The main exhibit gallery moves the visitor through time, starting in 1940 with the conception of the U.S. 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. Lieutenant Bill Ryder, leader of the Test Platoon, on August 16th, 1940 became the first American fighting man to stand in the door and jump. 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. North Carolina native Major General William C. Lee would come to be known as “the Father of the Airborne.”
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. Conventional American airborne forces from WWII until 1948 were composed roughly of equal parts paratroopers and glider troops. Gliders were used to bring soldiers and equipment including jeeps, engineering and artillery pieces, to the battlefield. 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.On display at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum is a replica of part of a French village from the Normandy Invasion of June 1944. 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 jumper in the door, the museum transports the visitor to war torn occupied France at the dawn of Europe’s liberation.The visitor is then transported to the Pacific-Asiatic theater of operation, immersed in excitement and uncertainty as they prepare for combat in the thick jungle. Video displays here and throughout the gallery show original newsreel footage and other scenes of American troops in action.One of the most rare and impressive displays 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 1950-51. For these reasons 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 Cold War. American airborne and special operations units were kept busy in the Korean War, with combat jumps by the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team (ARCT) and the use of Airborne Ranger Companies. PSYWAR Radio Broadcast and Leaflet teams added pressure by fighting for the hearts and minds of the combatants. United Nations partisan forces fought deep behind enemy lines in a little remembered special operations effort.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 Ft. Bragg in 1952, the first of the Army’s Special Forces units.It was also during this time 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 nations hot spots 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 & 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 for freedom.On display at the museum is a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter. The pilot is at the controls, the door gunner is at the ready, and two paratroopers are on the ground ready for action. Hidden in the bush is the point man for a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, silently surveying the action. Nearby is a mortar emplacement on the perimeter of a C.I.D.G. camp. In the distance the North Vietnamese Army is charging up the hill toward the defense. Audio effects intensify these and many of the exhibits at the museum, providing an enhanced sensory experience.
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.The M551 Sheridan armored reconnaissance vehicle 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, a Sheridan is on display in the museum, with a member of “America’s Guard of Honor”, the 82d Airborne Division, ready for combat along side.
Overhead is an AH-6 “Little Bird”. This small but deadly helicopter represents the use of special operations airpower. From the early airplanes that dropped paratroopers and towed gliders to the blistering modern gun-ships like the AC-130H Specter, aircraft have always been an intrinsic part of airborne and special operations.A diorama at the museum depicts a Special Forces hide-site during the Persian Gulf War. The front of the site is nearly invisible against the backdrop of the desert. The rear of the site has been cut away to show the soldiers carefully watching the movements of an Iraqi convoy. These “silent professionals” will then relay what they are seeing through secure radio methods, providing a “real-time” view of enemy movement.