The United States Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum recounts the actions of heroic Soldiers from the early days of the Parachute Test Platoon in 1940, to the ongoing Global War on Terrorism. The museum preserves the extraordinary feats performed by the United States Army’s Airborne and the Special Operations Forces, all who jump from the sky, into battle. Come see what brings out the best in America’s sons and daughters. Our museum is a source of pride to all those who served, or now serve, in the United States Army Airborne and Special Operations units.
The main exhibit gallery transports you through time, starting in 1940 with the conception of the United States Army Parachute Test Platoon and ending with today’s Airborne and Special Operations units. Much has changed in the world since the battles of World War II and the conflicts of the Cold War era, but the courage and dedication of the American Soldier is a common bond that ties each generation together.
The excitement and uncertainty of the first U.S. Soldiers to jump is felt as the Test Platoon forges a new weapon of war, the American paratrooper. On 16 August 1940, Lieutenant Bill Ryder led the Test Platoon to become the first American fighting man to stand in the door and jump into history. He was followed by Private William King, the first U.S. enlisted paratrooper. The work that followed in the next four years was amazing. Developing full-scale airborne operations while engaged in a world war required the passion and dedication of many great leaders. The names are legendary; John Ward, Bud Miley, Bill Yarborough, Red King and Bill Donovan only begin the distinguished list of airborne pioneers. North Carolina native Major General William C. Lee is “The Father of the U.S. Airborne.” His drive and desire to develop airborne forces in the U.S. Army earned him this honored distinction.
WORLD WAR II
World War II saw the most concentrated use of airborne operations, with five Army divisions dedicated to using this new method of putting men and equipment on the battlefield. The 11th, 13th, 17th, 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions spearheaded many operations, and were joined by early special operations Soldiers from units such as the Rangers, OSS, and the 1st Special Service Force.
During World War II places such as Sicily, Normandy, and Corregidor became legendary proving grounds for the paratroopers, glider troops, and special operations Soldiers, and were the building blocks of victory in Europe and the Pacific.
As visitors learn the heroic deeds of the Airborne and Special Operations Forces in World War II, you will experience the sights and sounds of a typical French village in Normandy, France, during Operation OVERLORD, the Allied invasion of Europe on 6 June 1944, to free the Continent from Nazi oppression. As visitors walk the streets of the village, they are surrounded by images of war. From the bullet holes in the stucco walls to the C-47 “Skytrain” flying low overhead with Paratroopers in the door ready to jump into the unknown, the museum transports visitors to war torn occupied France at the dawn of Europe’s liberation.
Visitors are then transported to the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of Operations. Video displays here and throughout the gallery show period newsreel footage and other scenes of American Paratroopers and Special Operation Soldiers in action. One of the most rare and impressive exhibits is that of a completely restored WACO CG-4A glider. Gliders were used extensively in the war, and the largest operations used them by the thousands. The gliders were very fragile, had little peacetime use, and have not been used by the military since 1951. As a result, there are only a handful of gliders left in the world, and few of these have been properly restored. The museum’s glider is one of the finest examples in existence.
KOREA AND COLD WAR
In the years following WWII, the air was thick with the new, invisible threats of the spread of communism in Europe, Asia, and America. The United States and the Soviet Union avoided direct military confrontation but engaged in what is known as a “Cold War.” But “hot” wars did erupt on the Korean peninsula in East Asia, when Communist backed forces from North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 and again in Southeast Asia in 1955, when the United States got involved in Indochina’s fight to restrict the expansion of communism into countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
American Airborne and Special Operations units were kept busy in the Korean War, with successful combat parachute assaults by the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team (ARCT), first on 20 October 1950, near the towns of Sukchon and Sunchon, North Korea and led the parachute assault on 23 March 1951, near the village of Munsan-ni, codenamed Operation TOMAHAWK. As you walk through the exhibit, stand with 187th Airborne Paratrooper and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Corporal Rudy Hernandez, as he fights against overwhelming odds to save his fellow troopers from being overrun by the communist forces.
Learn how the Eighth Army Ranger Company was created in August 1950, and how it would serve as the role model for the rest of the Ranger units to be formed. During the course of the war, Ranger Companies, like the 2nd Rangers, the only African American Ranger unit in United States history, patrolled and probed, scouted and destroyed, attacked and ambushed the Communist Chinese and Korean enemy. On 23 March 1951, the 2nd Rangers jumped in with the 187th ARCT in Operation TOMAHAWK.
In the early 1950s the power of special and unconventional warfare became increasingly clear. A natural progression of the special operations units of the OSS that had proven themselves during World War II was the establishment of the 10th Special Forces group at Fort Bragg in 1952, the first of the Army’s Special Forces units. Another Special Operations unit established during the war was the United Nations Partisan Infantry Korea (UNPIK), or 8240th Army Unit. Known as the “White Tigers,” the 8240th was a contingent of anti-communist North Korean partisans, led by U.S. Army advisors fighting against the communist threat to their country. As you explore the exhibit, learn how this unconventional Unit worked deep inside North Korea to gather intelligence, conduct raids, sabotage, rescue POWs, recruit and lead guerrilla armies and create confusion in the enemy’s rear. The 8240th’s mission was so secret, it was not made public by the Army until 1990.
THE HOMEFRONT: CIVIL UNREST
It was also during this period that the United States began to feel internal unrest at such levels that airborne units would be called upon to help support the civilian authorities. A graphics panel at the museum explores the 101st and 82d Airborne Divisions and the XVIII Airborne Corps’ presence in some of our nation’s hot spots of civil unrest from Miami to New Haven and Detroit to Washington, D.C. In 1965, airborne and special operations troops were called to the Dominican Republic. The 7th Special Forces Group and the 82d Airborne Division were joined by South American countries to set up a peacekeeping force. It was the 82d Airborne’s largest overseas deployment since WWII, and it shared the nation’s attention with another war that was raging, this one in Southeast Asia.
