Over 16 million Americans served during World War II. By 1945, 8.2 million of those Americans were Army Soldiers. Five divisions of those Soldiers were Airborne throughout the course of the War. However, the Allies did not start off as the masterminds behind airborne operations.
On May 10, 1940, during the Battle of France, Germany used gliders and small aircraft to move troops and disable the Belgium artillery. They called their paratrooper force the Fallschirmjager.
The Dutch experienced a similar airborne attack during the Invasion of the Netherlands. The Germans mobilized their Luflandekorps, a secretive airborne assault army corps, on the unsuspecting country.
Three airfields were taken by paratroopers near The Hague in an effort to take control of the Dutch government. These airborne troops made it possible for the 9th Panzer Division to make its way to the intended goal.
While the Germans were ultimately victorious, about 1200 of their paratroopers were taken prisoner and sent to England right before the Dutch surrendered.
The Fallschirmjager achieved another victory during the Battle of Crete on May 20, 1941, yet sustained such heavy losses at the hands of the British Navy that Adolf Hitler demanded that paratroopers not be used in such a battle again. Seeing paratroopers as a novelty that had lost the element of surprise, he decided that the British knew how to defend against such an assault and there was no point in using them any longer.
Hitler’s conclusion was, of course, wrong.
The Allies learned from the Battle of Crete that airborne troops could be effective if used correctly, and they set out to prove this to Hitler and the Axis.
The U.S. saw many of the aforementioned German victories as a reason to create airborne divisions, and began setting up training facilities around the country. One of these training facilities, seven miles west of the border of Fort Bragg, was named Camp Hoffman.
Hoffman was a perfect location for airborne training. The government already owned most of the land as a part of a reforestation project from the 1930s. Hoffman comprised of 62,000 acres which gave ample room to add drop zones for airborne training.
Construction began in November 1942. In four months, around 1,500 buildings had been built at Camp Hoffman including a 1,200 bed hospital, five movie theaters, three runways, three libraries, six beer gardens and 12 chapels. Sixty-five miles of paved roads covered the area.
Construction at Camp Hoffman was seen as a wartime achievement. Buildings were made of temporary materials such as plank siding and tarpaper; heavier graded tarpaper was used for roofs on the temporary structures.
On February 8, 1943, a General Order renamed Camp Hoffman to Camp Mackall. The name change was in honor of Private John Thomas Mackall, who was thought, at the time, to be the first paratrooper casualty in World War II.
Pvt. Mackall was born in 1920 in Ohio. He served in Company E, 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Division during Operation Torch in North Africa.
He was wounded on Nov. 8, 1942 and died on Nov. 12. Several other paratroopers were also wounded and killed in the attack by French Vichy aircraft.
Camp Mackall was dedicated on May 1, 1943, and Pvt. Mackall’s mother spoke at the dedication.
Even though the structures were seen as temporary, U.S. Army Airborne Command made its home at Mackall. The command oversaw all parachute and glider operations, as well as being responsible for air transporting troops.
Troops began arriving in Jan. 1943. They underwent basic training at Camp Mackall followed by parachute training.
Five airborne divisions were created Army wide during the war and all of them trained at Camp Mackall. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were garrisoned at Fort Bragg but maintained a training schedule at Mackall.
The first airborne division headquartered at Camp Mackall was the 11th Abn. Div. in Feb. of 1943. In April of that year, the 17th Abn. Div. was also activated at the camp. The 13th Abn. Div. was activated in Aug. of 1943 and moved to Camp Mackall from Fort Bragg.
The 82nd Abn. Div. and the 101st Abn. Div. saw more action than any of the other airborne divisions, conducting operations in Sicily, Normandy and the Netherlands. The 17th Abn. Div. deployed to England in 1944, but it wasn’t until Jan. 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge that they saw combat.
The 11th and 13th Abn. Div. were held in reserve in the U.S., although the 11th Abn. Div. was deployed to the Pacific Theater in 1944. The 13th never saw combat as a unit.
German Prisoners of War from Field Marshal Rommel’s Afrika Korps who were captured in Tunisia in 1943, were also held at Camp Mackall.
Camp Mackall’s operations began to dwindle after the war and were partially suspended in 1946 and fully stopped by 1949. The camp, however, was still being used as a training ground.
Every Soldier that has earned a Green Beret has done so through the schools held at the training grounds of Camp Mackall. The camp is now an integral part of those wanting to be Special Operations Soldiers.
The camp truly embodies the motto of the 100th anniversary of Fort Bragg: From artillery to the Home of the Airborne and Special Operations.