A night jump! It was 1958 and my Airborne Infantry Company at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, received notice that we would be making a non-tactical night jump. I was a 20-year old Specialist 4th Class (E-4) Fire Team Leader in the 1st Platoon of Easy Company, 1st Airborne Battle Group, 505th Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. (Today, as in WWII, the 505th is designated as a Parachute Infantry Regiment.)
A night jump! In the 1950s, unlike today, night jumps in the 82nd Airborne were not common. I had been on jump status since late 1956, and this would be, along with most of my fellow paratroopers, my first night jump.
A night jump! My fellow jumpers and I were excited. We were a bunch of young, gung-ho paratroopers looking forward to our first night jump. The morale and esprit de corps of the Airborne in the 1950s was very high. In the 82nd Airborne, many of our senior NCOs wore one or more small gold stars on their jump wings, each gold star indicating a combat jump in WWII. (The 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division made four combat jumps in WWII: Sicily, Italy, Normandy and Holland.)
Let me reconstruct from memory my first night jump of 54 years ago.
We loaded on the familiar deuce-and-a-half trucks in the company area for transportation to Pope Air Force Base, which adjoins Ft. Bragg, the home of the 82nd Airborne Division. There the division riggers issued each of us a T-10 main parachute, a reserve parachute, a Griswold weapons container, and an aviator’s kit bag which we would each use to stow the deployed main parachute after our jump.
I humped the 35 lb. main parachute on my back, inserted the leg harness straps through the straps of my light pack, inserted the three harness fittings into the quick release, and inserted the safety snap in the quick release. I clipped my reserve chute to my main harness, and clipped the Griswold weapons container holding my M1 rifle to the main harness on my left side. The jumpmaster or a jumpmaster assistant inspected my gear, especially the all-important static line which, when hooked to the anchor cable in the aircraft, automatically deploys the main chute upon the jumper exiting the aircraft. I put on my steel pot and tightened the chin strap, and I was ready to go.
Easy Company loaded into three Fairchild C-123s. The aircraft commander of my C-123 gave us the usual pre-flight briefing, including emergencies: “Just before impact I will give you a continuous ring of the alarm bell.” We looked at each other, thinking, No, sir, we’ll unass this airplane and be outta here long before that happens. The aircrew went through the starting procedures of the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines, we taxied out and took off from Pope Air Force Base.
We flew for about an hour, and it was now totally dark. The Air Force crew chief gave our jumpmaster the 20-minute warning. Our jumpmaster, at the rear of the aircraft near the jump doors, held up 10 fingers twice and sounded off “TWENTY MINUTES.” We woke up any jumpers who were asleep, which proves that infantry grunts can sleep anywhere and under any conditions. I checked my steel pot to make sure that it was secure, as anything not secure would leave the jumper as he exited the aircraft into the prop blast. (We called it “hitting the blast.”)
The crew chief then gave the jumpmaster the 10-minute warning, and our jumpmaster held up 10 fingers and sounded off “TEN MINUTES.” Some crew chiefs, at that point, would move to the front of the aircraft, as somehow a rumor got started that the 82nd might drag a chuted-up crew chief out the door with them. Surely we wouldn’t do that. Would we?
The jumpmaster then began the standard jump commands, which were verbal along with hand signals due to the noise of the engines:
- “GET READY.” Okay, time to rock ‘n roll! We felt the adrenaline kicking in.
- “STAND UP.” We stood up facing the jumpmaster at the rear of the aircraft with our parachute static line snap hooks held at shoulder level in our inboard hands.
- “HOOK UP.” We attached the all-important static line snap hooks to the anchor cables in the aircraft.
- “CHECK STATIC LINES.” Each jumper checked the static line of the jumper in front of him, making sure that the static line was clear and not under the parachute harness. The “check static lines” jump command was added in 1957 after the 82nd had a jumper exit a C-123 with his static line under his harness. He didn’t make it.
- “CHECK YOUR EQUIPMENT.” Jumpers checked that their equipment was secure and that there was no obvious and overlooked problem with their chutes or equipment.
- “SOUND OFF FOR EQUIPMENT CHECK.” The last man in the stick near the front of the aircraft slapped the back of the jumper in front of him and sounded off “Okay,” and each succeeding jumper sounded off “Okay” with the number one jumper sounding off to the jumpmaster “All Okay.”
We got the one minute warning, and the jumpmaster sounded off with the next jump command:
“STAND IN THE DOOR.” The number one jumper on each side of the aircraft stood in the door, with his fingers gripping the outside skin of the aircraft, ready for a vigorous exit. Adrenaline was flowing, and all of us young paratroopers were sounding off: “GO! GO! GO! GO!”
The red lights over the jump doors went out, the green jump lights came on, and the jumpmaster gave his last jump command: “GO!” The first jumper in each door exited at our jump altitude of 1250 feet, the number two jumper on each side pivoted 90 degrees, stepped up to the door and exited. (It was a matter of company pride how quickly we could exit the jump aircraft. Because of the placement of the jump doors in the C-119, we could exit that aircraft very fast: around 10 seconds from green light to the last jumper with 20 jumpers on each side. In the C-123 and the C-130, the landing gear wheel wells were just in front of the jump doors, and the pivot and the extra step slowed us down somewhat.)
