"THE TEST PLATOON"
The development of principles to govern the use of American paratroops fortunately avoided too firm an attachment to dogma. Aside from the modification of the tried and true principles of war to fit the nature and form of the new weapon, it was perhaps fortunate that there was very little actual experience upon which dogma could develop.
However there never seemed to be any doubt amongst command circles that the paratrooper was to be a member of an elite group, a soldier exemplifying outstanding attributes in all areas. This would not always fit comfortably with the exigencies of establishing a citizen army, but whilst the theorists could and did debate their theories, there needed to be some Yankee practicality in establishing what it was that the Army must do to the citizen to make him part of a fighting elite.
The history of the 501st Parachute Battalion, later the 2nd Battalion, 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment begins with the Test Platoon, for it was the Test Platoon which became the 501st. So the 503d properly claims many of the Test Platoon as its elder brothers.
We, therefore begin our history of the 2nd Battalion 503rd Parachute Infantry with a brief history of the Test Platoon, about whom many have written already. Although the commendation given below errors in stating that two men were killed during their training, this does not detract from the fact that these men volunteered to jump into the unknown defying death to show the way to thousands who would follow. They earned their place in the history of our Nation, an accomplishment for which our citizens should be eternally grateful. The lateness of this "COMMENDATION", written after World War II was over, is ample evidence that their heroic achievement had paid off in our successful airborne operations during World War II. Had these men not put their lives on the line to pioneer the way there would have been no jumps in North Africa, on Sicily, in the Markham Valley, on Noemfoor Island, in Normandy, in Southern France, on Corregidor, in Holland and in Germany.
* These men would later serve with the 503d PIR. See Note.
The call for volunteers for a parachute test platoon was issued at the reveille formation of the 29th Infantry Regiment on 26 June 1940. Firstly, the men were warned of the high risk they would be taking. This risk was so high that married men would not be accepted. Undaunted, over 200 men had volunteered by 0830 hours. At officers call that morning volunteers were asked for to fill the position of platoon leader. Seventeen lieutenants volunteered. The situation was settled by accepting four men from each company, each with a written recommendation from his company commander. This provided forty eight men as compared to the usual thirty nine man rifle platoon. The nine extra men were considered as reserves to allow for injured men. 1st Lt. William T. Ryder was selected as the platoon leader because he scored the highest score on a written test. Ryder, having studied whatever he could obtain on the German and Russian experience with the use of paratroops, had finished the two hour test in forty five minutes. 2nd Lt. James A. Basset, who had scored second to Ryder, was added as assistant platoon leader on 11 July, lest Lt. Ryder be incapacitated.
The physical training was tough from the very beginning, and has been ever since. The platoon began with a three mile run early in the morning. This soon became tiresome, so, on their own, the men increased it to a five mile run. They lived in tents on heights overlooking Lawson Field. An old, corrugated metal hangar was made available to the platoon for a classroom and parachute packing shed.
The original issue equipment was Spartan - two pairs of Army Air Corps mechanics coveralls, an A-2 (cloth) flying helmet, and special leather boots with a strap across the instep to give support to the ankles.
Sergeant Hobart B. Wade, with eleven years of service, was picked as platoon sergeant. The only experts on parachutes were in the Army Air Corps, so four of the most experienced jumpers, parachute riggers, were picked and sent to Fort Benning as instructors. The chief was the most experienced Warrant Officer Harry 'Tug' Wilson. He was joined by Sergeant James Harris and Corporals Lawrence Ketcherside and James B. Wallace.
Landings were practiced by jumping off trucks. Discipline was rigid. The slightest infraction was punished by requiring push-ups. Even letting one's eyes wander could result in push-ups. If the push-ups were not done in a manner suitable to the instructor, they were repeated until they were suitable.
The platoon was flown aboard three Douglas B-18A Bombers to Maguire Field which was adjacent to Camp Dix where they stayed. They were taken from Camp Dix to Hightower where two 150 feet towers were located. One of these towers was a controlled tower and the other a free fall tower. After practicing on these towers they returned to Fort Benning and continued their rigorous training. Now they had six weeks training behind them and plans were being made for the actual jumping phase. They were in super physical condition. Each man could now pack their own chutes.
