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History of the 88th Airborne Battalion

by James E. Mrazek

The history of the 88th Airborne Battalion, from its activation, to the time it was amalgamated as a regiment with the 326th Glider Infantry Regiment in France during World War II, is covered in an eclectic assortment of conventional official documents. 

Not recorded in them, or elsewhere, are its contributions and the impact these contributions have made to airborne warfare operations and doctrine, to military and commercial airlift operations, to military helicopter operations or to the progress of America, especially through the aircraft industry.

At its activation as the 88th Airborne Battalion on 10 October, 1942, it was intended to be an experimental organization that would introduce the air landing aspects of airborne warfare to America's military forces. Such warfare had been applied by the Germans against the Belgians early during World War II with devastating affect. Germany was able to keep information about these operations from leaking out of Germany.

This much the allies were able to glean through intelligence sources - a number of German soldiers in large gliders had landed on the surface of Belgian's massive Fort Eben Emael on May 20, 1940. They subdued the fort in less than one hour. The loss of the fort created a gap in the Belgian defenses. Because of the shock of this loss, in only a matter of days, Belgium surrendered. This left France's northern flank defensless to the Wermacht's panzers. Soon France fell and the debacle at Dunkerque followed. The 88th battalion was organized as a hybrid tactical and experimental unit. It was lightly manned and equipped and initially was limited to flying in Douglas DC-3's, the only transport airplane immediately available in those early years for carrying its equipment and available to test airborne techniques and doctrine. Motorcycle, bicycles, guns and equipment issued the (airborne) unit were intended to enable it to load in the airplanes, deplane quickly once landed, hit the enemy swiftly and hard and then hold until relieved. The unit was not constituted for sustained combat. This sort of activity divined by a War Department, promised great things for the future of airborne operations, but it did not foresee, nor did it have to cope with the myriad problems in putting such doctrine into reality. It left this to the 88th to translate a concept into workable tactics, techniques, doctrine and procedures.

There was little, if any, experience available with respect to the loading of equipment into airplanes, and the problems such activities entailed. Nor did the 88th get guidance from any source with such knowledge. What was achieved was achieved through dangerous, difficult, practical experience and the ingenuity and ability of the members of the 88th to overcome the problems that developed.

From the beginning there were problems in securing guns, ammunition and equipment so that turbulence while in flight would not cause it to shift or become free. The 88th learned to use ropes to lash the cargo to tie down rings set into the floor of the airplanes. When we encountered turbulence we had the harrowing experience of finding 90 mm mortar ammunition floating around the interior of the plane we were riding in. Initially, we could only resecure it or hold it down the as best we could. The 88th sent some men to Wright Patterson air base to present the problem and try to find solutions. One Mr. Baker offered a trucker's knot, the bowline, later dubbed the Baker bowline by his appreciative students. The bowline could not be untied quickly, slowing the unloading of equipment, so enterprising 88ers added the slippery half hitch, well known to boy scouts and truckers.

Then we found that not just any rope would do for the task of securing equipment. Most of it stretched, permitting the equipment to loosen. We opted for 5/8ths-inch Manila hemp, which was very durable and stretched little.

Pilots of the day had little interest in passengers or cargo of any kind. Their attention was directed to flying the glider. The 88th became concerned when pilots were reporting puzzling problems, especially in taking off, and in having to trim the airplanes unduly in flight. What was amiss was that loads were changing the center of gravity of the airplanes, or were heavier than the load for which the aircraft was rated. We had received no cautionary advice from the pilots on how to distribute loads. With little help from the Air Corps, the 88th devised loading plans taking into consideration the center of gravity.

It was customary to equip each military airplane and glider passenger with a parachute. This was OK for airplanes, but when it came to gliders Lieutenant Al Leonard, one of the primary contributors to airborne techniques, considered the expendability doctrine inherent in air transport combat operations and questioned the advisability of issuing parachutes to passengers in gliders. Al reasoned that gliders normally were towed at about 300-500 feet altitude, too low to use parachutes if the occasion demanded. Moreover, weight was always a problem. If chutes could be dispensed with, equivalent weight in weapons and ammunition could be substituted. Al's argument carried the day, and glidermen ceased to wear parachutes, a condition that convinced paratroopers they never wanted to go into combat in a glider. The air force later adopted the practice of not issuing parachutes to passengers in transport aircraft.

To facilitate unit training for the vital task of loading men and equipment into gliders, the 88th built the first full scale glider mockup. It became the prototype for large formations of mockups in training areas that were used for loading and lashing training of the 88th and all airborne divisions. As with the mockup, so it was with many other items of equipment and training. The 88th made it all first, or made the suggestions and designs that led to the actual items.

These ideas led to modifications of gliders and airplanes, and even to the design of new aircraft. A case in point is the successor of the CG-4A glider, the CG-15. The CG-4A was an innovation amongst aircraft, and was the first of its kind in America. It had little testing, and no combat experience up to that time, and thus fell to Al Leonard and other members of the 88th to suggest improvements that would have be desirable and necessary. These were passed up to the Airborne Command, then in charge of collecting and acting on such information, and they all found their way into the modified CG-4A, the CG-15.

Shortly after take off, early production CG-4As dropped their wheels, and landed on skids that ran part of the length of the fuselage. For the gliders to take off again, crews had a real chore to raise the glider and reinstall the wheels. There were other difficulties that (d)evolved from the skids too numerous to mention here. Al Leonard cited them and suggested that landings be made on wheels. The Air Corps adopted his suggestion. Problems evaporated. Gliders suffered less landing damage, and changed from being expendable to recoverable.

It should be understood that these gliders were largely designed by the Air Corps, with little knowledge of airborne unit requirements. This is where the 88th played an important role. Elements of the 88th tested the air transport capabilities of the XCG-13, the cg-15A, and the CG-19 as well as other glider and transport airplane prototypes and heavily influenced which modifications were made.

The 88th trained the glider infantry regiments, artillery, medical and other battalions and many of the parachute elements of the 82nd, 101st, 11th, 17th divisions in air transport operations. After the 88th was absorbed by the 326th Glider Infatnry Regiment in the 13th Airborne Division, members of the former 88th that were then in the 326th also were selected to train the 84th Infantry division for air transportably. From the 88th evolved the information that was to become the basis of airborne operations, training and doctrine manuals.

The aircraft industry incorporated many of the experiences gained in the 88th into the design of airplanes, especially those that were intended primarily as cargo carriers. Perhaps the best example in this trend was the 66 passenger XCG-20, America's largest glider. It incorporated the best of the technology that the 88th had devised and contributed to cargo airplane and glider construction. It was to become the C-23, which gradually evolved into a jet airplane from which the design of many of America's most advanced airplanes have borrowed many design features.

James E. Mrazek

Colonel, USA (Ret.)

Colonel Mrazek commanded a battalion in the 326th Glider Infantry Regiment in the 13th during World War II and towards the end of the war commanded the regiment for several months. He then took command of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division for several months after it had returned to the United States.  PKO

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Copyright 1997 Patrick O'Donnell