Parachute assault in New Guinea saved airborne concept for future operations


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David Cordero

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burdened by an abundance of equipment, Raymond Basham hefted himself into a C-47 airplane on the morning of Sept. 5, 1943, destined for a remote valley in New Guinea.

Basham, like the other men of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, felt confident his training would allow him to withstand the rigors of battle against the Japanese. But what gnawed at the medic was the uncertainty of what lay ahead.

“I can’t say it was fear because we were highly trained,” Basham, a resident of Rockfield, Ky., wrote in a letter to the author. “It was more a feeling of uneasiness in not knowing what was waiting for you on the ground.”

The objective was to secure the Nadzab airfield in the Markham Valley and lend assistance to the Seventh Australian Division. It was the first combat for Basham and the other paratroopers of the 503rd, although at the time, they had no idea they were fighting for more than victory over the Japanese.

The operation would have significant impact on whether high command would press forward with large-scale parachute assaults following the disasters in North Africa and Sicily. The airborne portion of the June 1944 Normandy invasion might have never materialized — at least on its scale, which was tremendous — had it not been for the successful airborne assault and capture of the Nadzab airfield 70 years ago this week.

The Road to Nadzab

Early airborne missions in North Africa and Sicily suffered badly. Bad weather and long distance (1,500 miles) conspired to ruin the attack in North Africa in November 1942. The troopers were badly scattered and ultimately irrelevant to Operation Torch.

In July 1943, troopers were not only dropped way off the mark in Sicily, but members of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, in a follow-up wave two days later, served as target practice for the U.S. Navy, which evidently had not received or shared word of the oncoming wave of C-47s. The Americans were mistaken for the German Luftwaffe.

These were significant growing pains in the American airborne concept, which had started only three years earlier. Yet how much longer could the army sustain such losses?

The problem in the earlier jumps, as determined by the Swing Board, a committee led by Gen. Joseph Swing, was no unity of command. The holocaust in the Sicilian skies was the result of a communication lapse. Consolidating command appeared to be the answer.

The next opportunity — perhaps the last chance to prove the worthiness of large-scale parachute assaults — would arrive soon enough, in the steamy jungles of the Pacific.

Heading In

Father Powers, the regimental chaplain of the 503rd, didn’t have time to hear individual confessions before the jump, so in the searing heat of the Port Moresby sun, he offered a general absolution to the men.

Half the men stood up to take it.

Certainly, fewer than 50 percent of the 503rd were Catholic. Yet the men felt the gravity of the situation and did what they could to soothe their nerves heading into their first battle.

Paratroopers of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment disembark from trucks and prepare to board C-47 aircraft for their mission to the Nadzab airfield. / Photo COURTESY OF THE DANIEL MACRAILD COLLECTION, 

Paratroopers of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment disembark from trucks and prepare to board C-47 aircraft for their mission to the Nadzab airfield. / Photo COURTESY OF THE DANIEL MACRAILD COLLECTION

 

Jim Mullaney, a 93-year-old Louisville man, recalls smoke — not conversation — filling his airplane. Most of them sat quietly, keeping thoughts to themselves as the airplanes made their ascent. They would have to clear a saddle in the Owen Stanley Mountains, an elevation of approximately 9,000 feet, and descend rapidly as the drop zone approached.

The green light inside the cabin was the paratroopers’ cue. Soon, white canopies descended from the heavens, dropping down into what the troopers expected to be a soft, grassy knoll. They were half correct. Many did land on grass.

Just not the type of grass they were accustomed to.

“It turned out the grass was about eight feet high,” Mullaney said. “It was almost impossible to catch your breath.”

Some of the troopers landed roughly, getting hung up in surrounding trees. One man, Rod Rodriguez of G Company, suffered a near fatal wound but lived to record the tale in his unpublished biography.

“I landed in a tall tree and drove a branch as sharp as a spear completely through my thigh, emerging in my groin area,” he wrote.

Rodriguez’s main artery had been grazed in the impalement. Had the artery been cut, he would have bled to death quickly.

Rodriguez was lucky he could get the medical help he needed without having to withstand a withering barrage from the enemy. The Japanese had scattered, and resistance was only sporadic.

Success

The three battalions went to work quickly. Within 24 hours, the airstrip was seized and the adjacent field cleared before the 503rd linked up with the Australian forces. The village of Gabsonkek was taken and troops were positioned to the northwest, north and east.

A defensive perimeter from the Markham River to the east side of the airfield was also established. Each objective of the 503rd had been met. In the coming days, the regiment faced occasional resistance and suffered few casualties. The regiment lost just 11 men to death, approximately 70 more wounded.

“More men were lost to heat exhaustion than actual combat wounds,” Mullaney said.
The mission was an overwhelming success. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was beside himself with glee.

So were the airborne advocates, who won an even greater victory.

The 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment jumps into Markham Valley with the objective to seize the Nadzab airfield. Photo COURTESY OF THE DANIEL MACRAILD COLLECTION

The 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment jumps into Markham Valley with the objective to seize the Nadzab airfield. Photo COURTESY OF THE DANIEL MACRAILD COLLECTION

 
David Cordero’s Soldier Stories columns appear the first Sunday of every month at The Spectrum.  Email him with comments, article suggestions and potential interviewees at dcordero@thespectrum.com.

 

 

 

 

         

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