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Q From Jim Byrne: I have long been puzzled why paratroopers (in the US anyway) yell Geronimo (St Jerome in Spanish) as they jump from their planes. Any ideas on the origin?

A I have to put a linguistic health warning on this one, because the story is anecdotal, though widely told. But it was mentioned for the first time so soon after it was said to have been created that it seems highly plausible. According to the story, it isn’t St Jerome but the Native American chief who is being invoked.

The cry is first reported in the New York Herald Tribune for 9 May 1941 in a report worth repeating in full:

When a parachutist steps to the open door of a plane 1,500 feet above the landing field, braces himself, and then catapults his body out into the air, he invariably shouts “Geronimo!” If there are twelve men making a mass jump they all yell “Geronimo!” They shout it with such vehemence that those watching from the ground can hear it distinctly. It means that they are not afraid.

The use of “Geronimo” dates back to the early days of the 501st Parachute Battalion, ’way back in last October. Two sergeants got into an argument about being afraid. One said that to prove he was not scared stiff he would yell something as he jumped. When he left the plane the only thing that came to mind was the name of the famous Indian chief. So he hollered out “Geronimo!” It has since become the watchword of the battalion. There is a note of mixed defiance and assurance in it.

More recent versions of the tale change some of the details and fill it out a good deal. The first person ever to shout Geronimo is said to have been Private Aubrey Eberhardt of the US Army’s parachute test corps at Fort Benning, Georgia, in July 1940. They were due to make their first group jump the following morning and to calm their nerves, members of the platoon went to see the 1939 film Geronimo and to have some beers. Eberhardt was teased about whether he would be too scared to do the jump. According to the story that Gerard M Devlin told in his book Paratrooper! in 1979, he said, “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!”

He reputedly did, and a tradition was born ...

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