As they came to the last week of training one test remained. The jump! In fact, the jump would be five jumps, the satisfactory completion of which would establish the paratrooper's qualifications. There was no doubt that Lt. Ryder, as leader would jump first, but who would be the first enlisted man to jump? All wanted this honor. Sergeant Wade settled this argument by placing forty-seven numbers in his steel helmet and having each man draw a slip. The number on the slip designated the spot the drawer jumped in.
The lucky winner had many offers to buy his position. Offers went to $50.00. At this time, privates drew $21.00 per month. Jump pay had not yet been thought of. So these were large amounts of money. Finally Private John Ward made the top offer, $10.00 above the highest offer Number One received. Number One still refused.
On the morning of 16 August 1940 the jump began. After the C-33 leveled off at 1500 feet and flew over the jump field, Lt. Ryder was in the door ready to jump. Warrant Officer Wilson knelt in the door waiting to pass the Go Point. When this was reached, he slapped Lt. Ryder on the leg and the first jump was made. Now Number One moved into position. Slap! "Go! Jump!"
Still no movement.
It was too late now to jump on this pass. Mr. Wilson motioned Number One to go back to his seat. As the plane circled Mr. Wilson talked to Number One. Number One wanted another chance. Okay, this time we'll do it. Back into the jumping position and once again, slap!
Sadly, no movement. Number One returned to his seat.
Private William N. 'Red' King moved into the jumping position in the door. Slap! Out into American military immortality leaped Red King, the first enlisted man of the test platoon to jump out of an airplane. Number One was transferred to another post and anonymity. Now there were forty-seven. Was Number One a coward? I don't think many experienced jumpers would say so. There are things some men cannot do at a given time. Possibly another time would have been fine. He wanted to. He intended to. He just could not, at least that morning.
The next jump was also individual exits. The jumpmaster would stand up five men and jump each one by slapping him on the leg. Then the plane would make another pass and the next five would be jumped.
The third jump was a mass jump, the entire plane load. The stick stood up and hooked up. The first man jumped on the slap of the jump master. The entire stick followed without stopping.
The fifth, and final (qualifying), jump was a mass jump of the entire platoon from three planes flying in column formation. Secretary of War, Mr. Henry L. Simpson, and the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, led a group of VIP's who gathered at Lawson Field to witness this historic occasion. The event went off well, with one exception. Private Leo Brown was the last man to jump. He landed on the roof of the parachute hangar and had to be rescued by using a ladder.
Now the trail had been blazed. The 501st Parachute battalion was formed soon after. The Paratrooper was now an integral part of the Army. So the Test Platoon was the parent of the 501st Parachute Battalion. The formation of the 501st Parachute Battalion was approved the following month, September 1940.
There were at least
five test platoon men in the 501st and that went from Panama to
Gordonvale. As one page is missing on my 501st shipping list with 60 men
from Headquarters Company 501 Parachute Battalion there might be others.
The five are Richard J. Kelly  MSG Grady A. Roberts, no company
shown  T5 Frank Kassel Jr. HQ Co  CPL Donald L. Coles B Co  PFC
Steve Voils B Co. All company designations are 501 - John
*William King, Lloyd McCullough and Lem Pitts were three of the test platoon with us - "Sleepy" Linton. p
*I recall I conversed with one of the old troopers from the 503d at Larsen's Awards' dinner. He said he was from the test platoon and had served with service company. His name is Lloyd McCullough. When we attended the 50th airborne muster in Washington D.C., I happened to be with a bunch of troopers chatting with General Ryder, who had been the officer with the test platoon and he embraced McCullough with great affection as only two close war comrades do. I think McCullough is still living, I hope so. - Tony Sierra p
is absolutely correct. Lloyd McCullough was a member of the original test
platoon and served in the 503d. Almost his entire career was under a
canopy. It was my privilege to award him a DMOR - a Distinguished Member of the Regiment during my presidential term.
McCullough had joined
the U.S. Army in 1933 at the age of 20 and served in the 29th Infantry. He
volunteered for Airborne training and was a member of the original Test
Platoon in 1940. After attending
I have met, or known of, a number of
the test platoon men along the line, and have a difficult time remembering
when and where. I believe Aubrey Eberhard and William 'Red' King were in
the 503rd at one time or the other - Don Abbott
Don, I don't think 'Red King' joined the 503rd
because the replacements who joined us after Nadzab still spoke of him
being at the school - Jack Herzig
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Corregidor Historic Society, 1999-2009 - All Rights Reserved
The orders for the creation of the Test Platoon