Thursday, June 6, 2013

Trenton's silent paratroopers, stars of D-Day

A secret corps of paratroopers from New Jersey were instrumental in the Allied victory on D-Day, during World War II. Their story was briefly included in the blockbuster 1962 movie The Longest Day, but no mention was made of their origin.

I discovered this on a visit to the Aviation Hall of Fame in Teterboro, where one of the paratroopers is suspended from the ceiling below a parachute. He’s not human. He’s a rubber decoy.

Developed by the Switlik Parachute Company, 500 para-dummies were attached to parachutes and dropped from airplanes behind enemy lines, intended to distract German troops from the actual dropzones where live paratroopers were landing. If the torrent of descending bogus parachutists wasn’t enough to cause confusion, they were accompanied by special forces personnel who deployed sound recordings of battle noises. The decoys also exploded with the sound of gunfire when they made contact with the ground.

The irony is that the Allies fooled the Germans at their own game. In 1940, the Nazis had tossed straw-filled dummies out of airplanes over the Netherlands, Belgium and Scotland to incite fear in the population. It was the first recorded use of human decoys by an airborne military, setting off a small industry in developing more convincing paradummies.

If you’ve seen The Longest Day, you might remember the highly lifelike (yet smaller) detail of the decoys said to have been used by the Allies. In reality, such detail likely was unnecessary and probably too costly, given the expendability of the dummies. As the war progressed, though, improvements made the decoys’ earthbound fall more convincing to observers from the ground.

Museums in Europe hold a variety of WWII era dummies, including the American-made, British-deployed Ruperts (sack cloth filled with sand or straw), the American prototype Oscar (non-magnetic metal and, ironically, developed with the help of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and the PD Pack (rubber) developed by the Navy at Lakehurst. Though the Switlik dummies appear to have been Ruperts, the Aviation Hall of Fame displays what looks to be a PD Pack.

Switlik is still in business, and has been manufacturing in Trenton for over 90 years. While the company stopped producing parachutes after the Vietnam War, the family-owned business continues to make life preservation products for the aviation and marine markets, including life rafts, life vests, and anti-g and anti-exposure suits.

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