A Paratrooper’s Panoramic View — Training with the 464th Parachute Field Artillery for Operation Varsity’s ‘Rhine Jump’ with the 17th Airborne Division, by Robert L. Wilson & Philip K. Wilson

In the middle of 1943, three recent draftees applied to enter the Army’s parachute training program at Fort Benning without telling their parents. They successfully met all the standards including their five mandatory jumps, and then they told their parents. One set of parents was so upset that their soldier son dropped out of airborne. The other two remained and Robert Wilson tells his story in this book, co-authored with his son Philip, a college history professor.

When one mentions combat parachute operations in Europe, the first question is “82nd or 101st?” Actually, the last parachute jump in Europe was made over the Rhine River at Wesel 24 March 1945 by the author’s unit, the 17th Airborne Division, and was the last divisional combat jump in the history of the U.S. Army. The Wilsons wrote this book to remind the world of that fact.

The first part of the book goes over the history of airborne in the U.S. Army and then picks up the story where Wilson enters training. He describes the intensive physical conditioning during the first weeks of training (run everywhere including carrying 90-pound loads over rough ground), which washed out a fourth of his entering class. One of the most important phases of training was learning how to pack a parachute, your parachute, and one to which all trainees gave their complete attention.

The first time Wilson ever rode in a plane was the occasion of his first practice jump, and over the course of the war he notes he took off in a plane 12 times, but never landed in one.

After graduating as a paratrooper, Wilson was assigned to the 464th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion of the 13th Airborne Division at Camp Mackall in North Carolina. His main occupation was as a cook, but he continued to take required parachute jumps. Training continued at Mackall until the 13th left for Europe in February 1945.

Once in Europe, planning for Operation Varsity began. This was an airborne show conceived by General Montgomery to put Allied troops across the Rhine (although both the U.S. First and Third armies had already crossed the river a few days earlier). In any event, Montgomery planned the activities and invited the Allied top brass to observe the operation. Three divisions were supposed to jump: the British 6th Airborne and the American 13th and 17th. However, at the last minute, it was decided to reduce the size of the operation and the 13th was scratched, but its 464th was transferred to the 17th for the jump. The 13th remained one of only two U.S. Army divisions to never see combat in WWII.

The jump went well, and although the troops were told ahead of time to expect a 50% casualty rate, and the airborne flak was very heavy, overall losses were nothing like that. Wilson landed safely, helped assemble pieces of his company’s howitzers and find the ammunition was scattered all over. All in all, it was an interesting, short, one-day operation — if perhaps, not a major contribution to the victory in Europe.
This is an interesting story of what happened to one soldier in WWII, told with sufficient information on the “big picture” to make it very readable.

(Authorhouse, 2005; 229 pp., $18.48 — ISBN 1420854291)