A little more than a year before the U.S. entered World War II, the Army put out a call in 1940, for volunteers to test a relatively new tactic for inserting troops into enemy territory.
Two hundred men from the 29th Infantry Regiment pushed their mortal fears aside and stepped forward to be part of airborne history. From them, 48 were chosen to train and become the first U.S. Army platoon to jump as a unit from an aircraft. They formed the modestly named, “Airborne Test Platoon”.
With the exception of two lieutenants and two sergeants, the test platoon was made up of young privates. Among them was a strapping young man from rural Alabama who would eventually become a decorated World War II paratrooper and a sergeant major in the premiere airborne division — the 82nd Airborne Division.
Sunday would have been Lester C. McLaney’s 100th birthday. According to his widow, Willie McLaney, Lester grew up the son of a sharecropper in Hartford, Alabama; just south of what today is Fort Rucker. She said he joined the Army for adventure and a better life.
“One night he was sitting by lamp-light doing his school work and he looked up through the ceiling and saw the sky,” Willie said. “He said to himself right then — there had to be a better place for him. And that is when he decided that he was going to join the Army.”
McLaney joined the Army in June 1938, and served two years with the 29th Infantry Regiment at Fort Benning, Georgia. In 1940, the regiment was selected by then Maj. William Lee to provide volunteers for the first-of-its-kind airborne training.
The volunteers underwent three days of flight physicals, which skimmed the test platoon down to 48 of the fittest men.
“I was 23 and single, and it promised to be something different, so I volunteered,” McLaney wrote in a 1968 biography. “It was quite strenuous, but we had a lot of fun.”
The training lasted seven weeks at Fort Benning, where, in addition to six weeks of parachute training, the volunteers conducted physical exercise for several hours each day; a regimen that included calisthenics, log raises, swimming and running.
After the training at Fort Benning, the test platoon traveled to Heightstown, near Fort Dix, New Jersey, where they practiced descending and landing in harnesses attached to steel cables from 125-foot towers. After a week of tower-training, the test platoon returned to Fort Benning for parachute packing and live jumps.
After completing six jumps, members of the test platoon were qualified as paratroopers and became the cadre to train the 501st Parachute Battalion, which provided the historic lineage of the storied 501st parachute Regiment. Their training took three months, after which trainees and trainers alike were ready to make their historic combat jumps into the European Theater and the North African Campaign.
Lester was assigned to the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment. His combat jumps include: Tebassa, North Africa; Oran, North Africa; Avilino, Italy; and Southern France. According to Willie, Lester also jumped into Normandy.
But this was all before he and Willie met. While Lester was participating in campaigns such as Algieria – French Morocco, Tunisia, Naples – Foggia, Anzio, Rome – Armo, Southern France, Rhineland, Ardennes – Alsace; Willie was serving in the Red Cross. She said she remembers serving at Fort Ord, California, watching film of U.S. paratroopers jumping out of aircraft overseas. Little did she know that one of those brave men would soon be her husband.
After the war, Willie returned home to Alabama, where she met Lester, who was then working at his father’s dry cleaning shop.
“I was the new girl in town and he was the town’s Casanova,” Willie said with a smile. “We married two weeks later.”
The role of Army wife was one that Willie said she embraced passionately. Her strength and self-reliance helped her get through rough times when her husband left for training and missions; the details of which he was not allowed to share with her.
“It takes a darn good woman to be an Army wife because you have to put up with so much,” Willie said. “The minute they walk out the door, everything blows.”
At the end of hostilities in Europe, Lester was assigned to the 82nd Abn. Div. when the 509th PIR was disbanded. After returning from war, Lester was discharged as a first sergeant in 1945.
Following a three-year break in service, Lester re-entered the Army in 1948 and returned to the 82nd Abn. Div., where he served for a little more than three years. Remaining at Fort Bragg, he served as a project noncommissioned officer at the Airborne Service Test Division, Army Field Forces Board #1; and supervisor of the Parachute Repair Section, Post Quartermaster.
Following a year-long tour as first sergeant, Operations Company, Joint Task Force Seven, at Eniwatok Atoll, Marshall Islands, Lester returned to Fort Bragg and the 82nd Abn. Div. once again to serve as first sergeant, 82nd Quartermaster Parachute Supply and Maintenance Company. In 1962, he was promoted to sergeant major and assumed the position of sergeant major, Support Group, 82nd Abn. Div.
In 1965, Lester was assigned as sergeant major, 3rd Civil Affairs Group, Fort Clayton, Panama Canal Zone, and was evacuated two months later to Walter Reed General Hospital.
Lester retired in April 1970, as an electronic warfare sergeant major, after battling leukemia, possibly linked to radiation exposure during nuclear testing at Enewetak Atoll in the 1950s. He died just two years later in 1972.
The Fort Bragg community has been home for the McLaneys for more than half a century. It has been where Lester and Willie raised their two sons, and the Family immersed itself with the installation’s Scouting program. Lester was a Boy Scouts Scoutmaster while Willie served as a den mother for the Cub Scouts.
“The scouting program did a lot for us,” Willie recalled. “We learned so much and stayed together as a Family.”
Through scouting, serving the community was a major part of the McLaneys’ lives. In addition to building the character of young men, the McLaneys led clothing drives for those less fortunate in the community.
There is a street named in Lester McLaney’s honor in Fort Bragg’s Ardennes housing community.
A drop zone at Fort Lee, Virginia, also bears his name.
What Willie remembers most about her husband is his devotion as a Soldier and that of a loving husband. According to Willie, to know Lester McLaney was to love him. He touched many lives through his courageous service and leadership.
“He was loved by all who knew him, especially those with whom he served,” she said.