Fort Benning (1953 - 1955): The Vital Role of the Airborne Infantryman and Lawson AFB
Today, we are celebrating the history of Fort Benning through the story of Lawson Air Force Base and the vital role of the airborne infantryman in modern warfare. Each month during World War II, airborne training produced 4,000 qualified parachutists. As of September 1954, 188,263 paratroopers were trained at Fort Benning with more than 1,000,000 student jumps.
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Sources: W.C. Woodall, Industrial Indexes (1953 and 1955) Fort Benning Sections.
We are highlighting several of local historian W.C. Woodall's Industrial Indexes over the course of this summer. If you aren't familiar with them, they are a wonderful collection of articles on local happenings, business advertisements, and images of new homes put together each year from 1912 until 1960. There are also issues dedicated to Phenix City and Fort Benning. You can find them in the Genealogy Room of the Columbus Public Library and the CSU Archives.
The airborne story goes as far back as the 15th century when Leonardo da Vinci designed the parachute. In the 18th century, a Frenchman named Montgolfier launched the first successful balloon. The same century saw the famous European balloonist make a parachute jump that saved his life. At the time the Wright brothers made their first flight at Kitty Hawk, the conception of the parachute was over 600 years old. Benjamin Franklin predicted in the 18th century the role of the airborne infantryman in modern warfare. In 1784, Franklin asked, “Where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense, as that ten thousand men, descending from the clouds, might not, in many places, do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?” The U.S. Infantry would supply the answer.
Two great advocates of airborne troop utilization, Winston Churchill and Brigadier General Billy Mitchell tried unsuccessfully to bring them into action during World War I. In 1928, General Mitchell arranged the first display of airborne might at Kelly Field, Texas. Although the small group of American soldiers who were dropped had assembled their weapons and were ready for action three minutes after they left the plane, Army officials were not yet ready to give the green light to experiment with the airborne. From this demonstration came Russia and Germany’s springboard into paratrooper training. In 1930, Russian paratroopers were dropped in war maneuvers at Veronezh. Six years later, it was reported that 5,000 parachutists were dropped at one time during maneuvers at Kiev. By 1938, the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff School began including airborne warfare in its theoretical tactical instructions. Following the successful airborne tactics of the Germans in Holland and Belgium, the Fort Benning test platoon under the supervision of the commandant of The Infantry School, began recruiting volunteers from the 29th Infantry Regiment. The birth of the U.S. airborne training took place at The Infantry School in the summer of 1940.
An eight-week training schedule was mapped out. It included all phases of parachute training from the first orientation flight and the packing of parachute to jumping from airplanes in flight, calisthenics, hand-to-hand combat, forced marches, and a daily three-mile run. In addition, there was the regular schedule of standard Infantry training. In July, Lt. Col (later Major General) William C. Lee, who is considered the father of airborne, recommended that the 48-man test platoon move to Highstown, NJ to train for a week on jump towers which he had seen at the New York World’s Fair. The training, which gave the sensation of jumping from a plane, was so successful that two of the towers (250 foot) were purchased and brought to Fort Benning. Three such towers are in use here today.
On August 16, 1940, members of the test platoon, wearing football-type helmets, standard Air Corps free-style, human escape parachutes, and emergency test type parachutes, jumped from a Douglas B-18 at Lawson Field. The enlisted members of the platoon drew lots to determine the first to follow the platoon leader, Lt. (later Col.) William T. Ryder, out of the plane door. Pvt. William N. King of Nashville became the first U.S. Army enlisted man to make an official jump as a paratrooper. Thirteen days later, the first mass jump in the U.S. was made by the test platoon. Each month during World War II, airborne training produced 4,000 qualified parachutists. In the spring of 1954, the role of the airborne infantryman was demonstrated in the atomic phase of Flash Burn, a gigantic Army maneuver at Fort Bragg, NC. The exhibition of combat expediency and air transportability and aerial delivery greatly impressed the ranking officials who witnessed the exercise. As of September 1954, 188,263 paratroopers were trained at Fort Benning with more than 1,000,000 student jumps.
