a World War II-vintage C-47 transport plane.
This year though, as another of its many precautions against spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fort Benning is not holding any formal observance. Those hoping to earn the silver wings of the paratrooper continue to train at the Airborne School, but for now with the wearing of masks and use of other pandemic-related precautions.
As this year's National Airborne Day approached, Fortenberry reflected on the special role and qualities of the Airborne.
Being able to drop paratroopers into combat affords a relatively quick way to get a tough fighting force right in over the enemy's head and landing in his backyard, there to wreak immediate havoc.
"They can plop right in the middle of a contested environment, secure and seize a piece of key terrain. That allows our mechanized forces, our light Infantry forces, to now fight forward to their location, to establish a base of operations for follow-on operations and continue to leapfrog into the contested environment," said Fortenberry.
"So no other capability resides like that in our entire military," he said, "the ability to very quickly get forward of friendly line of departure and into enemy territory, and immediately have that shock- and-awe perspective on enemy forces.
"It's almost like droppin' a cat in a dog kennel, or something to that effect," said Fortenberry.
"When you have combat troops dropping over the top of your head all over the force, you're not knowing where they're coming at you from, there's something that plays into the psychology of our adversaries," and "really degrades the enemy's will to fight."
Another distinguishing feature of paratrooper units is the 18-hour notification sequence for going into action, he said.
"Eighteen-hour notification and they're flying over a contested location, and then placing combat power – boots on the ground – within less than 24 hours of notification," Fortenberry said. "That's a strategic capability, the fact that our Army can deploy, engage and destroy the enemy within an 18-hour sequence."
Certain fighting qualities have come to be especially associated with paratroopers.
Among them are audacity, self-reliance and resourcefulness on the battlefield, cohesion and teamwork, a stubborn determination to reach and close with the enemy, and ferocity in battle.
"A large part of that is just the paratrooper culture," said Fortenberry. "It's this tenacious will to succeed at all costs.
"Typical formations, when we move out in a combat role in the Infantry, we move out within our teams, our squads, and our platoons," he said. "There is a sense of immediate order as we muster for battle.
"In the Airborne community that sense of order doesn't necessarily exist as they land across the drop zone," he said.
"They know where the drop zone is," said Fortenberry. "They don't know where they're gonna land. Prevailing winds, environment, everything plays a significant role. They're not in a formation when they deploy. They're scattered: think just spreading seed on your lawn, they're all over the place.
"They have to be able to very quickly understand where they are on the battlefield," even in dark of night, and "gather together, muster, and then rebuild a fighting formation to be able to complete the mission.
"So," he said, "at the beginning of an operation, it's their ability, one, to deploy and land their parachute safely, prepare their equipment, be ready to fight as soon as they touch the ground, and then there's some complexity with them mustering if you will, on the battlefield, getting into their fighting formations.
"And they muster together," he said. "And assemble. They quickly have to storm-and-form as a collective organization, in order to complete the mission.
"And they move to locations on the battlefield to actually conglomerate as a larger fighting force," he said. "So, depending upon where you land, you could be teamed up with four, five, six guys or gals that are not even from your particular formation. And then have to be able to fight at a moment's notice, depending on the environment they're deployed in, if it's heavily contested.
"So they have to be innovative, they have to be able to think on their feet, they have to be able to form very quickly into a team of paratroopers, someone of the group taking charge and then be able to close with and kill the enemy, even if at that particular moment in time their leadership is not intact to give them orders to do so," said Fortenberry.
The same airfield, drop zone, and jump school with its signature 250-foot training towers, brought into being at Fort Benning in the 1940s, continues as the starting point for paratroopers today.
"It's where it all came from," said Fortenberry. "And to this very day it is still very much the first step for all paratroopers. The 250-foot towers still sit very proudly out there. Everything still exists.
"We still do it," he said. "Equipment may have changed, but the fundamentals are almost identical to the way we did it during our invasion during World War II. So I think that's pretty cool lineage."