(Courtesy of Don Swinford)
Paramount's 1939 western GERONIMO
... a forgotten movie with a giant legacy.
by Ed Howard
A 1939 western named GERONIMO, the inspiration it gave a US Army paratrooper, and the formation of a US Army paratrooper tradition were events that combined to transform a character in a now-forgotten movie into a household word. This is the story of the relationship between the 1939 Paramount movie, the WWII paratroopers, and the motivational yell, "Geronimo".
In mid 1940, jumping out of airplanes as a means of troop deployment was a new concept for the US Army. In July and August of that year, experimental training began in earnest with the Army's creation of a small unit called the Parachute Test Platoon. This group of 50 handpicked volunteers not only trained under tough standards of discipline, they actually developed the paratrooper-training techniques that would serve as the basis for the parachute units that would follow. As they completed their initial weeks of training and began jumping out of planes in mid August, these rugged and brave men were known and respected by everyone at Fort Benning. Weeks of unique and dangerous training had transformed them from mere mortals to respected men for whom sidewalks would clear like waters of the Red Sea. Their words were listened to. Their actions and manner of dress was emulated. They were what every other soldier who saw them wanted to be, so the time was ripe for legends and traditions to be born. One of the greatest paratrooper traditions of all time was about to begin with one of these men and the 1939 Paramount movie, GERONIMO.
1SG Ed Howard, A Co, 1/507th PIR (Airborne School). Late 1999 photo taken at Fort Benning, Georgia, about a year and a half before his retirement.
At 6' 3", Private Aubrey Eberhardt was the biggest paratrooper of the platoon and growing up on a Georgia farm during the depression made him as tough as he was big. The 24 year old was used to hard work in the hot Georgia sun but the training regimen and parachute jumps taxed his mind and body as much as it did the other 49 men.
Evenings offered a brief reprieve from the rigors of training each day, and the place to take that break from their dusty airfield encampment was just a short walk away on Fort Benning's main post. The air-conditioned Main Post Theatre was the best place to cool down and relax after a hard day of training and on that particular mid-August evening, Eberhardt and three other paratroopers made their way there to watch the 1939 Paramount western, GERONIMO. This movie was filled with action, intrigue, and most importantly, the intimidating presence of Native American actor, Victor Daniels, who played the title role of the great Apache chief, Geronimo. Movie audiences knew him already as Chief Thunder Cloud who played the role of Tonto in the 1938 Lone Ranger serial, so to have Chief Thunder Cloud appear on the movie poster was to have a box office draw and Paramount's GERONIMO was no exception. Daniels had few appearances in GERONIMO, but his large persona matched the large print of his name on the posters and lobby cards. One can imagine how these four motivated young paratroopers sat in their theater seats with their eyes affixed to the screen, without a thought or concern about the next days parachute jump. Worries would have to wait because it was time for Eberhardt and the others to relax and take in the humor of the sidekick, the treachery of the politicians, and the battles of soldier and warrior.
After the movie and a drink at the nearby beer garden, the foursome began their walk back to their lowly tents on the airfield. During that fateful mile they would stumble into a conversation that would ultimately bring Geronimo into a whole new genre. One of the group asked Eberhardt if he thought he could jump out of the plane the next day without fear. Eberhardt, not used to having his confidence questioned, responded that he would not be scared and to prove it, he would let his fellow paratroopers know that he could keep his presence of mind by yelling something to them right after he jumped out. Although the group would be separated by hundreds of feet, with some in the air and some on the ground, Eberhardt insisted he could yell loud enough to be heard by all. When asked what he would yell, he thought for a few moments for a good word to choose - one that was distinctive enough that no one else would be using it. It is probable that he dismissed common salutations such as, "Hey!" or "It's me!" because he would take no chance that anyone would think his shout could be someone else. In the few moments it took him to think of such a unique word, his mind must have gone back to the movie and the inspiring sight of Chief Thunder Cloud. "Geronimo" was the word he chose.
The next day he fulfilled his promise. Eberhardt's fellow paratroopers heard the word, "Geronimo" repeatedly fill the air from the moment he jumped out until his feet touched the ground! Others in the platoon picked up on the idea in their subsequent parachute jumps and the beginnings of a tradition formed in the skies above Lawson Army Airfield as more of the platoon mimicked Private Eberhardt's bold, mid-air yell. Had an Indian warrior's name ever before been used in such an adrenaline-filled situation? In all probability this idea was born in the mind of none other than a US Army private, with his only help being a mountain of paratrooper confidence and the inspiring Chief Thunder Cloud on the screen of the Fort Benning's Main Post Theatre.
