I don’t suppose this column will have the same resounding reach and impact as Monday’s assessment on Charlottesville Virginia, but it should.
Today’s a very special day for me and many other Americans, but it should be a truly memorable day for all Americans. It’s the 77th anniversary of the very first official U.S. Army parachute jump on August 16, 1940 at Ft Benning Georgia. Today is National Airborne Day.
I remember when a certain writer at the Palm Beach Post criticized me for wearing my Airborne wings on my lapel. It was as if this very distinct honor offended him. I guess this sad individual just has no idea of how much pride comes with being an American paratrooper, and the distinguished history of which I’m proud.
I’ll never forget that day back in early 1984 at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma — where I was attending my field artillery officer’s basic course — when I was called into the battery commander’s office. I was nervous as all get out and then the captain gave me the news. Congratulations, Second Lt. West, you’ve been selected to receive the one duty assignment to the 1st Battalion 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Vicenza, Italy.
Of course, by the time I arrived, the unit had been re-designated as the 4th Battalion, 325th Airborne Battalion Combat Team. So there it was: After graduation from FAOBC, I headed back home to Georgia to earn my Airborne wings and attend Jumpmaster school. Never in a million years would I have believed that I would don the maroon beret denoting an Airborne Soldier — but I earned that honor.
Later, I would earn my senior parachutist rating. Then came earning the Italian Parachutist insignia. Later, I would earn the Army Air Assault badge, too, which was similar to that of the Glider troopers.’ I’d eventually attain the rating of Master Parachutist, and then was honored to earn the Navy/Marine Corps Gold Parachutist insignia. All that from a kid who was afraid of heights, but who aims to follow the great Army motto, “Be All You Can Be.”
And so I’ve taken my spot in the ranks of the long list of “Sky Soldiers” that this nation has produced since that famous day 77 years ago. And I’ll never forget my days in the hot Benning sun, as roster number A114 in Airborne School … and that very first jump I made. I’m quite sure my paratrooper brothers and sisters won’t forget theirs, either. We’re a special breed — those who dare to exit an aircraft while in flight at speeds of 125 mph.
When I think of the lineage of those who earned that “mustard stain,” the bronze star embedded into their wings denoting a combat jump, it’s just humbling. Also, I’ll NEVER forget the first black paratroopers, the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment, “Triple Nickel,” who became famous as “Smoke Jumpers” fighting forest fires in our western region. They were the pathfinders who blazed a trail for a fella like me.
So, to all my fellow paratroopers I wish y’all a Happy National Airborne Day. And I pray that the U.S. Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville North Carolina is packed with future generations who seek to learn of those fighting Soldiers from the sky, fearless men who jump and die, men who mean just what they say … those brave men of the Green Beret.
Here’s the proclamation of August 14, 2002 signed by US President George W. Bush:
The history of airborne forces began after World War I, when Brigadier General William Mitchell first conceived the idea of parachuting troops into combat. Eventually, under the leadership of Major William Lee at Fort Benning, Georgia, members of the Parachute Test Platoon pioneered methods of combat jumping in 1940. In November 1942, members of the 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, conducted America’s first combat jump, leaping from a C-47 aircraft behind enemy lines in North Africa. This strategy revolutionized combat and established airborne forces as a key component of our military.
During World War II, airborne tactics were critical to the success of important missions, including the D-Day invasion at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, the invasion of Southern France, and many others. In Korea and Vietnam, airborne soldiers played a critical combat role, as well as in later conflicts and peacekeeping operations, including Panama, Grenada, Desert Storm, Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans. Most recently, airborne forces were vital to liberating the people of Afghanistan from the repressive and violent Taliban regime; and these soldiers continue to serve proudly around the world in the global coalition against terrorism.
The elite airborne ranks include prestigious groups such as the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, “Sky Soldiers,” 82nd Airborne Division, “All American,” and the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Airborne forces have also been represented in the former 11th, 13th, and 17th Airborne Divisions and numerous other Airborne, glider and air assault units and regiments. Paratroopers in the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, the 75th Infantry (Ranger) Regiment and other Special Forces units conduct swift and effective operations in defense of peace and freedom.
Airborne combat continues to be driven by the bravery and daring spirit of sky soldiers. Often called into action with little notice, these forces have earned an enduring reputation for dedication, excellence, and honor. As we face the challenges of a new era, I encourage all people to recognize the contributions of these courageous soldiers to our Nation and the world.
Now, therefore, I, George W. Bush, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim August 16, 2002, as National Airborne Day. As we commemorate the first official Army parachute jump on August 16, 1940, I encourage all Americans to join me in honoring the thousands of soldiers, past and present, who have served in an airborne capacity. I call upon all citizens to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.
In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this fourteenth day of August, in the year of our Lord two thousand two, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and twenty-seventh.
[Learn more about Allen West’s vision for this nation in his book Guardian of the Republic: An American Ronin’s Journey to Faith, Family and Freedom]