An historic photo of Flash Burn at Fort Bragg
Originally established in 1919 by Fort Benning as a base for the observation balloons of the Infantry School, Lawson Air Force Base became a hustling base serving the needs of the Infantry School’s airborne department, providing service and assistance for transient aircraft, and serving as the home for the aviation section of Army Field Forces Board No. 3 and at the same time fulfilling its primary mission as a base for a tactical reconnaissance wing of Ninth Air Force. After going nameless for 12 years, the base received from the War Department the name of a Georgia air pioneer, Captain Walter R. Lawson (pictured below), on July 6, 1931. Captain Lawson, a pilot in World War I, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in action. He served with the 91st Aero Squadron and the 41st French Escadrille in France. An airplane accident at McCook Field (now Wright Air Force Base), Ohio, in 1923 was the cause of the airman’s death.
The first date of real significance in the annals of Lawson’s history is September 1, 1940, when the field was placed under the direction of the Air Force and separated from the control of the infantry. Shortly afterward, the field became the home of various air force units including the entire 16th Observation Squadron. The early part of 1941 saw Lawson’s first large building program, ranging from runways to recreational facilities. The field and its organizations were also placed under the command of Third Air Force that same year. The next change came in April 1942, when Lawson Field was picked as a Troop Carrier command training base chiefly responsible for training combat air force personnel and paratroopers for the Army.
During World War II, Lawson was frequently visited by high-ranking military and civilian leaders of the Allied Nations. These visits were climaxed on April 15, 1943, by a visit from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In more recent years, Lawson AFB has gotten to know hundreds of civilian business and professional leaders as they arrived here to take part in one of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conferences. In October of 1950, activity at Lawson began to increase. This increase marked the arrival of the men, equipment, and airplanes of three squadrons of the Air National Guard which had been called to active Federal service. These squadrons were the 112th Bomb Squadron of the Ohio ANG, the 157th Fighter Squadrons of the South Carolina ANG, and the 160th Fighter Squadron of the Alabama ANG. Also arriving was the headquarters of the 117th Fighter Group of the Alabama ANG.
c. 1945, E.C. Kropp Company, The Columbus Museum Collection.
These units were to be the nucleus of a new unit of the USAF, the 177th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, which was organized on December 20, 1950. Under the command of Colonel D.M. Allison, the 177th has since become a unit of the Ninth Air Force and part of the Tactical Air Command. Early in the summer of 1951, work began on the extension of the existing runways at Lawson. In June the reason for the work became obvious. Jet aircraft were to be based at Lawson for the first time in its history. It was long until the “whoosh” of the jets became commonplace for residents of the area surrounding the Base. With the increase in the number of aircraft and personnel on the base, there also rose the need for additional working space for the many functions of the base. Included were motor vehicle maintenance shops, additional fuel storage facilities and parking areas. All of these things have been accomplished in the past year. Also accomplished, or in the progress of completion, is a program of improvement of the airdrome itself. New runway lighting, navigational aids, and instrument landing systems are included in this program.
The Lawson Post Exchange, department store for the man in uniform, was enlarged and improved. A huge hangar for the Army Light Aviation Section was also erected on the East ramp and two small hangars on the North ramp were reconditioned for use in maintenance work on single engine craft. In the Airborne Department hangars at the North end of the field, a continuous programs of jump training and heavy equipment drop technique continued as it has since the early days of World War II. Visitors to the base will see C-46, C-82, and C-119 planes line up in this area almost every day, waiting for their cargo of jumpers or equipment and supplies. (Below is pictured a C-46D Commando located at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.) The Armed Forces theme “Power for Peace,” is typified by the efficient use of existing air bases in building up the size of their air arm. The 464th Troop Carrier Wing has taken existing facilities and with a minimum of new construction has made Lawson AFB capable of supporting the increased activity at the base.
The major unit now occupying Lawson is a self-supporting unit organized under the “wing-base” plan. Organic to the Wing are such units as an Installations Squadron, responsible for the repair and maintenance of buildings and grounds, an Air Police Squadron, a Food Service Squadron to run the various food service facilities on the Base and an Air Base Group Headquarters Squadron to furnish personnel for the many details that are a part of a military installation. The 464th Troop Carrier Wing was the last Air Force unit stationed at Lawson. It began moving to Pope Air Force Base, NC in 1954. The Army assumed operational control of the base on February 1, 1955.
“Where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense, as that ten thousand men, descending from the clouds, might not, in many places, do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?” Benjamin Frankin The U.S. Infantry supplied his answer. Next Week: Next Thursday, we will highlight the story of The Infantry School in W.C. Woodall's 1953 Industrial Index. Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!