By PVT. Tony Ricketti
Quartermaster Review September-October 1953
When it comes to handing out plaudits to the Army the Marines generally change the conversation to the Halls of Montezuma or talk about the weather. But if the talk gets around to the day the Army’s paratrooper Quartermasters airmailed then a bridge, the song is a lot sweeter. For their escape route from the embattled Chosin reservoir in North Korea in December 1950 was paved by the Umbrella Men, the Army troops who parachuted from the skies a 20-ton bridge to close the gap in Highway Breakout after Chinese troops had dynamited the road to Hungnam, 50 miles southward.
Road-poor North Korea, with narrow highways carving thin ribbons in its geography, proved a historic nightmare to Marine forces when an avalanche of Red Chinese flooded across the Yalu River to meet them at frozen Chosin. Faced with overpowering odds of a manpower-wealthy enemy willing to lose an army to defeat a regiment, the First Marine Division was forced to pull southward along a single roadway to Hungnam, chief sea outlet of North Korea.
While regiment after regiment hammered at Marine lines, other Chinese troops sped southward, coming up under the belly of the Americans to blow out a vital bridge. The impasse was designed to block the path of heavy equipment and force the Marines to by-pass the obstacle by taking to the hills, leaving behind their rolling stock, a million-dollar prize of war to the Reds.
The hands of the clock raced with the casualty lists. Army engineers in Japan got the Marines’ request for an airborne bridge December 3. A treadway span in eight sections, each 18-feet long and 7½ feet wide, was hurriedly packaged by the 8081st Army Unit, the para-Quartermasters of the Army Forces Far East, war supply line to Korea. The Air Force lined up eight of its huge C-119s, the flying boxcars, each big enough to carry one of the mammoth bridge sections, for an experimental drop. Nobody had ever dropped a bridge this large from the skies before, but the huge sections, spinning downward on silken umbrellas nearly 50 feet in diameter, landed safely.
The para-Quartermasters boarded the planes for Korea. “we felt like Annie Oakley hitting a moving bulls-eye when we dumped those bridge sections into a 300-foot wide target zone,” a paratroop corporal commented later. But the target area had to be small. The Chinese army held a lot of neighboring territory.
It was one of the biggest days in the history of the para-Quartermasters, just two wars old. The Marines by nightfall of December 7 were on the receiving end of 265 tons of supplies, fluttered into their ranks by nearly 14,000 parachutes.
Nobody claims the bridge won the battle, or saved the Marines. The Leathernecks proved they could outfight their weight in wildcats coming out of Chosin, but without the airborne span they would have been forced to abandon a lot of their battle equipment. The bridge gave them the green light to move southward on wheels carrying their wounded and cannon with them.
Trucks and treadways, men and medicine, bridges and bullets all have feathered down into the waiting arms of troops during the past two and a half years of war. For the 8081st, the watchword was ”hurry.” It came with urgent, sleep-shattering frequency, by day and by night, in good weather and bad.
But the guys who wanted the stuff couldn’t use it tomorrow. Or even later in the day. Hours. From Japan to Korea. Get it, load it, chute it down.
Some of the requests were impossible. The impossible seemed to take a little longer. Maybe an hour. But the 8081st delivered. The umbrella men sent the guys everything they needed even water and chocolate bars. Often the 8081st was the difference in eating and going hungry, living or dying.
Another gilt-edge page in the 8081st’s glory-filled history came in “air mailing” the heavy equipment of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team to the front in 48 hours.
The 187th RCT arrived at an airbase in Japan, September 23. 1950, in the early dark days of Korea. Twenty-four hours later the 2nd Battalion of the regiment, with full load of battle gear, was in contact with the enemy. The next day, jumping directly into the front lines, the full-strength combat team locked in combat with the North Koreans.
