36 years ago the military had its biggest airborne operation blunder in history

Screenshot from "Gallant Eagle 82 (Documentary)" embedded below article.

In 1794, founding father Benjamin Franklin had a curious thought concerning the future of warfare:

“Where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense, so that ten thousand men descending from the clouds might not, in many places, do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?”

Even before the invention of the airplane, man has looked to the sky and wondered “how can I put a bunch of rough men up there and drop them on top of people I don’t like?”

While the concept of airborne paratrooper operations as we know it is arguably at it’s technological apogee (at least until Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers becomes a reality), it is no doubt still a very dangerous task that, even when taken with the utmost seriousness, has countless variables that could result in inadvertent injury or death.

Such was the case in 1982, when -on this very day- the brave men of the 82nd Airborne leapt into the skies over the California desert, with no idea of the terror that was about to befall them.

Participating in the largest military airdrop at the time since World War II, nearly 3,000 “All-Americans” of the 82nd were well-involved in “Gallant Eagle ‘82,” a massive, 40,000-troop joint training exercise in the California desert, less than two years after Iraq invaded Iran and less than a decade before the 82nd would be called to fight in the Persian Gulf.

With over ninety troop transports in the air (courtesy of the aerial bus drivers of the US Air Force), the paratroopers were given the green light at six in the morning, ready to jump into the desert below.

In the moments that followed, four would never live long enough to collect their parachutes. Over a hundred others would be injured, twenty of them suffering more than the others.

“This is why airborne soldiers get intensive training with frequent parachute jumps,” Army Lt. Gen. Robert Kingston, commander of the Rapid Deployment Force, said at the time. “Paratroopers get hazardous duty pay because it is hazardous duty- otherwise the Army wouldn’t pay them hazardous duty pay.”

In the aftermath of the incident, it was surmised that heavy gusts of wind at the time of the drop were responsible for the mass-casualty affair, though the drop had initially been approved due to “acceptable” winds at the time.

For those who jumped, however, the winds appeared to be far harsher.

”They shouldn’t have told us to jump, the winds were too high,” said Private First Class Michael Edenfield, who told the New York Times that he was dragged 25 yards by the gusts. ”They should have waited. You shouldn’t lose lives like this in peacetime.”

”The winds were high, but we might as well get used to winds like this,” countered Specialist Ed White, who also made the jump. “In time of war, you don’t have any choice. You get paid extra for being a paratrooper, you have to earn it.”

While the incident took place in an era so bygone that men at the time were still wearing M1 steel helmets, the loss and subsequent lesson still resonates with the 82nd Airborne Division.

“Winds were reported to be gusting at 40mph on the drop zone at the time of the drop,” the 82nd Airborne Division wrote on Facebook earlier today, in a post commemorating the incident. “Paratroopers were concussed, blown off the drop zone, blown onto vehicles, and dragged all over the drop zone.”

Even in the 21st Century, there is no shortage of danger associated with parachute drops. Thankfully, for our sake and for the sake of the rest of the free world, there is no shortage of courage from within the paratroopers- who continue to jump when the light turns green and that resounding shout pierces the wind and noise:

“Go.”

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