Quartermasters Hit the Silk
By LIEUTENANT WALTER J. WARNER, Q.M.C.
Quartermaster Review September-October 1950
On Armed Forces Day, May 20th, Quartermaster personnel at Fort Lee were treated to a preview of their own armed forces in action in a war of the future when forty paratroopers of the 407th Airborne Quartermaster Company “hit the silk” in a demonstration of the very latest fashion in Quartermaster supply.
Before a tense crowd of 10,000 soldiers and civilians, the trooper’s dropped from the sky, to astonish those people who still think of the Quartermaster Corps in terms of an old man behind a counter issuing socks. Here, instead, were tough, hardened troopers of the world-famous 82nd Airborne Division, and sporting Quartermaster insignia! How in the world had this come about? Perhaps this article will provide the answer.
To add realism to the demonstration the spectators were briefed on a simulated tactical situation. The now familiar Aggressor Forces were assumed to be in control of Baltimore, Washington, and most of Virginia. On the morning of May 20th, the 11th Airborne Division had jumped astride the highway between Richmond and Petersburg, and bad started to push toward Petersburg to link with the 82nd Airborne Division, which had jumped into and retaken Fort Lee and Petersburg. The warehouses at Fort Lee were found to be bulging with rations and equipment.
It was the assigned mission of the 407th Airborne Quartermaster Company to parachute into Lee and garrison the warehouse area, relieving the badly needed rifle companies. The drop was scheduled for 1500 hours.
The spectators expressed great interest in the jump, and the oft-repeated question was, ”what is it like?” If you would like to know the answer to that question; come along with Major Harlan Hendrick, 82nd Division Quartermaster, and his troopers and see what this parachuting Quartermaster business is all about.
Your C-82 aircraft is waiting for you at Richmond Air Field. Here you don chutes and equipment. These are checked again and again for functioning and adjustment by the company officers and a qualified rigger. There is no such thing as passable in parachuting. Perfection is a must.
When everyone is checked, the troopers are loaded into the plane and seated. The senior officer jumping is known as the ”jumpmaster.” Watch him check the plane from front to rear before take-off. he checks everything for proper working order and safety. The doors are inspected for sharp edges which might saw a static line in two. The floor is checked to insure that it is free of grease or water, or anything which might cause a fall. The emergency bill is checked for proper working condition. He works the little lights which will flash red or green to convey messages from the pilot to himself. The item which receives most of his attention, however. is the anchor-line cable. That slim steel strand means almost as much to you as your parachute, for it is the anchor-line to which you will fasten your static line to open your chute. It must be capable of withstanding enormous pressure.
When the jumpmaster is certain that everything in the plane is in top operating order, he signals the pilot for take-off. You must fasten your safety belt, and even this simple operation is checked by the jumpmaster, for your lives are his responsibility and he takes no chances with them.
Soon you are airborne, and the jumpmaster takes his place in the open door and checks the course over the ground. You observe that all the joking and horseplay that you saw on the ground have disappeared, and in spite of the deafening roar of the engines, it is strangely quiet in the plane. All eyes are glued upon the jumpmaster as he hangs out of the door and the blast from the propellers ripples and distorts the skin of his face into weird contours.
You have all been thoroughly briefed with a map and aerial photos prior to take-off. You know where you are going and why. You know the size and location of the field, the type of ground, the time of the drop, etc. In fact, you know as much as the jumpmaster, and yet, you can’t shake off that old feeling of flying into the unknown.
A glance at your watch indicates that you should be nearing Fort Lee. Right now you probably aren’t feeling too well. A little red light winks on in the cabin and you know that you are only three or four minutes from the drop-field.
The jumpmaster commands, “Get ready!” “Stand up!” “Hook up!”
