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Preserve, Protect and Defend February 1968
The highway to Fort Lewis from the Sea-Tac Airport was covered with a thin film of water that reflected the lights from the oncoming cars. I leaned my head against the cold window. The air smelled clean, like fresh-cut wood. The bus ride was long, and I sat in silence.
Once we arrived at the base, we were greeted in the parking lot with friendly words from a well-starched drill instructor.
“Now get your sorry butts off my bus. Get down and give me push-ups until I get tired!”
George Ellis, my high-school buddy, muttered something obscene my way.
The fort was quiet except for the echo of the fifty of us counting out push-ups in the rain.
The next morning we shed our civilian clothes for olive-drab fatigues. The pants were too big, and the shirts were too stiff—and then to the barbershop, where zip zip, off came the hair.
The next few weeks of basic training were pretty rough. After the first week, our DI finally started to lighten up, even joked around a bit, although he never smiled. We had a theory that the drill instructors never slept. They had a nasty habit of pulling surprise inspections in the middle of the night.
We were all sitting in the corner of the large open bay of the 1st Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion, 2d Brigade, building. Dave Smith had just punched Dumpy Drivold in the arm as our drill instructor, Sergeant Koffman, began his instructions on night watch.
Koffman said, “One of these nights you’re going to be walking on fire watch, you’ll walk into the latrine, and you might find someone masturbating.”
Everyone started laughing.
“Don’t turn the poor guy in. It will embarrass him, it will embarrass you, and it will embarrass the sergeant you turn him into.”
Everyone was really laughing by now.
I raised my hand—then grabbed Ellis and shouted, “Sergeant Koffman, what if you already caught someone?”
Ellis and I had played sports together all through high school and college; we were always playing jokes on each other.
“What? Not me!”
Ellis struggled to get free of my grasp. The more Ellis tried to explain, the harder everyone laughed.
After basic training, Ellis got a thirty-day leave and truck-driving school in Fort Ord, California. I couldn’t believe it! My orders were to leave immediately for AIT.
“I thought you volunteered for infantry school, like we agreed, right? Remember our pact?” I asked Ellis.
He shrugged. “I couldn’t help it, they asked me what I wanted to do, so I put down drive a truck.”
George was the worst driver in our high school class. The only truck he had ever driven was his brother’s old pickup, and he couldn’t park that without hitting something. George left for truck-driving school.
George stayed in the States and never left California. I headed across the base to report to Company E, 2d Battalion, 3d Advanced Individual Training Brigade. Our company commander was Capt. Boudewijn Van Pamelen, an ex-Special Forces A Team leader. His example encouraged me to volunteer for Airborne.
AIT went by quickly, and soon I was on my way to Fort Benning for Airborne training.
I walked up to the airline ticket counter and was told I would be flying military standby. The attendant handed back my ticket and told me to go wait in line with the others. I looked in the direction she indicated and saw what must have been two hundred GIs, who looked like they’d been camping in the airport for weeks. I turned back to the ticket salesgirl and asked, “Is there a bar in this place?”
We finally boarded the Boeing 707 jet, and I celebrated my twenty-first birthday on the long flight to Georgia.
I arrived late in the evening, the day before training. I picked up my bag, tossed it over my shoulder and walked down the hot, dusty road, which led to the only building left with an empty bunk.
No sooner had I closed my eyes than I was awakened by a short, squatty staff sergeant who told me to follow him down to the mess hall. I thought I could orient myself to the school, but instead I was greeted with a work detail. This was one detail I would soon learn to avoid at all cost—KP!
Once inside, he introduced me to a hundred-pound bag of potatoes and a potato peeler. I learned to never arrive early in the army again.
We began orientation by standing in formation on the open grounds in front of a large, white sign with huge letters that read jump committee, painted above a set of jump wings. Our instructor was a white-haired, wiry gentleman who introduced himself as Colonel Welch and then spent the next twenty minutes officially welcoming us to jump school. He told us that our training would last three weeks and while we were there we would observe a few rules. Attendance at all formations was mandatory, and we were to run everywhere we went. Because the training was during the hottest part of Georgia’s long summer, we were required every hour to roll through the specially arranged outdoor showers set up at every training station and to take a couple of salt tablets. We soon learned to love those showers and hate the salt tablets.
