Sky Soldiers

I stare out the window of the bus as it turns the corner into Fort Benning, Georgia. We roll past a large plywood sign with hand-painted letters, Home of the Screaming Eagles, 101st Airborne Brigade. I crane my neck to get a good look at three metal structures two-hundred-fifty feet high, standing cold and rigid on the flat barren field. I wipe at the condensation from the window for a better look, but only smear the water around on the glass, blurring my view entirely. The bus pulls to a stop and we unload our gear. I notice a sergeant standing nearby wearing starched fatigues and a black baseball cap with the word TRAINER in bold yellow letters. He stands motionless, watching us with his arms crossed over his chest. He is built like a fire hydrant, low to the ground and immovable. An assistant trainer joins him and he begins his briefing.

“Men!” he begins in a loud voice, “As you can see by the piece of paper in your hands, you only have three weeks with us. When these weeks are through, you will be in the best physical condition of your lives and you will have earned your wings by completing five successful jumps from a C119 airplane…or you will have washed out. Playtime is over. In Airborne, we don’t give anybody anything. You are going to have to earn your jump boots. In Basic and AIT you could screw up a few times and get away with it. Here, you don’t have the privilege of making mistakes. One misstep and you will be bug juice on the proverbial windshield! Is that understood?” A ripple of easy laughter and low murmurs pass through the formation, but the hard-nosed little sergeant doesn’t crack a smile. He waits for the appropriate response.

“Yes Sergeant!”

He continues, “During this first week, we will focus on physical fitness and conditioning. The second week you’ll learn about parachutes and rigging. At the end of that week you will jump out of thirty-five foot towers so you can get accustomed to parachute harnesses and learn how to land and roll, a maneuver which will hereafter be referred to as a PLF. The third week you will begin by dropping from the two-hundred and fifty foot towers behind you, with the aid of a parachute. Unless you make me angry, in which case you will lose the privilege of the chute.”

There is something about forbidden laughter in the face of authority that tempts a fool. The more the dunderhead resists, the harder it becomes. The trainer’s remark elicits a snicker from the center of the formation. The sergeant waits; his silence extinguishes the laughter faster than a brass candlesnuffer at the close of a liturgical mass. His face hardens and his brow flexes into an angry glare. “Now listen and listen good,” he seethes, “for the next twenty-one days I’m gonna be pushin’ you harder than you’ve ever been pushed in your life and you better be paying attention and not miss a lick because in three weeks you’ll be falling from an altitude of 1500 feet, dropping like a rock at a sustained airspeed of a hundred miles an hour—and you sure as hell need to know what you are doing! One lapse of concentration and you die.” The rigid little sergeant has a way of focusing our attention.  “Let’s get something straight from the get-go,” he orders, “As of this minute, I am the lawnmower and your ass is the grass!  Any questions?“

“No Sergeant!”

“Fall out!” he barks. We head for our barracks, sizing up the two trainers. That evening, I nick-name the sergeant ‘Briggs’ and his assistant, ‘Stratton’ after the 2-cycle lawn mower I use back home. The trainers work in tandem, chewing up anything in their way, so I decide to handle them just like I handle that difficult, grass-spewing monster of a mower; stay out of the way and don’t push the wrong buttons.

At four o’clock the next morning, harsh white lights suddenly flood the barracks. Briggs and Stratton enter the room. They move briskly up and down the rows, dragging their nightsticks along the steel frames of our beds, smacking the bottoms of the feet of slow risers. Their shouts reverberate through the room, “It’s grass-cutting time! Hit the showers!”

A stream of naked butts run into the cold, sterile room and we frantically crank the shower handles on full blast. One recruit backs away from the icy stream and Briggs wastes no time in popping him across the cheeks with his nightstick. SMACK! “Get in there! This is Airborne! You don’t need hot water!” As the private jumps beneath the freezing shower, the menacing trainer strolls around the shower room, his voice echoing off the tiled walls, “Let’s move it men! I want everyone outside in formation in five minutes for a morning run!” By the time we assemble in front of the barracks four-and-a-half minutes later, we are dressed and alert. Sergeant Briggs walks up and down the formation in spit-shined jump boots and starched fatigues. His muscled arms burst out of his white, short-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with the Airborne logo. Suddenly, he calls out, “Men, today I’m going to teach you a new song! Attennn-hut! Le-e-e-ft face! Forwa-a-a-a-rd—march! Double ti-i-i-i-i-me—march!”

We turn and break into an organized run around the one-mile track for the first of five laps. Following our new leader we sing,

“I wanna be an Airborne Ranger, I wanna live a life of danger,

I wanna go to Vi-et Na-am, I wanna kill a Vi-et Co-ong.” 

A hundred leather boots pound the ground to the rhythm of the song in double-time cadence, firmly stamping the message into our young minds, packing it down tight.

