Balloon Units Help Protect Land Troops
By Allan M. Morrison
Stars and Stripes Staff Writer (Date unknown)
Floating gently in the air above scenes of furious fighting, groups of "flying beer bottles" of the Army's barrage balloon units form innocent-looking but highly-effective segments of the air defense over the Allied armies in France. Originally conceived as a static defense against hostile planes, the VLA (Very Low Altitude) Balloon has become, by its easy adaptability to mobile use, a potent AA weapon.
A Negro AAA Barrage Balloon Battalion conducted extensive experiments in Britain toward reducing the weight of balloon base equipment, primarily the winch, and running up the hydrogen-inflated bottles from odd places such as moving jeeps and tanks. Lt. Col. Leon J. Reed, of Middlesboro, Ky., the unit's commander, said the experiments were highly successful.
Referring to the lightening of the winch load, Reed said: "It's now so light that two of the men can pick it up and run like hell. In the Normandy operations it may be necessary to move often and fast, and it is essential that the winch and balloon load be lightened as much as is practicable."
Have Cut Weight
Normally a standard winch weighs about 350 pounds. Now, using discarded telephone wire drums attached to light bases, the balloon men have cut the weight of the winch and base to less than 40 pounds.
Capt. R. E. Cunningham, one of the battery executive officers, from Stillwater, Okla., said:
"The primary aim of these balloons is to keep the enemy's planes up so that the AA automatic weapons can track them, and to render their bombing ineffective and strafing impossible in the area being defended."
Each balloon is handled by a crew of four men, typified by the little band headed by Sgt. Jesse L. Sumlin, of Fruitdale, Ala. Sumlin directs the work of his winch operator and assistants, who send the balloon aloft and bring it down by turning the hand winch.
Sumlin maneuvers the balloon by hand, using the foot ropes and junction straps. Flight manipulation of these balloons has become a highly-specialized technique, in the success of which the weather is a prime element. The working speech of balloon operators is studded with such terms as "close-hauling" and "bedding down."
When the drums of flying wire are uncoiled the balloons can float over 2,000 feet up. They can be flown from trucks and barges. In an amphibious operation a VLA in inflated, placed aboard an LCT and carried across to the beachhead. It can be flown in transit or before the troops have debarked.