Soldier recalls ‘invasion’ of Lampasas County in Operation Longhorn
The U.S. military simulation, dubbed “Operation Longhorn,” was just a test, but paratrooper Tom Hershey and about 115,000 other soldiers made sure the several-week exercise felt as realistic -- and as sobering -- as possible.
En route to Roswell, N.M. last week, Hershey visited the county he last saw as a 19-year-old serving in the 82nd Airborne Division during Operation Longhorn.
One of the largest peacetime military exercises ever implemented in the United States, Operation Longhorn took place in March and April 1952, and cost an estimated $3.3 million, according to the Lampasas County Historical Commission book “Lampasas County: Its History and Its People.” The operation featured the dropping of about 2,500 paratroopers, as well as staged “battles” between the “Aggressor Force” -- led by troops from the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C. -- and U.S. forces represented by several Army divisions from Fort Hood.
Participants also simulated an enemy takeover of Lampasas, complete with mock arrests of city officials and a mock suspension of religious and political freedoms. As training maneuvers continued, propaganda pamphlets encouraged Lampasas Countians to resist the aggressors until U.S. forces achieved victory, which they did near the completion of the exercises.
Hershey, originally of Gaithersburg, Md., did not see Lampasas during Operation Longhorn, as he worked primarily in the Lometa area near the site of the “Aggressor” troop landing. Nearly 20,000 spectators gathered in the western side of the county to watch the landing, according to the Lampasas County history book.
About 18 men loaded into each C-47 airplane, Hershey recalled. Carrying radio gear, an M-1 rifle, a full fuel pack and three days’ rations, the young soldier checked his parachute and jumped. Soon, though, he looked back and noticed nobody else who had been with him had jumped.
Wind speed had increased to about 15-20 knots -- approximately 17- 23 miles per hour -- Hershey said. Paratroopers normally were not allowed to jump if the wind speed exceeded 8 knots, the former soldier said. As a result, many of Hershey’s fellow service members delayed their jumps and landed later.
Those who had jumped encountered their first fight not with U.S. troops but with the weather. Hershey drifted far off his target toward a group of trees and had to climb the risers on his parachute and pull the cords to redirect himself toward a safe landing area in a ranch field. The young soldier hit the ground hard and nearly went airborne again.
“As soon as I stood up the wind inflated my chute and grabbed me,” Hershey said.
Recalling his training, he tried to run in circles to let air out of his parachute. After three unsuccessful attempts, though, a gust threw Hershey into a fence.
“They were scattered everywhere,” he recalled.
A parachute malfunction killed one man, Hershey added. In total, 10 fatalities resulted from Operation Longhorn exercises, according to the county history volume.
During an equipment drop, the parachute holding a Jeep released too early, causing a hard collision for the vehicle, Hershey said.
“It probably bounced 50 feet,” he recalled.
After the paratroopers landed, Hershey and many fellow “Aggressor” soldiers camped in tents for several weeks among pastures that had been removed of cattle. They exchanged rations and awaited their next move. Although Hershey did not serve in battle zones during World War II or the Korean War, buddies who had seen combat thought Operation Longhorn simulated the sights, sounds and stresses of battle fairly realistically, Hershey said.
“I don’t know how the heck he did it,” Hershey said.
Although he enjoyed his recent return to Lampasas County, Hershey felt no urge to linger when Operation Longhorn ended. Not only had he camped outdoors for several weeks, but the memory of the seven-day ride from Fort Bragg in a covered two-and-a-half ton Army cargo truck lingered unpleasantly. Packed 32 to a truck, the men of the 82nd Airborne had traveled for eight bumpy hours a day, sleeping in pastures at night, to get to Lampasas County.
When his company commander offered soldiers furlough at the end of the Texas maneuvers, Hershey did not hesitate.
“I said, `Give me 10 days,’” he recalled. “There was no way I was going to ride back in that truck.”
Staying at an RV park, dining at area restaurants and visiting the Operation Longhorn historical marker at Lometa Regional Park, Hershey – now a resident of Homosassa, Fla. -- enjoyed not only a smoother rider but a warmer welcome than the last time he visited Lampasas County. After all, even if only for training purposes, he had been the enemy.