After breakfast, we return to formation in front of the exercise pits. The sun is up and so is our hawk-eyed trainer. He moves slowly along in front of us, studying each troop with precision eyeballs. His baseball cap is pulled low over his eyes, his jaw is set and locked, and his hands are clasped behind his back. No one dares look at him. We remain frozen at attention, each of us hoping he will move on to the next man. I am standing half-way down the first row of men, and as I feared, the stone-faced sergeant stops in front of me. I can feel his warm breath against my face as he stares into my eyes. I don’t even blink. A minute passes and suddenly he yells. “Stamper!” Startled, I jerk and almost retreat a step, but manage to regain my frozen, erect stance before him, as the harangue begins.

“Stamper, go to the barracks and get your gear. You’re out of here!” I’m stunned. There is no way I am going to wash out of Airborne!

“Why, Sergeant?!” I challenge, remaining in position.

“Your fatigues are a mess! Why aren’t they starched? Look at them, troop!” he orders. I look down to see a small, barely noticeable wrinkle just above my left knee.

“It won’t happen again, Sergeant Briggs!” I promise.

“What did you call me?” he demands.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? Are you calling me nothing, Private?”

“No sir, I mean, Sergeant!” I flummox. I’m a goner. Sergeant Stratton walks over and privately confers with Briggs. A second later, the little bull of a man is back in my face, speaking low and even,

“One more screwup and you’ll be on the bus to Germany with the rest of the Girl Scouts,” he threatens. I hear him loud and clear. He moves over to Jim Gray, studies him for a moment, then begins to assault him.

“Why didn’t you shave this morning, Private?” he yells.

“I did,” Gray stammers, sure of his smooth skin.

“You missed your ears! Tomorrow, if you still have hair on your ears Private Gray, you will be riding the bus, sitting next to Private Screwup. Now give me fifty!”

“Yes Sergeant! Thank you Sergeant!” Gray hollers, as he drops into push-up position and begins banging out the stiffest push-ups I have ever seen.

We survive our first two weeks of training and we are now in our third week. And as promised, today we will we’ll be falling from an altitude of 1500 feet, and dropping like a rock at a sustained airspeed of a hundred miles an hour. As I sit inside the windowless airplane listening to the low rumble of the engines, I am nervous.

Suddenly the rear doors open and the deep, sleepy drone becomes a loud roar as a turbulent blast of air rushes into the plane.

“Stick number one, stand up!” Sergeant Briggs hollers over the rushing wind. He braces himself against the padded wall, holding the door handle with one hand and a metal bar with the other as the wind buffets his body, threatening to rip the flapping shirt off his chest.

“Stick number two, stand up!” Stratton shouts from the opposite side of the airplane. We stand up and face our resolute trainers and the gaping holes in the rear of the plane. My adrenaline kicks in. No turning back now….

“Fasten your D-rings!” Stratton orders.

I reach out to the parachute in front of me and pick up the end of the long, yellow nylon rip-cord that’s coiled on top of Gray’s pack, then slowly and deliberately fasten the thick metal D-ring to the taut steel cable that is running above us down the entire length of the plane. As I tug at the connection for good measure, I hear my own D-ring clamp onto the same cable somewhere behind me, then feel the reassuring slap on the side of my packed chute, promising me that my ripcord is secure. I slap Gray’s pack twice and he in turn slaps the man in front of him, and likewise down the line of men until the lead men in both sticks nod in acknowledgement at their designated trainer. In mass jumps, the ripcords are fastened to the cable and are automatically pulled as the men fall away from the plane. The ripcords and chute bags stay with the aircraft and trail out the door in a bunch until they are pulled in later.

“Go!” the trainers roar, pointing to the first man in each stick. We lower our hands into position, tightly holding our reserve parachutes at the sides. The lead men yell and run toward the open doors. The gaping portals quickly gobble up the ten men ahead of me and suddenly, it’s my turn! Crossing the threshold, I jump out the door into the bottomless blue sky.

The prop blast slams against my body and sends me spinning backward into an upside-down position. Remembering my training, I lock my feet together, tuck my chin in, and quickly flip around into an upright position. When I reach the end of the long ripcord, my free fall is abruptly aborted with a loud pop from the open parachute. Rocking gently back and forth in a slow descent, I watch the plane fly away. I look up to check the large green canopy over my head. The dome is full, and the cords and risers are straight and taut. The blurry shape of the sun shines brightly through the translucent fabric. The initial rush of the jump is replaced by an enormous sense of calm, and from my lofty perch I scan the horizon, one-hundred eighty degrees.

“Hey, look out!” someone below me screams. I look down and see my feet sinking into the top of another man’s parachute! By the time I grab my riser I am up to my knees in silk. If my chute drifts directly over the chute below, it will steal my air, deflate my canopy and I’ll fall through his dome, collapsing both chutes and send us hurling to the ground in a tangled mess of nylon cords and parachute silk; a fatal predicament otherwise known as a “streamer.”

