Today I found out where the tradition of yelling “Geronimo” when jumping out of a plane came from.
In the 1940s, the U.S. Army was testing out the feasibility of having platoons of soldiers parachute from air planes. One of the first units to attempt to group jump out of a plane was located in Fort Benning, Georgia. On the night before the group was set to make their first jump, they all got together and went out for a night on the town, including going to see a movie and generally getting as drunk as possible afterward at a bar. The movie they saw is reported to have been the 1939 film, Geronimo, though that isn’t known for sure. What is known though was that it was a film featuring a character representing the Apache, Geronimo; so it’s assumed it was that film as the dates more or less line up.
In any event, while out carousing after the movie, a certain Private by the name of Aubrey Eberhardt was acting tough about the jump that was to happen the next day, making out that it wasn’t a big deal and he wasn’t nervous about it. His fellow soldiers called B.S. on him and one of them reportedly exclaimed “You’ll be so scared, you won’t remember your own name!” To which he replied, according to Major Gerard M. Devlin, “All right, dammit! I tell you jokers what I’m gonna do! To prove to you that I’m not scared out of my wits when I jump, I’m gonna yell “Geronimo” loud as hell when I go out that door tomorrow!”
This is possibly in reference to the story that the Native American Geronimo was given that name by Mexican soldiers after incidents where Geronimo, showing complete disregard for his own personal safety, attacked armed Mexican soldiers with nothing but a knife, surviving each of those attacks despite being constantly shot at. The name stems from the soldiers yelling and pleading to Saint Jerome for help as they faced Geronimo.
The next day, right after Eberhardt jumped out the plane door, he kept his promise and yelled at the top of his lungs “Geronimo!” and added some Native American mimicking war whoops, just for good measure. This tradition of making a ridiculous exclamation as loud as possible in the face of death right after jumping out of a plane (these early paratroopers didn’t exactly end up having the best survival rates) caught on with the rest of Eberhardt’s unit and they all began exclaiming “Geronimo” when they jumped.
This became so popular that when the Army christened the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion in 1941, which was the first combat ready parachute unit, they put “Geronimo” on their insignia and most of the troops would yell it as they jumped from the planes. This practice eventually caught on with the general public thanks to extensive news media coverage of these parachuting troops, jumping out of a plane obviously being something of a novelty at the time.
- The actual Native America Geronimo lived from 1829-1909 and was an Apache. During his life, he became famous for fighting against both Mexico and the United States as both expanded into Apache lands, Geronimo lead a group of Apache warriors on various raids, though he wasn’t actually a Chief, as commonly is stated.
- Geronimo’s mother, his first wife, and his three children were killed in 1858 when Mexican soldiers attacked a group of Apache, which included Geronimo and his family, while the men of the group were off getting supplies in a nearby town. He later married several more times and had many other children with his various wives, several of which, both his wives and the children, were killed or taken from him as well.
- Geronimo eventually died in 1909 at the age of 80 after being thrown from a horse. He was found the next morning still alive, but not well due to lying out all night in the cold (February) and eventually died of pneumonia.
- The gun Geronimo was carrying when he finally surrendered, a Winchester Model 1876, is on display at West Point. His knife is on display at the Fort Sill Museum.
- The 1939 film, Geronimo, starred none other than Chief Thundercloud as Geronimo. Thundercloud is most famous for his role as Tonto in The Lone Ranger and The Lone Ranger Rides Again.
- Another main actor in Geronimowas Andy Devine, who stretched his acting career from 1926 all the way to 1977, playing various roles consistently until his death in 1977 (over 200 roles between TV, film, and radio). Devine is one of the very few people to have two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, receiving one for radio and one for TV. His more notable roles included starring in:
- The animated Robin Hood (Friar Tuck)
- It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
- How the West Was Won
- Appearing in a few episodes of the Twilight Zone
- Adventures of Huckleberry Fin (1960)
- Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok
- Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
- The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
- among many, many others…
- Interestingly, in the context of this article, Devine also was a pilot and owned a flying school that helped train pilots during World War II.
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