Dr. Steven Anders
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin – Autumn/Winter 1994
Historical Background. The idea of dropping people and things safely out of the sky has been around for a long time. As far back as the late 15th century, the Italian genius, Leonardo da Vinci, made drawings of a pyramid-shaped “parachute” and reasoned that: “If a man carry a domed roof of starched linen eighteen feet wide and eighteen feet long, he will be able to throw himself from any great height without fear of danger.”
While religious wars ravaged the European continent in the 1600s, some intrepid souls experimented with gliders — and much like the legendary Icarus usually met with an unkind fate. A century later, about the time of our own American Revolution, some French inventors had better luck getting off the ground in hot air balloons. Ben Franklin marveled at this wonder of the age. Ever the visionary, he predicted that one day military troops would be launched into battle from the air.
With the advent of balloons came the first practical parachutes. As early as 1802, one balloonist used a parachute to jump from a height of 8,000 feet. He was a bit shook up, but survived. In 1808, a Polish aeronaut likewise used a parachute to escape a burning balloon, and he too landed safely.
The French made effective use of observation balloons against the Austrians during the Napoleonic wars, and the Union Army did the same on this side of the Atlantic during the Civil War. For the most part, both balloons and parachutes in the 19th century remained an oddity, more of a circus-like attraction than a realistic and dependable mode of transportation.
Then came the airplane, and everything changed. The first successful parachute jump from an airplane occurred in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1912. Four years later a pilot reportedly jumped safely from a burning plane on the Russian front in World War I. Both parachutists and supplies were dropped at disaster scenes in the U.S. during the 1920s and 30s. In the mid-1930s, the Russians pioneered large-scale airborne and air-supply operations, while the Italian army used airdrop procedures in its campaign against the Ethiopians. The Germans used mass airborne troops to support the invasion of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg; and dropped upwards of 35,000 airborne troops on the isle of Crete.
AIR SUPPLY IN THE ETO
Italy. Aerial resupply for the Allied side in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) in World War II was never regarded as anything more than an emergency stopgap — for use when roads, railways or other more efficient (and less costly) means were inoperable. That is the sort of situation, though, that presented itself in Italy early in 1943 when elements of the Fifth Army advanced beyond the Volturno River and were cut off by a sudden German counterattack. They were unreachable even by Quartermaster pack mules. “Air QMs” wrapped clothing and food (K- and D-rations) in blankets, packed them inside “belly tanks” attached to the bomb racks of A-36s, and dropped them successfully to the beleaguered troops on the ground.
They also dropped considerable supplies by parachute to Fifth Army soldiers around Casino, and to the French Mountain Corps in its drive across the Petrella Massif. By 1944, airdrop procedures in Italy had evolved to the point that colored smoke and white panels were used to effectively mark the drop zone. Air Quartermasters also began using different-colored parachutes for different classes of supplies. Whenever possible, they would collect parachutes and containers after a drop and send them to the rear through QM salvage channels for repair and future use.
Northwestern Europe. In the many months leading up to the Normandy invasion, Allied carriers routinely dropped weapons and equipment needed to sustain the French Underground. Of course, airborne operations figured prominently in the cross-channel assault on June 6th. Hours before the massive armada of naval warships and LSTs (landing ships, tank) came within sight of Omaha and Utah beaches, troops of the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions had already hit the ground under cover of darkness well behind coastal fortifications and were busy moving toward their assigned objectives.
The earliest sorties saw nearly 13,000 men coming in over their drop zones in 925 fully loaded C-47s. During the course of several more hours, they were followed by another 4,000 men in gliders, many of which crashed on impact in high French hedgerows. Fog, flak, clouds and confusion caused a number of them to miss their intended drop sites by a wide margin. As a result, prescheduled aerial resupply drops met with less-than-hoped-for-success. Pathfinders for the 101st, for example, were unable to properly mark the six chosen drop zones, so about 60 percent of their supplies fell into impassable swamps or enemy hands. Fortunately, members of the 82d Division had better results dropping food and supplies in the area around Ste. Mere Eglise.
Following the Allied breakout and breathtaking pursuit across France in the summer of 1944, General Eisenhower, in mid-September, launched a massive airborne attack deep in enemy territory. It was aimed at capturing key bridges, securing a narrow corridor through Holland, and putting Allied troops across the Rhine. Had this daring and controversial strategic move — known as Operation MARKET-GARDEN — paid off, it might have brought a quick end to the war. But it failed miserably, as did Quartermaster efforts to provide paratroopers with supply by air. The 426th Airborne QM Company prepared five aerial resupply drops during the operation. In the end, between 70 and 80 percent of the dropped supplies fell either into German hands or inaccessible terrain.
