By Cheryl Rodewig, The BayonetApril 15, 2010
FORT BENNING, Ga. - More than 200 paratroopers gathered for the 33rd annual Airborne Awards ceremony Friday at Eubanks Field. The event included an Airborne 5000 demonstration, a wreath-laying ceremony and the dedication of 1st Battalion (Airborne), 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, headquarters building.
Although much has changed about Fort Benning since many of the paratroopers attended jump school here, the Airborne spirit has remained the same.
"You've heard the term band of brothers' That's what we are," said Korean War veteran Ogy Sniedze, who traveled roughly 1,000 miles from his home in New York to visit "the old home" of Fort Benning, a trip he makes annually.
"We're bound together," said Sniedze, who graduated from Airborne School in 1952. "We're paratroopers no matter what the period we served. We feel a bond to the younger paratroopers so we come back. The equipment has changed, but the spirit of the paratroopers has stayed the same. We're ready to fight, and we're the best troops our country has."
The demonstration included a showing of the new T-11 parachute, though the winds were too high for a live jump. Following the demonstration, MG Michael Ferriter, post commanding general, and Lessie Ivy, the widow of original test platoon member MSG(R) George Ivy, laid the wreath on the monument inside the Airborne Walk.
Remembering all paratroopers
"The purpose of this ceremony is to recognize the accomplishments of the brave paratroopers who have gone before us and set the standard for the brotherhood of American paratroopers," said LTC Jon Ring, battalion commander.
"Nearly 70 years ago, here at Fort Benning, Georgia, the call went out for volunteers to try a new concept: jumping out of airplanes," Ring said. "If it was possible to deliver Soldiers to the battlefield by parachute, it would be possible to rapidly gain access to areas that were otherwise unattainable. The concept was revolutionary, but the men who volunteered to test it were nothing short of absolute heroes."
Those were the days when most people had never flown in an airplane before, he said.
Many early Airborne volunteers took off multiple times in an aircraft before they ever experienced a landing.
"These days, the nerves are still on edge, but I can only imagine the adrenaline involved with the first jumpers who weren't sure if they would live or die when they exited," Ring said.
Original concept, original test platoon
Ivy, who married her husband March 10, 1940, remembers the early training of the test platoon.
The platoon members weren't supposed to be married, she said, but some of them did anyway.
"When they first started, they jumped off of two-ton trucks. Then they went to Hightstown, New Jersey," Ivy said. "That's where they really got a lot of their training. You see, we didn't have these towers down here at that time.
"Some of them will tell you, the first jump they ever made, they weren't afraid. My husband said that's a lie. 'Anybody jumps out of an airplane - that first jump or any other,' he said, 'you're going out that door; you are scared.'"
Ivy said her husband was honored to be a paratrooper.
"He retired from the Airborne," she said. "(For) 23 years, he was jumping out of planes ... Airborne all the way. I think he had about 550 jumps."
D-Day as seen from the sky
By 1942, the 250-foot towers, now an icon of Fort Benning, were in place.
That's the year Lawrence Jeffers, an Ohio native, joined the Army. Immediately after basic training, he signed up to become a paratrooper because of the pay.
The 86-year-old World War II veteran remembers his first jump during training.
"That was the easiest one I ever took because I didn't know what was going to happen," he said. "The hardest jump I ever made (was) the second because I knew what was going to happen. It's just like riding an elevator. You come down nice and slow and hit the ground pretty hard."
After graduating jump school, he was shipped with his unit to Europe, where for a time he and some of his fellow Soldiers were hid by the French underground in a wine cellar, said Jeffers, then 18.
On June 6, 1944, the real action started. They got up at 2 a.m., he said, in preparation for the combat jump into Normandy, where their goal was to knock out enemy communication.
"We jumped together and started fighting," Jeffers said. "We were there four hours before (troops) started hitting the beach. (The enemy) didn't know what was happening. It was a successful jump. I was kind of proud of myself - I was proud of everybody really - for the success. We did what we were supposed to do. We had a job to do, and we did it."
Another jump forward
While the original test platoon was formed on post in July 1940, proving its worth as a tool for battle in less than a month, a different type of test platoon also finds its origins here, one that never had the opportunity to defend freedom overseas in combat.
"In January of '44, they selected 20 enlisted men to form what was called a test platoon," said Walter Morris, who joined the Army in 1943 and later the distinguished "Triple Nickel," the first all African-American Airborne unit.
"They were testing because there was thought that colored troops who did nothing but service duty (didn't) have the intestinal fortitude to jump out of a plane," he said. "And that was in doubt because it had never been done before."
Seventeen of the original 20 graduated as paratroopers in February that year, followed by six African-American officers, forming a new unit: the 555th Parachute Infantry Company.
"When we had the opportunity to become paratroopers, that lifted our morale and self-esteem because now we were paratroopers and not servants," said Morris, the first black enlisted man accepted for Airborne duty. "Then the Army opened the doors and invited all colored troops who wanted to volunteer ... and they came literally by the truckloads and went through the parachute training. There were so many enlisted men and officers volunteering that the company was deactivated and activated as a battalion."
With the Army still segregated, officials didn't want to send an all African-American unit to the European theater.
"So we were trained, but we had nowhere to go," Morris said. "That was when the Agriculture Department asked the Army if they could spare a few paratroopers to train them as smoke jumpers to combat the Japanese incendiary balloons that were flown over in the jet stream from Japan to the Pacific coast line. So, the Army told the Agriculture Department they could have the whole battalion."
The covert Operation Firefly lasted throughout the summer of 1945, including 1,200 jumps on forest fires from Washington to California.
"We jumped in on 32 individual fires, most of them caused by lighting, some by the incendiary balloons, others by careless campers," Morris said.
Though their training base was in Oregon, the 89-year-old veteran considers Fort Benning home.
"That brought back memories," he said of the ceremony. "It's a warm feeling because this is our home, so to speak. It's always exciting to be invited here."