On March 29, a number of military veterans -- including members of Camden American Legion Post No. 17 -- gathered in front of INVISTA in Lugoff at a memorial marking the site of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment’s mass parachute drop exercise 76 years earlier.
During the ceremony, Post 17’s Glen Inabinet spoke about the site of the operation, its scope and significance, and the secrecy and sacrifice surrounding its execution. Much of the information for Inabinet’s talk was based upon articles written in Camden newspapers -- including the Camden Chronicle, a predecessor of the Chronicle-Independent -- as well as research he and his wife, Joan, conducted for their 2011 book, A History of Kershaw County.
“The 505th’s action was a dress rehearsal for the numerous parachute assaults in Europe mere months later,” Inabinet said in an email. “In essence, it was a harbinger of victory in Europe and freedom from Axis oppression.”
Inabinet began his talk on March 29 with a quick overview of military strategy employed in and around Camden during the American Revolution and the Civil War before jumping forward to what were known as the Carolina Maneuvers in October and November 1941 just prior to America’s entry into World War II. Those maneuvers would, ultimately lead to the parachute drop a year and a half later over Lugoff.
“Two forces comprising 400,000 troops of the First Army conducted mock war activities in the area between Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Jackson, North Carolina,” Inabinet explained.
He said U.S. 1, which dissects the county, served as the major connecting route for nearly 70,000 military vehicles.
“Not only was the Wateree Bridge essential for military and civilian traffic, it was the target of a mock attack by ground troops and airplanes, provoking one soldier to proudly announce that the bridge had been ‘blown to hell,’ to which a Camden police officer quipped that it was ‘too bad it didn’t happen 10 years ago,’” Inabinet related.
According to Inabinet, military bulldozers pushed aside trees and stumps to clear roads to three pontoon bridges, including one sturdy enough for 20-ton tanks to cross the river. This was all done as a precursor to the 505th’s parachute drop. The Army and Navy Register reported that “in a single day’s operation, thousands of paratroops were dropped in three major attacks [on the bridge] and were backed up by parachute artillery, glider infantry landing in massed formations of 15-place gliders, and infantry, engineers, and other combat support units flown in cargo and transport planes.”
The Camden Chronicle, Inabinet said, reported in its April 2, 1943, edition that “Camden experienced some near-war thrills Monday morning when the Wateree River bridge just west of the city on U.S. Highway No. 1 was attacked by several thousand paratroops who hurtled out of the sky from giant transport planes under escort of medium sized bombers.” The newspaper went on to describe “goggle-eyed” residents watching as the air was filled with “dark figures and the white parachutes.”
Inabinet pointed out that the exercise was not a one-day operation. He said a two-day aerial resupply mission was conducted to sustain “combat” operations. The point, he said, was to prove that an operation of this scale could be successful, leading to four actual parachute assaults in Sicily and Salerno, Italy; Normandy; and Holland.
Despite its massive size, the operation took some in Lugoff and Camden off guard, including the Camden Chronicle. Inabinet said the paper reported, “Efforts to secure information from either Ft. Jackson, the Southern Aviation School [which operated where Woodward Field and Camden Military Academy are today] and other official contacts proved fruitless, as all inquiries were met with polite refusals.”
Despite that, in turn, one paratrooper recalled that “as we were coming in looking down and on the highway was a string of cars as far as you could see in both directions.” So, it would seem the operation wasn’t completely secret. In fact, one of those cars on the ground belonged to the family of Lt. Ivey Connell, who “met him at the Wateree Bridge with a basket of sandwiches and many bottles of soft drinks,” the Chronicle reported.
Unfortunately, three soldiers lost their lives on March 29, 1943: Pvt. Arthur W. Elliott, Washington, D.C.; Pvt. Carroll A. Hedlind, Colusa, Calif.; and 1st Sgt. Howard R. Calahan, Los Angeles, Calif.