In a frantic attempt to run off of the top of his collapsing dome, I peddle my feet and pull down hard on my right riser for all I’m worth. Fortunately, at the same time, the man below me pulls on his left riser, which allows our two parachutes to drift apart and separate just as mine is beginning to deflate. Half empty and losing shape, my parachute takes a slight dip to the right like a dying swan, then suddenly catches a scoop of air and returns to a fully deployed position. I swing from side-to-side below the fully restored green dome as it rocks and sways, then settles back into a straight-line descent. I exhale in relief. My distraction almost killed us both.

A minute later my descent ends with a sloppy landing into the grassy field. I lie motionless for a moment, relishing the hardness of the ground beneath me. The same ground that would have ended our lives had our chutes collapsed. I stagger clumsily to my feet and roll up my chute. Carrying it back to the edge of the jump field, I toss it down with the rest of my gear. The Riggers will pick it up later, take it back to their work stations and repack it after a careful inspection. For the next twenty minutes I stand next to Ron, Glenn and Gray and wait for the rest of our buddies to land. I am rattled, but I don’t let on.

My next four jumps go more smoothly, and on our last day at Ft. Benning, Ron Holeman and I stand at full attention in formation alongside John Knaus, Jim Gray, and Jim Glenn. We’re wearing tan, khaki uniforms with our trouser legs bloused neatly into spit-shined jump boots; a uniform reserved exclusively for paratroopers. The only thing missing is our silver jump wings. The ceremony begins and a first lieutenant whom we have never seen before leads our hard-nosed trainer systematically down the line of strak’ soldiers, pinning on the shiny wings and delivering a snappy salute to each man before side-stepping to the next soldier. Sergeant Briggs follows the lieutenant and extends a formal, congratulatory handshake to each man. I watch them approach in my peripheral vision until at last, the lieutenant is standing before me. He pins the wings on my shirt, salutes, and I return it sharply.

As he moves over, Briggs steps in front of me. I can feel his breath against my face as he stares into my eyes. He glances down at the new wings shining proudly on my chest. Valuing this tough sergeant’s approval more than a hundred salutes from a rookie silver-barred first-lieutenant, I wait for acknowledgement, looking straight into Sergeant Brigg’s downturned face. When he looks up, our eyes meet again. There isn’t a hint of happiness dancing about the corners of his eyes, nor the slightest smile playing about the corners of his lips, only the iron-grip handshake of a job well done, delivering the measure of respect I am seeking—which I return pound for pound. Briggs moves over to Ron. I look down proudly at my silver jump wings and smile at the beautifully engraved badge; a parachute with two shiny feathered wings curving upward on either side, their tips touching at the base of the metal dome.

After our platoon is dismissed, Ron and I head over to the mess hall. As we near the building, we meet an officer and salute him sharply.

“Sir!” we say in unison.

He returns a quick salute, “Paratroopers,” he smiles.

“Paratroopers.” Ron grins and shakes his head.

 

Postscript: This group of five friends; Ron Holeman, John Knaus, Jim Gray, Jim Glenn and myself all went on to serve together in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, November/75 Ranger Company, LZ English.

John Knaus was killed in battle, 5/7/1970 and Ron Holeman was killed on a night mission 7/13/1969. Jim Glenn and Jim Gray were severely injured and were airlifted out of the jungle by Medivac. Thankfully, they survived, but each spent years recovering from their wounds. I have great love, respect and gratitude for these four brothers and to all who have served, and are serving our country. I salute you.

TB Stamper

8 Comments on “Sky Soldiers

  1. Bart, I love your writing and always look forward to new excerpts – so much strength in the details. Thank you for sharing, and thank you to all the Airborne Rangers.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this slice of your story and your service. The way you remember your friends and brothers-in-arms is moving. God bless you.

  3. Bart, super job. Your imagery is great. You had me standing
    in that open door, waiting to jump out. Keep writing, my friend.
    Jim Kelly

  4. A taut, compressed account of your training. You skipped a lot of repetitive detail and kept up a blistering pace right to the end. I got only what I needed, just like you did during your time with the lawn mowers. Great image! What irony, that you all worked so hard to stay alive during training only to have life taken away from half of you in combat; most of the balance severely wounded with long recoveries ahead. Well presented. Hard-hitting.

  5. Great short accounting, Bart.

    Yesterday was Veterans Day and you were one of the Service heroes that were on my mind. I have a real soft spot in my heart for the Viet Nam vets, especially.

    Be well. Be safe.
    Susan Haley

  6. Bart, great story on this day of rememberance in Canada. I hope all is well with you and yours and wishing you a Merry Christmas!!!

    • One of the things that impressed me most when we were working in Canada was the way they honor their Veterans with a national moment of silence, once a year, in the middle of a work day. The siren wails, everything stops, heads are bowed and prayers are uttered, then work resumes – beautiful!

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