The 82nd Airborne Division, Now 100 Years Old, Does More Than Jump From Planes

Originally published on August 25, 2017 2:03 pm

The Fort Bragg division is best known for its parachute jumps in World War II. Today, its specialty is rapid deployments - with or without parachutes.

The 82nd Airborne Division turns 100 years old this week.

While its storied reputation is mainly built around its World War II parachute jumps into Normandy, Sicily, and other European cities, the division's mission has always been about more than jumping.  

PHOTOS: Combat Training With The 82nd Airborne Division

The 82nd was formed a quarter of a century before there was such a thing as paratroopers. In World War I, it fought in three major campaigns in Europe. One of its most famous soldiers, Alvin C. York, killed more than 20 German soldiers while assaulting a machine-gun unit and almost single-handedly captured another 132.

Meanwhile, in recent decades, as combat jumps became rare, the division has taken on the role of the Army's rapid deployment force. One of the division's three brigades always has some of its soldiers ready to board aircraft and ready to fight.

"The 82nd is the only unit in the Army that can load on an airplane 18 hours after you call it up and be moving to where ever you need it," said historian John Aarsen, the director of the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum at Fort Bragg, N.C.

A storied past prepares soldiers for the future

Yes, the division has its own museum. And a series of podcasts on the unit's history.

Civilians can visit the museum, but the 82nd Airborne mainly uses it for something else.

"Primarily the museum is here to train soldiers," Aarsen said. "I'm here to train soldiers to know their history, and a lot of it is I'm here to reinforce those values. The esprit des corps of the 82nd."

Every new paratrooper is brought to the museum. It's a way of maintaining a consistent culture and set of values in an organization that has constant turnover as soldiers cycle in and out.

That history offers lessons in tactics and strategy. And helps young soldiers deal with a job so daunting that their method of getting to the battlefield can kill them.

"An 18-year-old in 1943 jumped out of the door over Sicily and did what he needed to do," Aarsen said. "And you are an 18-year-old in the United States Army, and what I'm asking you to do is no different than what happened in that door in Italy. And you can do it."

"There are 75 years of soldiers like that, soldiers standing in that door all this time."

One of the 82nd's soldiers who stood in that door was Kenneth "Rock" Merritt.

Then 20 years old, he was the second man to jump out of a C-47 transport plane over Normandy on D-Day in 1944. The sky was lighted only by German tracer rounds.

"If somebody tells you, no, you're not scared, he's either lying or he's a fool," said Merritt, now a 94-year-old retired command sergeant major who lives in Fayetteville.

Merritt came down in in a briar patch, and a German machine gun fired at him as he wriggled out of his parachute harness. Then an American transport plane fell towards him on fire. As it passed just overhead, he saw the lines trailing out that had yanked open a load of paratroopers' chutes.

That, he thought to himself, meant they had gotten out.

Then Merritt collected his equipment and crept away to find the rest of his unit. What was left of it, at least.

Merritt, among the nation's first paratroopers, said they were taught to move up two levels of command if their leaders were lost in battle. By dawn, that training seemed clairvoyant.

"On D-Day, my entire chain of command got killed," he said. "Not wounded, not captured; all of them got killed."

Merritt says nearly 2,100 men in his regiment made that jump. After a month of fighting, fewer than 1,000 were left.

During Merritt's 35 years in the Army, he served with various units. Many were good, he said, but none matched the spirit and leadership of the 82nd.

"They told us nobody was better than the paratroopers," Merritt recalled of his early training.  "He could whoop five men, any paratrooper could. That was what they taught us."

Despite fewer combat jumps, 82nd has important role

After World War II, the 82nd became the first Army division to be permanently integrated, and it has had roles in almost every major conflict, including current deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Soldiers of the division were sent to keep order at the University of Mississippi during desegregation. They responded to riots in Washington, D.C. after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They provided aid to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Florida after Hurricane Andrew.

In 1994, the 82nd was credited with averting a conflict in Haiti just by loading into planes and getting into the air.

But while big parachute assaults were the most famous chapters of the 82nd's history, large combat jumps have been rare since World War II, and paratroopers of the 82nd haven't made one since the invasion of Panama in 1989.

Such jumps can lead to a lot of casualties and often have mixed success. And though other units, particularly in special operations, sometimes make combat jumps with small numbers of troops, the 82nd has faced questions about whether it makes sense for the Army to maintain such a large unit of paratroopers.

But Aarsen says the 82nd's speciality isn't just parachuting. It's being ready.  The division's ability to deploy within 18 hours is something no other unit that size offers the Pentagon.

"Just as the 82nd doesn’t do an airborne assault doesn’t mean the capability hasn’t been put to use," Aarsen said.

"Oh, I got another jump today"

Regardless of their mission, the 82nd strives to maintain the aggressive, can-do paratrooper attitude that Merritt had in Normandy and that current paratroopers still have.

During a recent training jump at Fort Bragg, Army Spc. Kevin Bogucki was nonchalant about jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft for a living.

"They get a kick out of it when I tell people, it blows their mind," he said as the hulking C-17 transport jet banked and turned toward a practice drop zone. "Me, it's old news now. Oh, I got another jump today."

Soldiers have to volunteer to become paratroopers, and while Bogucki said it was the extra $150 a month that first got his attention, he said once he got into the 82nd, it became obvious that all the talk about it being special wasn't just talk.

Now, he said, he believes it really is better than other units.

"It is," he said. "Absolutely. You go on training things like this all the time [and] it has to pay some dividends."

A few minutes later, he and dozens of other paratroopers stood, all burdened with heavy packs, rifles, and parachutes.

They filed back to the two open doors of the huge jet, the men in front of Bogucki vanishing one at a time into the night sky until finally he was standing in the door.

Then, just like Rock Merritt had done so many decades ago, he jumped.