When I arrived at the jump door, I vigorously exited the aircraft into the darkness and the Category 5 hurricane of those big Pratt & Whitney radials, and immediately assumed the exit body position: feet and knees together, elbows pressing into my side, fingers spread on either side of my reserve chute, head bent toward my reserve chute, and started counting out loud the four seconds required for main chute deployment: “Hup thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand.” My hands were on my reserve chute with my right hand over the D ring in case it was necessary to use it in the event of a partial malfunction or a complete malfunction of the main. And I, along with all the other jumpers, was very aware of the possibility of having to use the reserve chute.
Before I reached the count of four, I felt the most beautiful feeling that a jumper can experience at that point in time: the opening shock of my main canopy deploying. After my chute stabilized, I reached up and grabbed my main canopy risers, tilted my head back and checked my canopy. As far as I could tell in the darkness, I had a good chute. I could sense other jumpers in the air around me, verified by the very loud yelling back and forth between the descending jumpers that goes on in a peacetime jump.
As I got oriented, I found that I was facing in the direction of the jump aircraft that we had just exited, and the aircraft engine noise was slowly diminishing as the three C-123s departed. I looked down, and it was black. In the pale moonlight I could see the drop zone (DZ) to my right. I realized that I was over the trees to the left of the DZ. I reached up to the risers on the right side of the main chute and pulled down in an attempt to slip to the DZ. I immediately realized that the wind was moving me away from the DZ, and slipping was not going to get me there. The US Air Force had missed the drop zone completely and had dropped three plane loads of 82nd Airborne paratroopers, including me, in the trees—at night!
All of the jumpers realized that the Air Force had missed the drop zone, and we were all going in the trees. We could still faintly hear the engine noises of the departing C-123s, with the Air Force going back to Pope, to hot showers, family, girlfriends or whatever. Wow! The strong language that was directed at the departing aircrews was very loud, very colorful and very uncomplimentary.
But we didn’t have time to gripe and whine, as we were about 30 seconds from descending at 24 feet per second into the trees. Jumpers descending into trees is a very serious event, especially at night, with the possibilities for injuries being very high. The face and eyes are the most vulnerable to injury from a tree landing. The preparation for the tree landing is for the jumper to extend the fingers of each hand, place the right hand in his left armpit, the left hand in his right armpit, and position his face to the left in the protection of his arm. Other parts of the male anatomy just had to take their chances, and do the best they could under the circumstances.
I assumed the tree landing position and descended into blackness. Today I can still imagine the swishing noise of me descending past and brushing the outer branches of the tall pines at Ft. Bragg, and then WHUMP! I landed with absolutely no attempt at doing a PLF (Parachute Landing Fall). I stood up, and couldn’t believe it. I was uninjured and I was not hung up in a tree where trying to get down is possibly dangerous. And, I had now made my first night jump, one to be remembered.
I unloosened my steel pot chin strap, released my Griswold container that contained my M1, released my unused reserve chute and the main chute harness. I stowed the main canopy and harness in the kit bag, snapped the reserve chute to the kit bag, and slung this 45 lb. load over my head with the reserve chute on my chest and the kit bag on my back. I picked up my light pack and Griswold container and started humping it through the woods in the direction of the assembly area on the DZ. No other jumpers were in sight.
Within minutes I joined up with other jumpers on our way to the assembly area. As I was writing this article I realized that our peace-time jump in 1958 was similar to the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne on the Normandy combat jump in 1944, where most troopers were not dropped on their designated DZ . Small groups of paratroopers joined up, many from different outfits, and marched towards the sound of guns firing.
Normally following a jump we would be at the assembly area in minutes. Obviously, in combat or even on a tactical training exercise, jumpers want to join up with their fighting units as quickly as possible. This night, the assembly was completed not in minutes, but in about two hours. Some troopers came in without their main parachutes, having left the canopies in the trees. But, to my knowledge, no one was seriously hurt. (Scrapes and getting knocked about is normal for an Airborne jump). Once the company was assembled, we had some good laughs about the Air Force dropping us in the trees—at night!
When I completed my three year enlistment and separated from the Army on May 29, 1959, I had two and a half years of jump experience with the 82nd Airborne: 34 T-10 jumps from the C-119, C-123, C-124 and C-130 aircraft; I was a graduate of the division jumpmaster school as an E-4; in jumpmaster school I had jumpmastered a C-130 jump on my second and final night jump, and I was subsequently awarded the Senior Parachutist Badge; I had 42 free-falls from the L-20 Beaver, H-21 and H-34 helicopters with the 18th Airborne Corps Sport Parachuting Club. However, of my 76 parachute jumps, by far the most memorable was my 1st night jump in which we were all dropped in the trees–at night!
The Air Force missing the drop zone and dropping us in the trees at night? No big problem, we were: AIRBORNE ALL THE WAY!