Continuing on with the popular format that was the Roman Army post, I thought I’d jump straight into another, more recent fighting unit: The 101st Airborne Division of American paratroopers, particularly, the famous Easy Company of 2nd Battalion, of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. There’s a popular minis-series by HBO on it called Band of Brothers.
Like the past post, we’re going to look at an example of fitness as well as strength and conditioning in play. The organizers of the regiment did a heck of a job periodizing one of the most rigorous combat training regiments of the American military at the time.
These parachute infantry were volunteers. They were athletes, who had decided to join the paratroopers, emanating a mantra of their generation:
“To be better than the other guy.”
They epitomized the mantra that doing the best that one could do was a better way of dealing with the army, and the war, than working alongside second-class army men.
They were determined to be proactive and make their life in the army “one of positivity, learning, and maturity, and of challenging experiences.”
Power of periodization
An outwork mentality
There are no six pack shortcuts or “overnight” successes
Staying in your lane of expertise
The Base Building of a Paratrooper
As soon as the recruits arrived at Camp Toccoa, they were put to march up Currahee Hill. The environment was incredibly serious. In fact, soon- to-be sergeant, Darrell Powers, remembered some of the drill instructors telling him to not help a man who had fallen from exhaustion, while on march.
This was the tone of Camp Toccoa. The recruits would be put through lots of running to build up aerobic capacity. Gradually the runs would increase, and the recruits would be doing 10 miles, then eventually 25 miles.
For each run after that very first, the Toccoa boys had an extra 1-2 miles added to their running regimen. Good old Progressive Overload was used to build up their fitness.
No water was allowed to be drunk at times, with threat of revoked weekend passes as punishment (or more running; in full gear).
Easy Company had it particularly tough, under Captain Herbert Sobel, who even had his company go march right after enjoying a nice spaghetti dinner. The company was puking their guts out on the climb up Currahee.
However, the desire to prove Captain Sobel wrong about their incompetence at becoming paratroopers would mold this unit with incredible mental toughness.
It’s interesting. Puking your guts out isn’t really a productive means of performance enhancement when we look at the physiological. However, when it comes to the mental game, sometimes having an insane training session can help steel the mind.
I think of conditioning drills in football, or saving one day in the month to just go nuts on hill sprints, or doing a ridiculous metabolic conditioning drill, or puking on the prowler.
You’ll do more damage than good if you do them all the time but in the rare, right amount, they can help create focus in the actual, productive work.
If they weren’t running up Currahee or studying in the classroom, they’d be on the athletic field. Calisthenics was another major component of army training.
Building up strength endurance, the recruits would do countless push-ups and sit-ups.
Sometimes, they would even do duck walks across the length of ht field. These duck walks would be low squats with hands placed behind the head.
It may not have been on the minds of the drill instructors, but their programming was actually improving the hip and ankle mobility in a dynamic fashion of their recruits: a lesson for us modern athletes than for the 506th Regiment.
Building Team Work
However, the above were just the individual conditioning tools. To be effective combat specialists, the recruits of Toccoa had to develop teamwork, as early as they could.
To build this, the instructors had their recruits do team-log-push-ups. This was eight men lying on their backs in a row, holding logs above their heads and pressing them.
They would then get up, throw the longs in the air, and catch them.
Now, even with the team-building exercises, long runs, and calisthenics, the recruits still needed exposure to something more situation-specific. Of course, rifle firing was there but also obstacle courses and live-ammunition situations were put into the mix.
The obstacle course of Toccoa included sprints, going hand-over-hand on a ladder over a ravine, shimmying up plywood platforms, ‘sprints through mud pits, and climbing over huge netted ropes.’
What’s the carry over? Well: building speed in transition from different foundational movements for effective use in sport. What this did was both give these recruits a better opportunity to stay alive longer and equally, to complete eventual, combat objectives.
Now, when it came to training under live-ammunition, it’s Pvt Darrell Powers that best described the situation:
Near that time the colonel wanted to simulate some real battle conditions for us, see, so he had the men lug in these washtubs of hog parts and scatter them around the ground. It was a roped course with barbwire through the hog huts—- getting sticky from the livers, lungs, and bloody bowels. Machine gun bullets zinged over our heads to make sure we stayed low. A messy day it was, and it made me wonder at the trouble to come. – Shifty’s War – the Authorized biography of Sergeant Darrell “Shifty” Powers, the Legendary Sharpshooter from the BAND OF BROTHERS
The live-fire situation that Powers described combined seriousness of life-or-death with the near-gore of a combat situation.
Colonel Robert Sink provided his recruits with exposure to a real-combat environment, to test where the recruits were at.
Now by no means are we saying that testing a 1-repetition max on the back squat after a few training cycles is the same as what Sink was trying to do for his recruits. However, the two show a level of similarity.
