September 28, 1997
William Miley, 99, a Paratroop Pioneer, Dies
By ROBERT MCG. THOMAS JR.
William M. Miley, the acrobatic officer who transformed ground troops into the Army's first parachute combat unit in 1940, then led the famous jump across the Rhine that helped sound the Geronimo death knell for Nazi Germany in 1945, died on Wednesday at his home in Starkville, Miss. He was 99.
The last surviving division commander from World War II, he was known as the father of Army paratroopers.
A lot of American Army troops have jumped from a lot of planes since Major Miley organized the 501st Parachute Battalion at Fort Benning, Ga., in October 1940, and from the design of their jumpsuits (many pockets) to the way they carry their rifles (in a side bag), they all owe something to those trailblazing days.
Various armies had experimented with the use of paratroopers as early as the 1920's, but it was not until German troops parachuted into the Netherlands and Crete in May and June of 1940 that the American Army realized that Gen. Billy Mitchell and Winston Churchill had been onto something when they campaigned unsuccessfully for parachute forces in World War I.
Within a month the Army created the provisional Parachute Test Platoon, a high-spirited band of 48 men, who three months later became the nucleus of the 501st.
Major Miley, a 1918 West Point graduate who had spent 14 years as a lieutenant in the 1920's and 1930's, was not a member of the 1940 test platoon and had never jumped from a plane. But he was the obvious choice to organize and command the airborne battalion.
A champion college gymnast who had been a high rings star of the First Division Circus that toured the country after World War I, he was the Fort Benning athletic officer.
Making his first jump, he became a pioneering commander of a unit of pioneers. Among those under his command were Capt. William T. Ryder, who had led the test platoon as a first lieutenant; Sgt. Aubrey Eberhardt, the first to shout ''Geronimo!'' as he bailed out (he'd seen the movie ''Geronimo,'' the night before), and Sgt. John Swetish, inventor of the 34-foot training tower that became a staple of World War II newsreels.
In addition to working out the myriad details of training, equipment and tactics that became standard paratroop procedure, Major Miley made personal contributions.
Refusing, for example, to let an enlisted man risk making a test jump with an especially heavy pack, he insisted on making the jump himself. He broke his shoulder.
Major Miley also initiated one of the most stirring of airborne traditions. Although most combat commanders stayed at the rear of a battle with their maps and radios, he realized that a paratroop commander had to get to the ground before he could dig out his maps and start giving orders.
Thus he was the first man out of the first plane when the 17th Airborne Division dropped into Germany on March 24, 1945.
By then he had become the first major, the first lieutenant colonel, the first colonel and the first general officer to jump from a plane, always ahead of his troops.
After Pearl Harbor, he took the 501st to Panama to guard the canal, the first overseas duty for a paratroop unit. Later, he organized the first paratroop regiment, the 503d.
Too junior to command a division, as a brigadier general he became assistant commander of the 82d Airborne Division under Gen. Matthew Ridgeway when it and and the 101st Airborne Division were carved out of the old 82d Infantry Division in June 1942.
A year later, as a major general, he organized the new 17th Airborne Division, which provided ground support for the embattled 101st at the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 before making its famous jump across the Rhine the next March.
Although heartbroken that the 17th was deactivated immediately after the war, General Miley, whose brother, father, grandfather and two great-grandfathers were West Point graduates, soldiered on. Among other things, he ran the Airborne School he had virtually created at Fort Benning; commanded the 11th Airborne Division in occupied Japan; served as first chairman of the Joint Airborne Troop Board at Fort Bragg, N.C., and commanded Army forces in Alaska.
After his retirement in 1955, General Miley, a native of Fort Mason, Calif., who grew up in Washington after his father died while on duty in the Philippines in 1899, spent 11 years as a Merrill Lynch broker in Washington before retiring to Starkville, where he had met his wife, Julia Sudduth, while teaching military science at what is now Mississippi State University in the 1920's.
General Miley, whose wife died in 1995, is survived by two sons, John of Mooresville, N.C., William Jr. of Starkville; 6 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.