“Geronimo!” — Why American Paratroopers Shout an Apache Chief’s Name When Jumping

U.S. airborne troops prepare to embark for the invasion of North Africa.

“The origin of this now famous cry remains something of a mystery.”

EARLY IN THE development of American airborne forces, the cry of “Geronimo!” became familiar as paratroopers leaped from the doors of transport planes. The origin of this now famous cry remains something of a mystery.

Geronimo, a famed chief of the Native American Apache tribe, was once imprisoned at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and his grave is located nearby. One account says that the paratroopers adopted the cry after hearing that, with U.S. troops in hot pursuit, Geronimo once leaped from a steep cliff while on horseback. It was a feat the soldiers were reluctant to duplicate, and Geronimo temporarily made good his escape.

Another explanation seems somewhat more plausible. In his 1979 book Paratrooper! Gerard Devlin mentions that the origin of “Geronimo!” dates to the early days of the parachute test unit at Fort Benning in 1940. On the night before their first jump, a group of paratroopers enjoyed a few beers and took in a movie. Although the name of the film is unknown, it might well have been Geronimo, which had been released in 1939.

When the movie was over and the men were walking back to their barracks, Private Aubrey Eberhardt asserted that he had no fear of the coming jump. His friends jeered and said that he would be so frightened that he would not remember his own name.

“All right, damn it!” Eberhard shot back. “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!”

Eberhardt did just that, and the cry caught on. Both the 501st and 509th Parachute Infantry Regiments placed “Geronimo” on their early unit patches.

Excerpted from THE AIRBORNE IN WORLD WAR II: An Illustrated History of America’s Paratroopers in Action by Michael E. Haskew. Copyright © 2016 by Amber Books Ltd and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. Watch for more excerpts from the book on MHN in the coming weeks. 

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