Even if we’re base-building/off-season training, testing under simulated competition situations helps indicate the progressive carryover of our programming. As long as you’re not testing more than building, then it’s useful.
Eagles that Challenge Falcons
Eventually, these paratroopers-to-be would undergo jump training. The troops would move to Fort Benning.
However, while the troops were preparing to relocate, Colonel Robert Sink would be motivated to change how troops would be transported.
While all other battalions would go by train to Benning, Sink ordered his 2nd Battalion to make the trek on foot!
Sink was preparing his troops to face off against the Japanese in the Pacific.
Around the time of the regiments move to Benning, he had chanced upon a Reader’s Digest article that showcased how a Japanese army had marched 100 miles in 72 hours across the Malayan Peninsula: An army record.
The colonel was not going to allow this fact to stand. He ordered his most well-trained battalion, 2nd Battalion to make the march on foot. The battalion would end up completing 118 miles in 75 hours, with all but 12 of the 586 members of the battalion completing the distance.
The battalion would actually go on to skip the first stage of their Fort Benning training due to their higher-than-expected base of fitness.
Jumping in Parajumpers
At Benning, the fundamentals of jump training were established. Building upon their Toccoa training, the regiment’s recruits began practising jumping. Jumps from makeshift fuselages onto pillows at ground level were introduced.
Eventually the instructors had their recruits jumping off of 30 foot towers, and even with up to 100 lbs of gear.
This segmented training program allowed gradual introduction and development of key skills in successful jumping, descending, and landing.
All of these components were essential for a paratrooper to transition from transport to combat.
It’s sort of like teaching a squat or power clean. You teach in segments, break apart the movement (ex. Squatting to a box or paused variations) and ingraining appropriate movement awareness.
Eventually the troops would move to three more camps (Bragg, Shanks,and Mackall).
With each progression, the training became more specific.
Crunch Time in Aldbourne
After finding out that they would be going to England to fight in Europe, instead of Japan, the troops prepared on their boat voyage, doing calisthenics.
They eventually arrived in Aldbourne where they would begin preparing for their first combat jump, Operation Neptune, on D-Day.
The military manoeuvres practised in Aldbourne were nerve-wracking, as they most-closely emulated the D-Day invasion jump.
It was also at this point that major leadership change was enacted, creating more tension. Captain Sobel of E Company was the man who had built an incredibly fit unit out of his company.
Unfortunately, his skill as a drill instructor didn’t carry over well to his ability to lead in combat.
In fact, Darrell Powers would go on to describe Sobel as “louder than a tank” when it came to walking in the woods.
I wanted to share this example to show that good leadership comes from staying in your own lane of expertise. Personally, I hope I’m doing that (please feel free to chew me out in the comments).
For that reason I hope that showing that I am just writing about things that I’ve learned (the partial premise for this blog) on my journey to become someone who can share good advice on training (and possibly teach something about history) keeps ME and this blog in its own lane.
Again, feel free to drop the hammer in the comments section below (the more Victorian, the better).
The men of E Company certainly did.
All the sergeants in the company threatened to resign if new leadership was not taken. Sobel was eventually re-assigned to become a jump school instructor in England while his second-in-command, 1st Lieutenant Richard Winters, took on the role of commanding officer.
Yet the anxiety was still high, partly due to the fact that each man had to jump on D-Day with so much army kit. Each paratrooper had to carry:
- 3 days worth of K-rations
- Mussette bags (back packs) filled with rain poncho, blanket, cigarettes, half pup tent, mess kits, toothbrush/razor, candy bars, and more K-rations
- An ammo belt full of 2 lines of 10 clips of M1 rifle ammo, entrenching tool, water canteen, bayonet, gas mask, small first aid kit with morphine syrette and 1-2 bandages
- Suspenders each with a metal ring that had a hand grenade hanging from it
- A .45 sidearm holstered under the left shoulder
- Trench knife down in the right boot
- Zippered switchblade next to collar
- Compass strapped to the right ankle
- British Hawkins mine strapped to the other ankle
- Steel helmet
- Main and backup chute
- Mae West life jacket
In addition, the trooper still had to carry his main firearm and if he was a machine gunner, bazooka specialist or part of the mortar team, than he would be jumping with the components of those weapons as well.
However with a last letter from Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 506th prepared for their day of reckoning. The fear of flying in what was known to be heavily fortified “Atlantic Wall” and land behind enemy lines was high.
They would jump in Normandy on June 6, 1944 and over the course of the year, would exemplify incredible feats of unit cohesion and military execution.
The Screaming Eagles would eventually land in Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, completing a year of tough fighting in Carentan, Foye, Bastogne, and several other combat encounters.
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For your further reading:
Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose