James P. Lowe





The U.S. Army in 1940 was in the early stages of developing an airborne capability to exploit the vertical envelopment concept. That concept became reality in 1942 with the first airborne operation in North Africa. Although the first parachute drop contributed virtually nothing to the overall success of the mission, it was the beginning of an important capability.

In 1943, the War Department authorized five airborne divisions despite a lack of experience and doctrine to direct the new organizational structure. The airborne initiative expanded much more quickly than did the doctrine, training, or employment principles. The first attempts of conducting large-scale airborne operations in combat during the Sicilian Campaign that year proved to be disastrous. Because of these failures, the airborne division, as well as the vertical envelopment concept itself, were in jeopardy. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall appointed a special board to investigate the causes of the disasters and make recommendations as to the soundness of the airborne division.

While the board was meeting, half-way around the world in the South West Pacific Area, a successful airborne operation occurred when the 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment executed a drop at the Nadzab Emergency Landing Strip that allowed the capture of the essential port of Lae, New Guinea. This operation had a broader impact than just the tactical objectives that it achieved. This was the first unqualified successful American airborne operation of World War II and it allowed the airborne advocates to make a case for the soundness of the vertical envelopment concept, as well as that of the airborne division. Had it not been for this parachute drop, the U.S. Army might have abandoned the whole initiative just when it was planning to employ two airborne divisions during Operation NEPTUNE, the airborne portion of Operation OVERLORD.


"War undergoes a constant evolution. New weapons create new forms of combat. To foresee this technical evolution accurately, to assess the effect of a new weapon system on the course of a battle and to employ it before the enemy does, are essential conditions of success." [1] Official German Manual on Troop Leadership (Truppenführung) prior to World War II



On October 17, 1918, Colonel Billy Mitchell went to see General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, with a plan to put 12,000soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division into light bombers and drop them by parachute behind German lines. Pershing was skeptical about the plan, but surprised Mitchell with tentative approval to determine its feasibility. However, the operation did not happen because the war ended less than a month later. The plan died, but the idea did not. The strategy intrigued one of General Pershing's staff officers, then Colonel George C. Marshall. Over twenty years later, General Marshall, as Chief of Staff, revived the airborne concept and made it a reality. [2]

The United States was not the pioneer in vertical envelopment; on the contrary, it was years behind several other countries. Although the United States was the last major power to develop the airborne concept, it possessed the largest and most advanced airborne forces by the end of World War II. This development did not always come easily, or without its share of disasters through a series of trials and errors.

By 1942, an infantry battalion had been the largest unit involved in an airborne operation. The War Department activated parachute and glider infantry regiments faster than the Air Corps could produce aircraft or pilots to train with, or transport, the airborne forces. This issue of troop carrier availability and training continued to plague the airborne effort throughout the war.

In 1942, the War Department expanded the airborne concept to include divisions in spite of the lack of doctrine and troop carrier units. The decision to activate airborne divisions came after Brigadier General William C. Lee visited England in July 1942 to observe British airborne training. The most significant item Lee brought back was the news that the British were going to form airborne divisions. When he briefed Lieutenant General Leslie J. McNair, commander of Army Ground Forces, on the results of his trip, he recommended that the United States form an airborne division of its own to have the capability to conduct large-scale offensive combat operations.[3] McNair had his staff study the proposal and less than two weeks later he advised Lee that the War Department was going to form not one, but two such divisions. As a result, on August 15, 1942, the 82d and 101st Infantry Divisions at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana became the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions.[4]

]The parachute infantry regiment was the largest airborne formation addressed in any doctrinal manual when the War Department activated the first two airborne divisions. There was still much to learn about the doctrine, training and employment principles of a parachute regiment -- let alone an airborne division. Many of the lessons learned about large-scale airborne operations came from the units already assigned to the war-time theaters while they were training or conducting combat operations. In most cases, the lessons learned were from poor performances.

By the middle of 1943, the series of airborne failures in the European Theater caused many of the senior military leaders to question the soundness of the concept, or at least the idea of an airborne division. Fortunately for the advocates of vertical envelopment, the South West Pacific Area produced a dazzling display of a perfectly planned and executed large-scale airborne operation. On September 5, 1943, the 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment’s operation at the Nadzab Emergency Landing Strip allowed the capture of the essential port of Lae, New Guinea. This first unqualified successful American parachute drop of World War II allowed the airborne advocates to make a case for the soundness of the airborne concept, as well as that of the airborne division.

It is interesting to note that this operation occurred in the Pacific Theater, where there was only one parachute infantry regiment. At the time of the operation, General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific, had slightly less than two percent of the total U.S. Army and Air Corps, which amounted to only 10 percent of the total forces deployed outside the continental Unites States. His share of the Navy forces was even smaller than that of the Army forces.[5] Because MacArthur and his staff understood that they represented the secondary front and therefore did not receive the same resources as the main effort, what they did receive, they employed effectively and efficiently.













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© James P. Lowe, 2004