Being a Native American, I was wondering why people and cartoon characters yell "Geronimo!" when they parachute from an airplane. To the best of my knowledge Geronimo never skydived.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
The other day a guy asks me why I love the Internet. Two reasons, I told him. First, you can come up with the definitive answer to seemingly inscrutable questions like this one in three days max. Second, the BS answers from the goofballs in the newsgroups are a riot. Example: Paratroopers yell "Geronimo!" because it beats screaming "Mommmyyyy!"
As it turns out, this isn’t far from the real answer. The custom of yelling "Geronimo!" is attributed to Aubrey Eberhardt, a member of the U.S. Army’s parachute "test platoon" that demonstrated the feasibility of parachute troop drops at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1940. To speed up the drops, the brass decided to try a mass jump, in which the chutists would jump from the plane in quick succession. The men were nervous about this, and to relieve the tension a group of them went to see a western at the post movie house the night before the jump. The movie featured the cavalry mixing it up with the famous Apache chief Geronimo. None of our sources said exactly what movie this was, but one supposes it was Geronimo (1939) with Andy Devine and Gene Lockhart.
After the movie the men went to the post beer garden to further calm their nerves, and after a few hours were feeling pretty courageous. Strolling back to camp, Private Eberhardt announced that he expected the next day’s jump to be no different than any other. His friends immediately began to razz him, saying he’d be so scared he’d barely remember his name. This ticked off the six-foot-eight Eberhardt, who was known for his confidence and powers of concentration. According to Gerard M. Devlin, author of Paratrooper! (1979), he declared, "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!"
Next morning half the platoon strapped on their chutes and boarded planes while the other half sat by the edge of the jump field to watch the drop. By now everyone had heard about Eberhardt’s promise. The lead plane flew over the field at low altitude and the men began spilling out as planned. As the chutes popped open, the guys on the ground could clearly hear a shout of "Geronimo!" followed by an Indian war whoop. Eberhardt had made good on his boast and the unofficial yell of U.S. airborne troops had been born.
Some people claim that jumpers yell "Geronimo!" because if their main chute hasn’t opened by the time they’re done, they know it’s time to deploy the reserve chute. Not true. Official U.S. Army practice is to count out loud "one thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand" (or higher, depending on the type of aircraft). If you’re still dropping like a rock after that, deploying your reserve chute is strongly advised. Regardless of what you say, yelling on exit is a good way to calm the jitters and stay focused on what you’re supposed to do.
My assistant Jane, always pondering the big picture, wonders if the course of history might have been different had Eberhardt and his friends seen a movie other than Geronimo before the big jump. Another notable 1939 release was The Wizard of Oz. Would the enemy have quaked with terror had jumping U.S. paratroopers shouted, "And Toto toooooooo"? Thinking the same thought, one Usenet wag inquired, what if they’d seen Rocky? Jumpers everywhere today might be shouting, "Adriiiiaaaan!" For that matter, what about The Terminator? Think of the loss of credibility if they shouted, "I’ll be baaaaack!"
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.