As weathermen, the flying Quartermasters reign supreme. On short notice they can call down a torrential shower of supplies to dampen whatever optimism the enemy might have. They polka-dot the sky with everything from food rations to ammunition, ¼ and 3/4-ton trucks; weapons such as the 105-mm howitzer; 90-mm anti-tank gun and 3.5-inch rocket launchers; 1/4-ton trailers, anti-aircraft multiple gun mounts, and normal supplies of gasoline and water.
Urgent orders are received from Eighth Army by U. S. Army headquarters in Japan and immediately relayed to the 8081st. the ”delivery boys” for the Eighth Army in Korea. Almost simultaneously, various sections begin preparations for the job while supplies are set up on the ready line, aircraft – usually C-119 ‘s-are requested from the 315th Air Division.
The operations officer issues instructions on the type of parachutes needed. While Army riggers supervise Japanese employees in adjusting the chutes on the bundles, the flying officer briefs aerial delivery technicians. He decides assignment of aircraft, weight of the load, as well as reiterates their duties in tying down supplies on the ”flying boxcars” and in checking the lashing once the plane is in flight.
The job itself is more than just a round-trip pleasure cruise. Before the mission is completed there’s no telling what harrowing experiences will befall the combat Quartermasters.
During the Chosin reservoir episode, an inexperienced aerial delivery trooper made a slight error while unlashing his cargo prior to ejection. Unpredictable air currents sucked the bundles and the bungler right out of the plane. Fortunately he had on a parachute, and though he landed in enemy territory he managed to return to the Yon-Po base within a few days.
Even when the heaven-sent vehicles, weapons or what-have-you are in the hands of the grateful combateers, however, the job of the para-QMs is still not finished. An integral though unheralded aspect of their strategic campaigns is the recovery, repair and re-use of air-drop equipment. Following some assignments as much as a million dollars can be saved by retrieving grounded silks and other apparatus.
Chutes, made of rayon or nylon depending on their purpose, cost anywhere from $25 to $2,000 each, while standard supply containers may set the government back $120.
After an air detail the Quartermaster Airborne Air Supply and Packaging Company of the 8081st parachutes a recovery platoon of 60 men into the drop zone, adding insult to injury as far as the enemy is concerned. Chutes, containers, special drop kits and other aerial delivery paraphernalia are collected, regardless of condition, and shipped back to the unit ‘s maintenance section by truck, rail, ship or plane.
Following the first of numerous inspections, the canopies are hung up to dry under dehumidifying conditions. Necessary repairs are made, and the parachutes placed in operational stock for future use. If damaged severely, the equipment is forwarded to the Kokura General Depot.
There it is checked once more and sorted, with material economically repairable being mended, often by contract to Japanese firms, and returned to active service. The remainder is disposed of as scrap after “cannibalization” removal of all usable parts.
For repairing purposes, the paratrooper’s home has more than 100 sewing machines of varied functions, special stitchers and cutters and lock-stitch sewers among others. Fabric layout, inspection, making, packing and crating equipment add further to the depot’s mechanical repertoire.
Since a damaged chute may cause the death of its user or the loss of supplies suspended from it, continued close scrutiny aims to insure perfect condition. This surveillance inspection consists of uncrating and unpacking the items in storage, carefully examining them for mold, mildew or other natural deterioration, and then placing them back in stock if found to be in good shape.
Even storage is performed under an almost laboratory atmosphere. The equipment arrives from the States wrapped in four layers of waterproof material, within a sturdy crate, and is warehoused with special de-humidifiers to prevent damage from dampness or unduly erratic temperatures.
The 8081st arrived in the Far East during the early days of the Korean conflict, at a time when troops were being separated from their lines and depended on aerial re-supply for existence.
Since then the para-tactic professors have dropped more than 20,000 tons of “manna from heaven” and have recovered uncounted millions of dollars worth of drop-equipment for additional service.
Continual development has improved much of the apparatus used by the unit. A jeep trailer sling was evolved, permitting, the QMs to deliver the versatile vehicle loaded with ammunition. Mortar and shell drop-methods were improved, a timing device invented to release cargo at any altitude, even napalm can now be air-mailed right on top of the enemy.