You get up and fasten your static line snap-fastener over the anchor-line cable and wonder why your stomach is churning, and why the perspiration rolls so freely down your back on such a cool day. “Check equipment!” All chutes are checked once more, each man inspecting the back pack of the man in front of him. “Sound off for equipment check!” Each man sounds off good and loud with his stick number and slaps the man in front of him to indicate that the check has been made and that everything is all right. Next comes the most frightening combination of four words ever conceived: “Stand in the door!” The jumpmaster takes the jumper’s stance in the door and everyone is poised and as taut as a bow-string.
The little red light winks to green, which indicates to the jumpmaster that the plane is in proper jumping attitude and the pilot is okaying the jump. When the plane crosses the desired point on the ground, the jumpmaster commands, ”Go!” and jumps. You leap out behind him and your body is caught in a tremendous blast of air from the propellers. The blast turns you in the air as you fall. In that instant the roaring engines; the blue sky, the blurred ground, all seem like part of a strange dream. You count, ”one thousand, ” ”two thousand, ””three thousand,” and just as you are probably reaching for that reserve chute handle, the great ball of silk bangs open and stops your sickening plunge.
Everything is suddenly deathly quiet and life begins again. Now, quickly check your chute for holes or blown panels, as you croon some words of endearment to it. At this moment you are thinking that you have the most wonderful parachute in the whole wide world.
When you have assured yourself that everything is all right, look around you for other jumpers in the air close to you, for an entanglement is a juniper’s nemesis. Now check the drop-field below. This one is tiny, and from 1,000 feet it looks like the proverbial postage-stamp. Watch your wind drift and prepare to slip onto the field if necessary. The ground is rushing toward you at an alarming rate. It is just a matter of seconds now! Take up the proper landing attitude–feet together, knees slightly flexed. Heads up! Relax! That’s the important thing – relax! Strike and roll with the shock. It’s all over now, and you can get out of that parachute and begin your job as a Quartermaster soldier.
Sounds rough? Not at all. In the year 1949, for example, 76,441 jumps were made at Fort Bragg, and the injury rate was only .47 per 100. Think of that-less than two injuries for every two hundred jumps! And that figure includes all slight injuries such as sprains, bruises, and cuts! Even this figure could be further reduced if carelessness could be eliminated. Most of these accidents are caused by the individual jumper becoming over-confident and forgetting the basic principles of safety drilled into him constantly during his training. No, parachuting is definitely not dangerous. Believe it or not, you are a lot safer under that blossom of silk than you are behind the wheel of a couple of tons of hurtling steel on the highway.
Now perhaps your curiosity is aroused and you would like to know more about this Airborne Quartermaster Company. The men of this unit are justly proud of its gallant record in World War II as part of the 82nd Airborne Division. The company was activated as part of the 82nd Infantry Division in March 1942, and was redesignated “Airborne” in August of that year. It moved to Africa with the Division in 1943, and from there moved to and through a succession of famous places: Sicily, Salerno, Naples, England, Normandy, Paris, Holland, Belgium, Cologne, and Berlin. Troopers of the 407th participated in the Normandy drop and in the glider-landing during the big Holland operation, and the company was with the Division on the mad chase across the Elbe when the 21st German Army Group surrendered to the 82nd.
Exercise SWARMER, in the spring of this year, found the 407th playing an important role in this, the largest Airborne operation ever attempted. Here the company passed with flying colors its first big postwar test of supporting a division in the field with a minimum of air-landed troops and vehicles, using only air-dropped supplies.
The purpose of the demonstration at Fort Lee was to stimulate interest in Airborne Quartermaster activities. Future planning places increasing emphasis on Airborne operations, and Quartermaster supply, of course, plays an important part in any operation. Quartermaster Airborne activities will be greatly expanded. The Division Quartermaster Company will be increased in size. The Quartermaster Corps will assume responsibility for the procurement, storage, maintenance, and issue of parachutes. The Airborne Division Parachute Maintenance Companies will become an integral part of the Division Quartermaster organization. The future of the individual in these highly interesting fields appears unlimited.
The Airborne Quartermaster is definitely here to stay and will prove to be a mighty important cog in the defense machine of tomorrow.