“Death from above” has never carried such cheerful connotations.
    On Saturday, Aug. 9, the Airborne & Special Operations Museum will honor the folks who made that slogan a part of the American vernacular when the facility celebrates National Airborne Day, commemorating the 68th anniversary of the Army Parachute Test Platoon’s first official jump and the eighth anniversary of the museum.
    The event kicks off at the museum starting at 8:30 a.m., the 82nd Airborne Division Band plays at 9 a.m., followed by freefall parachute demonstrations by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Black Daggers, the 82nd Airborne Division All-American Freefall Team and the U.S. Army Parachute Team, otherwise known as the Golden Knights. Also, the 82nd Airborne Division Chorus will perform and there will be a platoon of soldiers demonstrating the use of their weapons. In addition, there will be an artillery field piece and some military vehicles on display, as well as riggers demonstrating the packing of parachutes. {mosimage}
    The planned keynote speaker for the ceremony is LTG Robert W. Wagner, commander, U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
    While the actual anniversary of the Army Parachute Test Platoon’s first jump is Aug. 16, Dr. John Duvall, director of the ASOM, said the museum has always celebrated National Airborne Day on a Saturday.
    “The 16th often falls in the middle of the week which isn’t convenient for most people, so we hold it on a Saturday,” said Duvall. “This year, the 16th actually falls on a Saturday, but the 82nd Airborne Association has its annual convention that weekend, so they are out of town.”
    Duvall added slyly that “there is no such thing as National Airborne Day” — at least not outside of Fayetteville.
“That’s something that has to be approved by Congress,” said Duvall.
    Duvall says the paratroopers will land in a circle on the grounds of the museum, a sometimes tricky feat.
    “It’s a hairy business. … They have to clear it with the FAA because we’re in the flight path for the airport,” said Duvall. “And when the jumpers get level with Haymont Hill it affects the wind, as does the building itself. So we’ve had some interesting events where a paratrooper came down in the parking lot and one over on the other side of the railway station.”
    Other highlights of National Airborne Day include the selection of a soldier of the year from the 82nd Airborne, and the laying of black roses — the symbol of a fallen soldier — at the foot of monuments in front of the museum; the monuments include one dedicated to the members of the original Test Platoon and another to the members of the first black soldiers who went through jump school in 1943-1944.
    Even though the history of parachuting dates back to 1797 when Frenchman Andre-Jacques Garnerin jumped from a balloon at an altitude of 3,000 feet and employed a chute of his own design, the United States military was slow to recognize the strategic benefits of the device.
    Toward the end of  World War I, Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell of the Army — an early true believer in the effectiveness of airpower — received approval to include a parachute drop of the 1st Division at Metz behind German lines; however, the war ended before the then revolutionary idea could be attempted, delaying the implementation of paratroopers in the United States for more than 20 years.
    Other nations, most notably Germany and the Soviet Union, began training paratroopers in the 1930s. In early 1940, Gen. George C. Marshall, chief of staff, told Maj. Gen. George Lynch, chief of Infantry, to push into development an “air infantry.”
    North Carolinian Maj. William Lee, known as the “Father of the Airborne,” was tabbed as the project officer, forming a test platoon at Fort Benning, Ga. On April, 1940, the German army’s effectiveness in utilizing paratroopers as it invaded the Netherlands lit a fire under this nation’s military powers that be and the paratrooper program was pushed into overdrive.
    “The Germans used them brilliantly, seizing some bridges in Holland in an almost special operations role,” said Duvall. {mosimage}
    The 501st Parachute Battalion was activated on Oct. 1, 1940, and, along with the 82nd Airborne, played a vital role in World War II, especially in the American invasion at Normandy on D-Day.
    The paratrooper training program was relocated to Fort Bragg in 1946, but not without some protest.
    “Bragg was an artillery base at that time,” said Duvall. “They didn’t want the paratroopers.”
    Despite those early protestations, the 82nd Airborne has become a symbol of Fort Bragg as well as a symbol of Fayetteville – a symbol that ties the military and the town’s citizens together.
    “National Airborne Day has proven to be very popular, usually attracting a couple of thousand people,” said Duvall, who added that the museum sees about 140,000 visitors a year.
    “So it’s always a pretty special day.”

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