4 battles where paratroopers could have made a big difference

In the brief period of time since their inception the American paratrooper has seen combat and spearheaded assaults all over the world.

Despite their usefulness, however, there have still been numerous times when paratroopers were not used in which they could have had a significant impact on the battle. These are four of those battles:

paratroopers, wwii, army

U.S. paratroopers awaiting orders to jump. (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1942)

1. The Battle of Bastogne

In December 1944 the Germans launched a massive offensive into the Ardennes forest that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.

As the situation deteriorated, Gen. Eisenhower decided to commit his strategic reserves, primarily the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, in an attempt to blunt the German attack. In the ensuing melee, the 82nd helped hold back the Germans at Elsenborn Ridge while the 101st became encircled holding Bastogne.

The effort to relieve the 101st fell to Patton’s Third Army to drive through the Germans and reach Bastogne.

However, Eisenhower had one remaining airborne division in reserve in England.

On Dec. 23, the same day Pathfinders landed in Bastogne to guide in supply drops, the 17th Airborne Division flew to France in order to join Third Army in its counter-offensive.

A more decisive move would have been to have the paratroopers of the 17th jump into the perimeter of Bastogne in order to shore up the lines and bring much needed relief to the beleaguered paratroopers of the 101st. This tactic had been used to great effect during Operation Avalanche in Sicily in which 82nd paratroopers reinforced the Allied beachhead at Salerno.

This would have then allowed the defenders to affect a breakout towards friendly lines or to go on an offensive of their own to drive the Germans back and break the siege.

army, airborne, paratrooper

Waves of paratroopers fill the skies during a combat exercise. (U.S. Army)

2. The Landing at Inchon

On Sept. 15, 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces as part of Operation Chromite assaulted the beaches and harbor of Inchon — then well behind enemy lines.

In a coordinated effort with the forces encircled at Pusan, the United Nations forces delivered a striking blow against the North Koreans driving them back towards the 38th Parallel and recapturing Seoul.

The attack was a textbook amphibious assault comparable to those undertaken in Europe during World War II in which paratroopers spearheaded an assault followed by seaborne infantry. However, MacArthur had been in command in the Pacific and thus had utilized airborne forces much differently. His assault plan did not include the use of paratroopers.

Though only the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team was available, they could have been put to good use.

Their first order of business could have been the seizure of Kimpo Airfield, a task not completed until Sept. 18 by a battalion of Marines. The early capture of the airfield would have allowed American fighters a forward base sooner and would have allowed follow-on forces to be flown in.

Other elements of the 187th could have also been used to cut off the forces retreating from Pusan. Though the UN was able to eliminate nearly half of the 70,000 North Koreans in the South, the other half was able to regroup in North Korea.

Had paratroopers been employed they could have potentially stopped more — if not all — from reaching North Korea, leaving the communists with virtually no military.

army, airborne, paratroopers

(U.S. Army paratroopers conduct an airborne operation on Oct. 20, 2015. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Juan F. Jimenez)

3. The Siege of Khe Sanh

Just before the launch of the Tet Offensive in January 1968, the North Vietnamese attacked and laid siege to the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Though they held their positions in the hills around the base and the base itself, they were soon cut off from ground support and resupply when Route 9 was closed. The Marines in and around the combat base — mostly the 26th Marine Regiment as well as 1st Battalion, 9th Marines — held out against the North Vietnamese for 11 weeks before finally being relieved by elements of the 1st Cavalry Division as part of Operation Pegasus.

However, the 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade was alerted and deployed to Vietnam in early February 1968 in order to shore up defenses against the Tet Offensive.

The brigade could have instead been dropped into the Khe Sanh Combat Base in order to strengthen the defenses there and improve the offensive capabilities of the defenders. The paratroopers could have been used to seek out the NVA artillery that continually pounded the base and silenced it. This would also have freed up other units that were instead used to break the siege.

Furthermore, the paratroopers would have brought with them valuable assets such as artillery, engineers, and intelligence that would have improved the fighting ability of the defenders.  

airborne, army

A Paratrooper from the 173rd Airborne Brigade prepares to land. In the background, a C-130 Hercules. (U.S. Army photo by Visual Information Specialist Paolo Bovo)

4. Operation Iraqi Freedom

Although there was one large and several smaller airborne operations during the invasion of Iraq the role of paratroopers in the initial assault should have been much greater. Another operation, a likely jump by the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne and the 3rd Ranger Battalion onto Saddam International Airport, was scrapped after an overzealous journalist revealed the plan on public television.

However, there were many other targets of opportunity and uses for the available paratroopers. Much like the Rangers’ seizure of H-1 Airbase in Western Iraq, the paratroopers of the 2nd Brigade could have opened an airhead just north of Baghdad with an airborne assault of Balad Air Base.

Reminiscent of WWII operations in Europe, they could have cleared the way for the 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division as they made their way toward Baghdad. The seizure of key infrastructure was vital to keep Saddam from repeating his scorched earth retreat from 1991.

This could have been more quickly facilitated if paratroopers had been employed. With air superiority from the beginning, the possibilities for airborne assaults were great though unfortunately under-utilized.

When the paratroopers did enter the fight they proved their mettle when they earned a Presidential Unit Citation for their actions at As Samawah.

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