One morning during our second week, we heard that one of the holdovers killed himself. As we ran past the Animal Farm, the holdover barracks, we could see the outline of his body hanging just inside the doorway. Seeing someone dead made the training take on a more serious tone. Death had suddenly become a reality.
Later that night, as we ran back past the Animal Farm, his body was still hanging there. What possibly could have pushed this guy this far? Was it because he didn’t make it through jump school? I wondered how his parents would react and what they’d think when they got word that their son had killed himself.
By the third week we were in great shape. We ran everywhere, even to and from the mess hall. We were now ready for the real training to begin.
Down on the airfield, we boarded an old, silver C-119. She shook like hell as we taxied down the runway. It took forever for the plane to begin the climb. I became more afraid of the flight than the upcoming jump.
They called the C-119’s flying boxcars. They would take up a planeload of fifty paratroopers, fly us into Alabama, and dump us out over the drop zone.
Up in the sky, we sat nervously along both sides of the cargo compartment, waiting to stand and hook our static lines to one of the two cables which ran the length of the plane. It was very hard to be brave inside that bouncing plane, but I was trying. I had my eye on the two lights near the exit door.
One was red, warning us to get ready. The green one meant go.
The jumpmaster yelled, “Get ready!” He lifted his arms over his head, causing all of us to tighten up.
“Stand up! Hook up!”
It was just as we had trained. The jumpmaster, with his hands held high, crooked his index finger, the sign to hook up. We fastened our static-line snap links to the parallel cables running down both sides of the airplane. We checked our reserve chutes, then turned and checked the main chute of the guy behind us.
“Stand in the door!” the jumpmaster screamed. I shuffled to the open door. I was one of the first ones to jump. I tightly grasped the doorway and waited for the tap of the jumpmaster. I leaned back a little to see the red light on the side. A sick feeling washed over me. It was the same one I had when I watched the shower scene from the movie Psycho. I stood, almost paralyzed with fear. But this time I couldn’ t go out to the lobby for a Coke.
The ground below didn’t look real. The green light came on. I tucked in my head, grabbed my reserve, and jumped! A blast of wind blew me back against the side of the plane. I started rolling as I fell.
My main chute opened—partially. I looked up and saw the shroud lines wrapped around each other. The chute was tangled, and I was spinning uncontrollably.
I reached up. I couldn’t free the tangled mess. Then I remembered the training. Run in place! There wasn’t much time before I would have to make a major decision. Cut loose the main or pull the reserve. I had maybe fifteen seconds before I would hit the ground. I ran like hell! With a loud pop! my main chute fully deployed.
As the wind whistled past me, I looked down. The earth was still coming up too fast! The instructors had explained ground rush to us during training.
“If you fix your eyes on the ground, you start reaching for it. You involuntarily straighten your legs out, and if you hit that way, it’s broken-leg city.”
I quickly pulled my head up, looked straight out at the horizon, then pulled down on the front risers.
Crunch! I hit with a jarring blow and rolled to the right. I lay on my back, looking up at the sky. I had done it.
The three C-119’s, off in the distance, flew back to Georgia.
“Welcome to Alabama, Private.”
One of the jump school’s cadre watching me hit laughed because I was just lying there talking to the sky.
“Yes, you’re alive, but you’d better give me five, troop,” he said as he bent over and held out his hand. When I reached out, he grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me to my feet.
“Better yet, make it ten.”
Then, still chuckling to himself, he walked away.
I uncoupled my harness, pulled in my chute and started doing push-ups.
“One Airborne, two Airborne . . .”
Later in the week, after our fifth and last qualifying jump, we all met back at the parade ground, and Platoon Sergeant Williams, our head instructor, awarded us our jump wings.