Where the Tradition of Yelling “Geronimo” When Jumping Out of a Plane Came From
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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FYI, My Dad, 91 year old Pvt. Ed Manley, of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, D-Day, Market Garden, and wounded and captured in Bastogne, is sitting here next to me while I am writing this. He was there at Fort Benning from the very start, before the 101st was even brought in and added to the 502nd Reg. to create the Division for D-Day. He said you are incorrect. They yelled were trained to yell, “Ger-On-I-Mo!” as a three second delay if their main chute did not open, they were to pull their reserve. They regularly practiced jumping between 8,000 and 1,200 feet. The 506th Reg. yelled Curahee, for the hill they climbed during their training. The 502nd yelled, “Geronimo.”
Thank you for that that is amazing. This is information and I will keep forever I love stories from great men such as this one. Please think that fine Warrior that you got the story from for me please.
Tonto was played by Jay Silverheels.in the TV version. Chief Thunderclouc was Tonto in the two serials that were shown in theaters, before the popularity of TV.
Can’t see why the later story about “’Ger-On-I-Mo!’ as a three second delay if their main chute did not open” leads to accusing the writer of being incorrect as to the origin of the word’s use when jumping out of the plane.
There’s no reason why jumpers could not both shout “Geronimo” as they jumped, and be using for the reason given, AND then use the word (LATER!) to estimate th 3 second delay before pulling their reserve after a main chute failure.
In a way, it almost proves the original story, since it would make it easier for the trainers to imprint the word to be used in an emergency, being the last word the trainees issued as they jumped.
Actually, No. It is easier to rewrite history to MAKE things sound more reasonable, or just make up a story after the fact … but if someone says that they remembered something different, why should we automatically accept their version as truth?
My Uncle Jewel Picket was in WWII as a paratrooper. There is a documentary of his jump with all the other brave men. In this documentary he lands on top of one of his fellow soldiers parachutes. He did not speak often of the war for he has night terrors. I’ve only seen this in the documentary once and can not find where to get a copy. He finally told us that he never did open his chute he climbed down and hook himself to the other soldiers gear and rode down together. The young man said these aren’t made to hold two of us he told the other soldier if it don’t it been nice knowing you. Where would I go to find that film of that historic jump.
According to the Wiki, both of those explanations are correct and also includes two other explanations, for a total of 4 different origins of why Geronimo is yelled as you jump from a high place. Here is the Wiki, if anyone wants to read it.
Wikipedia should NEVER be used as reference for ANYTHING. Follow the references within the Wiki, but slways consider the source.
In the late twenties my Mother’s first cousin, Frances Adeline Courtright, along with her mother Lura, went from Tennessee to Los Angeles, California. In the 1930 Census Addye’s occupation is given as “Actress” and her employer as “Stage.” Soon thereafter she married Victor Daniel, aka Chief Thunder Cloud, a stuntman and actor who was the original “Tonto” in the early Lone Ranger movies. I have many cards and letters from Addye to my grandmother, Anna Clifton, which were written over a forty year period.
In 1939 Chief Thunder Cloud played the part of Geronimo who escaped from the army by jumping off of the high wall of the fort. In his flight he spread his arms and yelled GERONIMO. That, as I have read, lead the paratroopers, who had seen the movie the night before their maiden jump, to make the same yell.
I never yelled Geronimo! I was told to count 1thousand 2thousand 3thousand 4thousand then “check canopy”!
No canopy…pull reserve.
This was standard paratrooper practice. Unless you were that butter bar lieutenant that needed a boot in your ass…To help you out the door.
whole story smacks of the not uncommon current desperate myth making to explain something. Mexican soldiers would not have said “jer -ronni mo” that G would have been a “h” sound of course. as in jerome or Heironymus etc. Unless they were speaking Ladino or Mex=Tex Spanish (based mostly on Ladino & Yama). But regardless why would other Apaches or Anglo-Americans care why dying Mexican soldiers were crying out in that 1 fight?
In the movie Top Secret, a group of men jump from an airplane on a mission. Each man in turn yells “GERONIMOOO!” as he jumps. Then, a Native American man in traditional buckskins comes to the door, and yells as he jumps “MEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!”. I damned near pissed myself laughing.
That movie is a classic. 🙂
“Chief” Thundercloud was not an Indian chief, and his birth name was Victor Daniels (though it is true that he looked a lot like a Native American)
My father was in WWII and this story is true, he told the story to my brother and me when we were very young. There were many brave Native American paratroopers in WWII, one of them my father. So the story is absolutely true. The guys lived, partied, and fought like there was no tomorrow, because in reality, for many of them, their tomorrows were numbered. God bless the last great Americans in our history. The WWII was the last GREAT generation.
It’s sad to think a generation that came to the lowest point, murdering one another to settle differences, could be the ‘greatest generation’.
Dad was Ft. Bragg as from Carolinas, but I knew he mentioned Airborne and Ft. Benning. He and buddies were actually given three jumps to see if wanted to join or stay in Army. 1st jump was neat. 2nd jump was okay. 3rd jump they shot real bullets. They came down and his Italian Brooklyn friend, Santo, said I dont know Pizan, least in Army we can have trenches (etc), instead of be killed first thing gist to Dad. We learned Pizan meant friend. Dad then reported to Ft. Dix befire marching down 5th Ave to ships was new detailed info given me later in his life. He thought Santo and him had been separated for good but found him on same ship. The ship on way to England ran into a German sub and down in ship he thought they’d be killed with all the bombs going off. They were Omaha Beach 3rd Army 2nd Wave. Hus other friend, John Kelly from Carolinas was killed on jump. Santo was killed day one going into day 2 when stood up hedging in a town. Sick, it’s amazing what these men did, and Dad was even a year younger than knew at time, but went after told his Dad he was staying state side to be a cook. His Dad when found out was notably upset with him lying about his age as many people lied to go fight. Dad’s officer knew he was younger. They charged the beach and Dad never recalled or knew who actually gave the order, after seeing ships come in sideways to clear. Now people want to still erase ir deny these histories of people like my father and war. I suspect it’s to install similar government style to what we fought against after about 40 years kids were taught such different values filled by textbooks of authors who sided with or immigrated from nations we opposed and won against. By the 90s, Mom peer reviewed textbooks so she informed me of changes being published and were by the 3 main publishers which schools used at time shared same authors. Even math books were incorrect at times in the teacher’s editions. No wonder people want to change history.