So the Geronimo yell was conceived by Pvt. Eberhardt and immediately embraced by the platoon in the 3rd week of August, 1940, but how long would this unmilitary practice be allowed to continue? The two officers of the test platoon tolerated this unsanctioned yell, but its safety was far from assured because any senior officer having jurisdiction over the platoon could easily have put a halt to it. The seal of approval came during a jump later that month, which was observed by a group of dignitaries and high-ranking Army officers from Washington DC. They were surprised by the odd yell coming from most of the platoon. Some of the group said that this shout should be halted immediately because it appeared to show a breach of military discipline in the midst of a very serious act - military parachuting. Others disagreed. After some discussion one senior officer prevailed, who said it displayed bravery, and not only did he approve of it, he wanted to see more of it! So, just as the new tradition was on the brink of extinction, it was saved. That officer, whose name is now lost to history, would see his impromptu endorsement grow beyond belief as "Geronimo" took on a life of its own.
Over the next few years of wartime expansion, that platoon grew into battalions, then regiments, then finally five Airborne Divisions with numerous separate battalions. The practice of yelling, "Geronimo" grew in proportion to the surging US Army Airborne effort. More units formed and they quickly picked up the yell but the great chief's name would not only be shouted, it would be worn on the caps, lapels and shirt pockets of many of those brave men. As new units, they were free to design their own insignias and pocket patches. The Army's first parachute battalion, the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB), would incorporate the great chief's name into their unit insignia in 1941. Major William Miley, the 501st commander, gave the Geronimo tradition an important endorsement by choosing "Geronimo" as the motto on the 501st PIB unit insignia, a device worn on the dress uniform of every soldier in the unit. Maj. Miley even had sergeant major locate relatives of the real chief Geronimo to ask their permission for use of the chief's name in the unit insignia. He located them with the help of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and they granted permission with pride.
Of the dozens of Airborne regiments and battalions that formed during WWII, two incorporated Geronimo into their pocket patches. Pocket patches were worn on the right chest pocket. When the 501st PIB was redesignated as the 501st PIR in 1942, it adopted a pocket patch with an Apache chief holding a bolt of lightning over the word, "Geronimo". Also, the 509th PIR used the word, "Geronimo" on its pocket patch. A few years into the war, the Paramount B western origin of the Geronimo yell was probably all but forgotten, but the "Geronimo" yells and the Indian theme still loomed large over the US Army Airborne. This was seen in the 101st Airborne Division soldiers with war paint and Mohawk haircuts on the eve of the D-Day invasion, and still heard as paratroopers exited C-47 planes over Fort Benning, Fort Bragg and staging areas in England. Geronimo would also be sung, when Lieutenant Colonel Byron Paige of the 11th Airborne Division wrote one of the classic WWII paratrooper songs, Down From Heaven to celebrate the relationship of paratroopers to the Geronimo cry. (The number eleven comes from the number of paratroopers in a plane.)
Down from Heaven comes ELEVEN
and there's HELL to pay below
shout "GERONIMO" "GERONIMO".
Hit the silk and check your canopy
and take a look around
The air is full of troopers
set for battle on the ground
Till we join the stick of ANGELS
killed on Leyte and Luzon
shout "GERONIMO" "GERONIMO".
It's a gory road to glory
but we're ready here we go
shout "GERONIMO" "GERONIMO".
The cry also found its role in the civilian sector, introduced to the public by the intense media coverage of America's shock troops - the paratroopers. The Geronimo cry had entered the public mainstream, and to the public, Geronimo was a novel expression of bravery, carried by the equally new type of warrior - the paratrooper. It is no wonder the shout caught the attention of America, as it went hand in hand with the larger than life paratrooper. To the red-blooded American boy, the jump cry of the paratrooper seemed like just the thing to say for his equivalent event. What did little Johnny shout when he jumped from great heights such as the top bunk? "Geronimo". Across America the cry would be identified with a subsequent act of bravery, usually followed by pain!
After the war, practical training methods replaced tradition, and paratroopers were finally forbidden from yelling "Geronimo" in the air. This was inevitable because the cry was never approved in any military parachuting manuals, and if actually executed in combat could become a bullet magnet. The great paratrooper cry had run its course and served us well as a great WWII paratrooper tradition, but at war's end, it would make way for peacetime Army practices, never to be heard at great heights again. But while it is no longer shouted, it is still seen, worn, and sung! The pocket patches are no longer worn, but the 501st and 509th are active army units in the modern Army and proudly display the "Geronimo" motto. Troopers of the 501st PIR still wear the unaltered unit insignia, complete with the chief's name. The 509th PIR keeps reminders everywhere of their old Geronimo pocket patch.The Song, Down from Heaven, is as familiar to paratroopers today as it was in WWII. It is a dramatic and lively tune that never lost its appeal over the years. It is almost impossible to attend a major ceremony in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg without hearing this staple of war-era music fill the air. So well-loved is this song that even troopers who are not so musically inclined find themselves drawn into singing along! In the civilian world, remnants of the confidence-inspiring yell remain. They can still be seen in the actions of that kid jumping from the death-defying height of the top bunk and yelling what he thinks might be his last word, "Geronimo".
1-501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR):
Wikipedia has a profile on the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/509th_Parachute_Infantry_Battalion
Mark Bando's Collection of pre- 1946 vintage U.S. Airborne Insignia: http://www.101airborneww2.com/insignia.html
Wikipedia has a profile on the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/501st_Parachute_Infantry_Regiment