He said “Nuts!” Air supply was widely used in the ETO, but it was mostly air-landed rather than airdropped. The notable exception was at Bastogne. When Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe’s 101st Airborne Division found themselves completely encircled by German forces on December 21st and were running low on all manner of supplies, the idea of an airdrop was one few options they had left. It was not just bravado that prompted General McAuliffe to say “Nuts” to the German demand for his surrender. He figured, quite rightly as it turned out, that resupply by air could yet save the day.
Together, the C-47 “Skytrains” of the U.S. Troop Carrier Command and their “flying Quartermaster” cargo crews kept the Bastogne garrison adequately supplied during the critical period from 23 to 27 December 1944. A special “pathfinder” force, equipped with visual and radio signaling devices, was dropped to pinpoint precise drop zones. Once over the target, QM dropmasters on the C-47s went into action. Within 45 seconds from the time the pilot flashed the green light that told them they were over the target, QM cargo crews got the heavy packages out of the planes. In all, 962 C-47s delivered over 850 tons of ordnance, medical and food supplies, and other vital equipment to the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division — and did so with about 95 percent accuracy.
PACIFIC THEATER OF OPERATIONS
Throughout the war the airdrop expedient was more widely used in the island-hopping Pacific campaign and in the China-Burma-India Theater, than in Europe. When elements of the 32d and 41st Infantry Divisions in New Guinea crossed the mountains on their drive toward Buna, they were supported in part by free-fall airdrops. Several months later while 8,000 troops of the 32d Division were at Aitape on their march toward Hollandia, they were completely supplied by air for about three weeks.. Elsewhere, at Guadalcanal, efforts to provide aerial resupply had decidedly mixed results. Almost all of the food and rations dropped to ground forces were found to be still usable. However, most of the 5-gallon water cans were demolished on impact, and about 85 percent of the ammunition was ruined.
In New Georgia in the summer of 1943, over 100 tons of food, clothing, ammunition (including mortar shells and hand grenades), medical supplies and cigarettes were successfully dropped. Nearly 1,400 parachutes were used to accomplish this mission. Relatively few were returned, and almost all of those were either torn beyond repair or rotted by the penetrating jungle dampness. When parachutes got caught in trees (as often happened), the suspension lines had to be shot off, with substantial damage to the supplies as well as the parachutes.
Air Quartermasters were quite successful in resupplying some of the assault forces at Arawe (New Britain) and in the battle for Los Negros (in the Admiralties). On several occasions while delivering supplies to the 1st Cavalry Division in the Admiralties, the drop zone was a small airstrip which was still bitterly contested by the Japanese. In some instances B-17s made strafing runs on the enemy’s side of the air strip, while “flying QMs” kicked their supplies on the opposite side and followed up with another flyover using machine guns. The effect was to pin down the enemy long enough for the 1st Cavalry to retrieve their supplies.
Merrill’s Marauders. The 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), otherwise known as “Merrill’s Marauders,” after their illustrious commander, Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill, moved into northern Burma in January 1944 with nearly 3,000 troops on a mission to clear the way for construction of the Ledo Road. The Marauders were jungle-fighting foot soldiers, but they brought with them their own trained drop personnel and equipment. They received air drops at about 30 different sites between February and May. It was a dangerous business for pilots, crews and the Quartermasters on board who “kicked” supplies out the side doors. Two planes were shot down, and one was lost and another damaged when outgoing parachutes were accidentally caught on the planes’ horizontal stabilizers. The Marauders’ Air QMs flew in all kinds of weather, usually dropping their loads at 150 to 200 feet. During March alone, they flew 17 missions, with 6 to 7 planes, and managed to drop 370 tons of supplies.
From 1942 to 1945, Quartermaster aerial supply personnel in the Pacific delivered more than five million pounds of supplies to General Walter Krueger’s fighting Sixth Army troops on the ground. For their part in supporting victory, air QMs were awarded 4 Soldier’s Medals, 4 Legions of Merit, 6 Bronze Stars, and more than 60 Air Medals. Airdrop procedures improved steadily right up to the day of the Japanese surrender. It was clear from this experience that supply by air would become an important facet of postwar logistical thinking. In 1950, just five years after the war, that mission was handed off permanently to the Quartermaster Corps.