Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Anniversary of Army's First Mass Parachute Drop

More than 70 years of Army airborne history was set in motion, in part, by training here in 1943.  On Sunday, nearly 200 people gathered between the small South Carolina cities of Camden and Lugoff to mark the anniversary of the Army's first mass parachute drop, an event seen as a milestone that helped prove the feasibility of large airborne operations.

The event also honored veterans of World War II and paid respect to three paratroopers who were killed in the training.  The jump in Camden, in which thousands of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers assaulted a bridge over the Wateree River, was the largest of its kind at the time. 
Within months, those same paratroopers would be fighting for their lives in World War II and putting many of their airborne lessons to the test on four combat jumps.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth "Rock" Merritt was one of those men. He served as part of the "opposing force" during the operation in Camden 72 years ago and would go on to jump into Normandy, France, on D-Day.   "It's an honor for me to be here this afternoon," Merritt said.

The Camden jump involved the entire 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, along with other 82nd Airborne units and part of the 101st Airborne Division.  Merritt said 120 C-47s delivered the men to the training, which was led by then-Col. James Gavin.

Two complete battalions formed the first wave of the operation, assaulting a surprised enemy during the mock battle under "realistic combat conditions."  Officials in a Fort Bragg newspaper said the lessens learned from the training were incentive for the Army to give the green light to extensive airborne operations.

Gavin, known as "Jumpin' Jim," retired as a lieutenant general and is known as one of the most famous leaders in 82nd Airborne Division history.  Gavin's daughter, Barbara Gavin Fauntleroy, said in a letter read to attendees that she still remembers her father sweating before the training mission and his remorse when several paratroopers were injured or killed during the jump.

Gavin is buried at West Point, New York, his daughter said.  "But today I believe that my father's spirit is there with you," she said.

Many of the veterans in attendance wore familiar jump wings or the famous "AA" of the 82nd Airborne Division. Officials from Fort Bragg also attended the ceremony, including deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Lt. Col. Al Paquin.

The 3rd Brigade Combat Team is based around the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which led the mock assault on Camden. Much of the brigade is deployed to Iraq.  Maj. Gen. Richard D. Clarke, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, sent his thanks to the community in another letter read during the ceremony. He said the paratroopers more than 70 years ago, like those wearing the uniform today, served at a challenging time.  "They were on call for our nation when they were needed most," Clarke said.

The ceremony was held at a monument along U.S. 1 on the campus of the Invista chemical plant. The plant is built on former farmland that served as the drop zone for paratroopers.

Historian and author Robert Anzuoni said the "Camden Parachute Assault of 1943" set the stage for future airborne missions.  "The timing and accuracy of the drop was nothing short of amazing," he said.  Reports from the Camden Chronicle at the time reported "near-war thrills" when the paratroopers descended from transport planes escorted by medium-size bombers.

"Camden residents were goggle-eyed as the vast air armada rode over the city from out of the northeast," the Chronicle reported. "The doors of the transport planes were open, and figures could be seen as the paratroopers prepared to hit the silk. As the big planes passed over the southeast limits, the warriors started to jump and the air was soon filled with dark figures and the white parachutes."

Article by Fayetteville (North Carolina) Observer, Military editor Drew Brooks.

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