The 542nd Parachute Infantry Battalion

542nd Barachute Infantry Battalion Badge The 542nd Parachute Infantry Battalion
By Erik Mozolik

With the attack on Pearl Harbour in the closing month of 1941, the United States found itself seriously lacking as the rest of the world was consumed in the fires of war. The US military was ranked 16th in the world, right behind Romania. In a very short time, the United States found itself waging a two front war. Both the Soviet Union and Great Britain found themselves reeling from the Wehrmacht war machine, and Japan had dealt a serious blow to American superiority in the Pacific by bombing the fleet located at Pearl Harbour. Every branch of service began rapid expansion, as armies were needed to fight Axis forces throughout the globe.
Within the United States Army, parachute forces were still in their infancy. By 1940, America had joined a growing number of countries that saw the value in parachute infantry. In June of that year a small cadre of volunteers from the 29th Infantry Regiment at Fort Benning became known as the Parachute Test Platoon. Forty-eight enlisted men were selected from a pool of two hundred volunteers. The platoon moved into tents near Lawson Field, and an abandoned hanger was obtained for use as a training hall and for parachute packing.
Eventually the unit was moved to the Safe Parachute Company at Hightstown, NJ for training on the parachute drop towers used during the New York World’s Fair. Eighteen days after organization, the platoon was moved to New Jersey and trained for one week on the 250-foot towers.

The training was particularly effective. When a drop from the tower was eventually compared to a drop from an airplane, it was found that the added realism was otherwise impossible to duplicate. The drop also proved to the troopers that their parachutes would function safely. The Army was so impressed with the tower drops that two were purchased and erected at Fort Benning on what is now Eubanks Field. Later, two more were added. Three of the original four towers are still in use training paratroopers at Fort Benning. Less than forty-five days after organization, on 16 August 1940, the first jump from an aircraft in flight by members of the test platoon was made from a Douglas B-18 over Lawson Field.

Eventually the unit was expanded and became the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion. With a keen eye the military watched events unfold throughout 1941, with particular interest on the invasion of Crete. While high casualties deterred the Wehrmacht from future large-scale air assaults, it only served to enhance American interest in parachute forces.
Drawing of a Training Tower
Parachute Soldier in Training In July of 1941 the Army expanded its parachute forces to include another battalion, the 502nd. By the end of the year the United States has a small but growing nucleus of trained, highly dedicated, all-volunteer parachute soldiers.

At the beginning of 1942 America began the most rapid expansion of its military to date. On January 30, 1942 the War Department authorized the expansion of parachute forces to four parachute infantry regiments. By March the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated at Fort Benning and in July both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were activated at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg.

Throughout 1942 and into 1943 the parachute forces continued aggressive expansion and training. On September 1, 1943 the 542nd Parachute Infantry Regiment was also activated at Fort Benning.
The unit continued training in the United States as other regiments were shipped overseas. It was not formally assigned to a divisional command. By March of 1944 with training for Operation Overlord well underway, it was decided to disband the regiment. Two of its three battalions were disbursed amongst paratroop units already overseas in order to provide replacements and to expand units assigned to the impending invasion. 

The third battalion remained in the United States retaining the name 542nd Parachute Infantry Battalion. It continued training at Fort Benning until July when it was transferred to Fort MacKall in North Carolina as part of the Airborne Centre Command Headquarters for the next year. 

Throughout the year the 542nd provided the Airborne Centre with soldiers to perform equipment and tactics testing, training and development teams, troop carrier schools, and War Bond Drive teams. By late 1945 the Airborne Centre Command was transferred to and finally back to Fort Benning in early 1946 where it was disbanded. Most of the men were processed for discharge and the few remaining men were transferred to active units.

Parachute Drop
Gear Check By the end of World War II the US had used parachute infantry in fourteen major offensives and dozens of smaller operations. Anglo-American airborne forces mounted major assaults in Sicily in July of 1943, Normandy in June of 1944, and across the Rhine in March 1945.

Smaller airborne landings occurred in North Africa in 1942 and in the Pacific: the Nadzab (New Guinea) operation in 1943, the long-range operations in Burma by Wingate’s Raiders in 1943 and 1944, and the highly successful parachute drop on Corregidor in February of 1945.

The 542nd was unique among paratrooper units in that saw no overseas combat duty. Being all-volunteer with such rigorous training, most parachute infantry units were utilized as elite front line infantry. The 542nd, although still all-volunteer and highly trained, was utilized in an altogether different manner: It was the prototype of future paratroop training which continued well after World War II and provided a positive public relations image at home with bond drives and demonstration exercises.

Last Updated On Monday, March 12, 2018 by Wayne at Battlefront