The Airborne and Special Operations Museum takes a close look at the Soldiers, equipment, and campaigns of the war in Vietnam. The “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Division, the 3d Brigade of the 82d, and the legendary “Sky Soldiers” of the 173d Airborne Brigade fought valiantly in Southeast Asia, and the Special Forces proved themselves time and again by working with the indigenous people in their fight to free the oppressed. On display exhibit at the museum is a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter. The pilot is at the controls, the door gunner is at the ready, and two 173rd Airborne Paratroopers are on the ground ready for action.
Witness medic, Specialist 5 Lawrence Joel of the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry, 173d Airborne Brigade, as he treats a fellow Paratrooper wounded while on patrol near Bien Hoa during Operation HUMP on 8 November 1965. After nearly all the lead squad was killed, Joel moved forward to help the wounded. Despite being shot in the leg, Joel continued to treat the Soldiers under his care. Hit in the thigh by a second bullet, Joel nonetheless maneuvered through heavy enemy fire to treat thirteen Soldiers. Throughout the twenty-four-hour battle, Joel continued to comfort and treat the wounded until he was evacuated. On 9 March 1967 President Lyndon Johnson awarded Joel the Congressional Medal of Honor, saying that Joel exhibited “a very special kind of courage – the unarmed heroism of compassion and service to others.”
Next visitors will encounter Major Charles J. Watters, who like other Army Chaplains during the Vietnam War, provided spiritual guidance to men in combat and maintained morale. A Catholic priest, Watters spent 16 months with the 2d Battalion, 503d Infantry, 173d Airborne Brigade, saying masses, listening to confessions and offering counsel. In February 1967, Chaplain Watters participated in Operation JUNCTION CITY and in May 1967, he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor after administering last rites to a fatally wounded man while under heavy enemy fire. During the Battle of Dak To in November 1967, Watters exposed himself to enemy fire while helping evacuate wounded Soldiers. While performing last rites, he was killed by a bomb mistakenly dropped by an American bomber. Watters was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Hidden in the bush behind the Huey is the point man for a Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP), silently surveying the action. LRRP’s were needed in a war without front lines, like during the Vietnam War, where mountains and jungle concealed enemy staging areas, base camps and supply routes.
Nearby is a Viet Cong prisoner of war (POW) camp in South Vietnam’s U Minh Forest, also known as the “Forest of Darkness,” due to its dense jungle. Here the visitor will see Green Beret, first lieutenant James “Nick” Rowe held in a bamboo cage plotting his escape. After five years of captivity Rowe escaped his Vietnamese captors in December 1968. Because of his experience as a POW, Rowe was selected by the U.S. Army to design its Survival, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training program, which is now part of the Special Forces Qualification Course.
CONTINGENCY OPERATIONS & TRAINING
Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the United States has been involved in many peacekeeping and contingency operations. The Army has used this time to develop the mission, use, and training of Airborne and Special Operations Soldiers. With successful operations in places from Grenada and Panama to the war in the Persian Gulf, U.S. Airborne and Special Operations Soldiers have continued to spearhead the nation’s fighting power.
In December 1989, the United States initiated Operation JUST CAUSE to remove Manual Noriega from power in Panama. The first objectives were to capture Noriega and rescue American citizen Kurt Muse from Modelo Prison. At 0045, 20 December 1989, MH-6 “Little Birds,” like the one on exhibit, of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) began landing U.S. Army Special Operations Soldiers on the roof of the prison. Within six minutes, they had neutralized the guards, blown open the cell door, and had Muse on an MH-6, which lifted off under hostile fire.
As the “Little Bird” took off, Muse could hear the sound of bullets hitting the aircraft. The MH-6 came to rest on a side street, with enemy fire pouring down from all sides. But Muse and the Special Operations team were soon rescued.
The M551A1 Sheridan armored reconnaissance vehicle on exhibit was heavy enough to be considered a tank by many, but light enough to be dropped into combat by parachute. Veteran of many airborne operations, the Sheridan on exhibit was used by “America’s Guard of Honor,” the 82d Airborne Division. In December 1989, during Operation JUST CAUSE in Panama, Sheridans could crash through and over most roadblocks and strong points. The main gun made holes in walls and buildings. This Sheridan tank was used in an assault on the Commandancia and by August 1990 was in the Saudi desert preparing to counter the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
GLOBAL WAR ON TERRORISM
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the U.S. as the world’s only superpower, but Islamic extremism replaced communism as a threat to world peace and democratic values. After failing in 1993, Islamic terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City by flying hijacked passenger planes into the building on 11 September 2001. Another plane damaged the Pentagon, seat of U.S. military power, while a fourth plane crashed, through the desperate heroism of its passengers, before it could hit the U.S. Capitol. Nearly 3,000 people died.
Al-Qaeda, headed by Osama Bin Laden, was identified as the perpetrator. Dislodging it from its safe haven in Afghanistan was GWOT’s first objective. Special Forces were selected as the “weapon of choice,” organizing, supplying, and leading the local Northern Alliance to victory over the Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists.
Almost immediately after the terrorist attacks on 11 September, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other U.S. military units, began planning a response. One of the several Joint U.S. Military Special Forces components established, for what was dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-2014), was designated Task Force DAGGER.
Sit-down with our Special Forces Soldiers in an Afghan hut and learn how a handful of these well-trained warriors, working with local warlords, defeated the Taliban during the early stages of the war. Deploy with elements of the XVIII Airborne Corps to Afghanistan and Iraq to see how they fought and continue to fight alongside our country’s international partners to triumph over terrorism.