FORT BENNING, Ga. — The 2011 Airborne Awards Festival’s Fort Benning stop was highlighted by the dedication of a new $112,000 monument Friday on Eubanks Field.
The Airborne Battle Memorial commemorates every major parachute and glider combat assault carried out by U.S. paratroopers and glidermen, from Operation Torch in 1942 during World War II to Operation Northern Delay eight years ago in Iraq. The platform is shaped like the oval worn behind the parachutist’s wings, while each of the 19 white granite monuments lists unit names, dates, place of battle, and number of jumpers or glidermen — roughly 72,000 total.
About 300 veterans turned out for the 34th annual festival, which honors distinguished members, past and present, of the Airborne community. The three-day event featured activities on post and in Atlanta.
“I’m deeply humbled to welcome each of you back to Fort Benning, birthplace of the American paratrooper and Airborne Soldier,” said Lt. Col. Brent Cummings, commander of 1st Battalion (Airborne), 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment. “They provided our country with a unique combat equalizer.”
The Airborne Historical Association, which built the Airborne Walk 25 years ago, created the new display as well. Planning began in 2003.
Only assaults at the battalion level and above are represented. Eighteen were large enough to qualify, and an extra monument pays tribute to other Special Forces and intelligence units that jumped covertly in smaller groups between World War II and the present.
“Their daring deeds will be forever remembered with this great battle monument,” Cummings said. “These brave paratroopers could be counted on to pick up the torch and defend freedom. They battled despots and tyranny while being dropped into hostile areas around the world. Now, these exploits are etched in stone.”
Earlier Friday, the veterans observed the Airborne 5000, a modern Airborne training demonstration that illustrates the sequence of Jump School.
Mingling with today’s Airborne Soldiers is among the best things about coming back to Fort Benning, said Art Gallant of Stratford, Conn., making his 11th trip to the festival. He served for three years with I Company, 503rd Airborne Infantry, 11th Airborne Division.
“The reception we get is unbelievable,” he said. “I love it. I can’t believe I was that young when I was here. I look at myself now and think, ‘Holy Mackerel!’”
Alan Elwell, president of The Rakkasans’ Florida chapter, returned to Fort Benning for the first time since going through Airborne School as a 17-year-old in 1950.
“I don’t remember anything about this place (but) it’s really good to come here,” he said.
During the Korean War, he jumped twice with the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team — in October 1950 and March 1951. Elwell said he never attended an Airborne Awards Festival reunion until this year.
“It’s really emotional,” he said. “Next year, 10 to 15 percent of these guys won’t be around anymore. It’s just a fact with our age. You won’t see a lot of them again.”
Elwell was to receive the National Rakkasan of the Year Award at a banquet Saturday night in Atlanta.
Friday morning’s scheduled freefall parachute jumps by Fort Benning’s Silver Wings, the Black Daggers and the 82nd All-American Jump Team from Fort Bragg, N.C., had to be canceled because of a low ceiling.