Photo: "Smiling Jack" Tolson and two admirers, Generals MacArthur and Kenney.

"This operation by the 503d was probably the classic text-book airborne operation of World War II.  What the 503d did was a vertical envelopment by parachute assault, seizing and then defending an airhead at Nadzab."

 

-- Lieutenant General (Ret.) John J. Tolson   [191]

 

After the disastrous results of the airborne operations at Sicily, the future of the airborne was in question.  Many senior military leaders believed that the airborne division was not a sound concept.  The skeptics argued that it was too large of an organization for a commander to regain control and operate the scattered forces as a functional unit after a parachute drop.  Despite the initial failures of regimental-size airborne operations, the advocates of vertical envelopment insisted that a division-size structure with the capability of conducting large-scale offensive combat operations was necessary to support the planned invasion of Europe as well as Japanese-held territories in the Pacific Theater.

            The initial string of failures was not different from any other development of a new military concept.  Only through a series of trials and errors did the doctrine, training and employment principles develop to properly employ the new concept.  The 503d PIR's success at Nadzab was a powerful assertion of the possibilities of large-scale airborne operations.  The fortuitous timing of this operation coincided with the Swing Board, which was studying the lessons learned from Sicily and recommending the necessary changes to employ this new concept effectively. 

            In a letter to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, retired Lieutenant General John J. Tolson stated that the 503d PIRs airborne operation at Nadzab "was probably the classic text-book airborne operation of World War II."[192]  Tolson knew a few things about airborne operations, since he was the first American paratrooper to jump into combat as the commander of Third Battalion.  He also went on to command the 1st Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) during Vietnam from March 1967 to August 1968 and the XVIII Airborne Corps from August 1968 to March 1971.

            What Tolson did not say was that the textbook for that size operation had not been written at the time the parachute drop occurred.  Most of the doctrine for large-scale airborne operations did not come out until the publication of Training Circular No. 113 as a result of the Swing Board.  This recommendation, as well as the many other recommendations that the Swing Board made, established the necessary principles to employ an airborne division effectively.  The success of the 11th Airborne Division in the Knollwood Maneuvers ended the debate.  The airborne division concept, tried and tested, proved to be credible, workable and functional.

            The commander of Second Battalion, 503d PIR for Nadzab was retired Brigadier General George M. Jones.  In a letter to one of his paratroopers writing a regimental history, Jones summed up the accomplishments of his regiment at Nadzab.  “When the 503d put all three battalions on their jump target within 4-1/2 minutes and, of course, with MacArthur looking on with members of his staff from an observation plane, it was bound to affect the thinking of the people in the War Department that said paratrooping was not a feasible means of entering troops into combat,” he wrote.  “We will never know, but in my opinion, the Jump saved the Airborne effort.”[193]  Shortly after the Nadzab parachute drop, Jones became the commander of the 503d PIR and commanded the regiment for the remainder of the World War II.  The regiment made its next jump on the Island of Noemfoor in July 1944, but the one that made the 503d PIR famous was the airborne assault onto Corregidor on February 16, 1945.  After that jump, the regiment became famous for its seizure of the "The Rock."

            In spite of the fame from Corregidor, the 503d PIR's parachute drop at Nadzab had the greatest impact on the development of the airborne concept.   This airborne operation achieved more than just its tactical objectives.  It was the first unqualified successful American parachute drop of World War II and was decisive in allowing the advocates of vertical envelopment make to make a convincing case for the soundness of the airborne concept, as well as that of the airborne division.

 

 

 

 

 

 

         

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