by William Gritzbaugh
Our twelve-man paratrooper team sat hunched on the bench seats of a low-cruising “Blackbird,” a variant of the C-130 Hercules. We’d soon be spilling out its side cargo doors into the bone-chilling darkness of rural North Carolina for a final exam, of sorts, marking the end of our Special Forces Officers Course (SFOC).
Terrain-following radar allowed the aircraft to follow the contour of the ground at a precise, low altitude that resulted in extended periods of violent ups, downs, and sideways lurches no commercial airline passenger would ever tolerate. Some of the guys were unaffected by air sickness but several of us weren’t so fortunate. To be sick in a rocking and rolling aircraft was a torture that Torquemada might have conjured up for heretics. Dry-heaves were the rule, and some barfing occurred, with our “steel pot” helmets the available receptacle. The only way to deal with the discomfort was to sit buckled into our jump seats and lean far forward to brace our stomachs against the reserve parachutes that were D-ringed to our main parachute harness. It wasn’t much help.
The aircraft had been modified and configured to support clandestine operations by Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs and, no doubt, some off-the-record activities fielded by the CIA. From the outside it looked like the hundreds of C-130s in the US Air Force inventory except for the flat black paint, weird antennae and subdued external markings. The cavernous interior was similar to other troop carriers, with aluminum frame and nylon web seats that ran along the fuselage from front to back. One exception was a heavy black fabric curtain that surrounded a sizable linear bank of electronic gear. That secret navigational radar assisted the crew in putting Special Operations teams into parachute drop points or the aircraft itself on to landing strips where American soldiers weren’t expected or supposed to be.
I felt a wave of relief when the Blackbird terminated its contouring, climbed to jump altitude, and the jump master gave us a ten-minute warning. Shortly thereafter, we stood on rubber legs, made sure our weapons and rucksacks were attached properly, and checked our own parachute harness and that of the guy in front of us. When the jump doors opened, fresh cold air soared into the Blackbird and onto our sweaty faces. At the “Stand in the door!” command, we became totally focused, gripped our static lines and prepared to “airborne shuffle” (the one-foot-forward foot slide taught at Jump School) out into the darkness.
As a Vietnam War draftee, that I found myself in such intense training was improbable, to say the least. But, during this era the opportunities provided to those willing to volunteer were nearly unlimited. Consequently, I volunteered for and tested into Infantry Officer Candidate School, Airborne school and, finally, Special Forces. I was sent to the Special Forces Officers Course (SFOC) at Fort Bragg, where I attended a twelve-week program that provided all prospective company- and field-grade officers a concentrated introduction into the history, theory, structure, strategy and implementation of Special Forces operations.
The final phase of SFOC was a ten-day field exercise where we would enter a fictional communist country, contact and establish rapport with leaders of US-friendly “rebels,” and begin the process of recruiting, organizing, training, and leading those rebel troops in combat operations against the communist government. A rural area of North Carolina was used for the exercise, and numerous locals were recruited and paid to act as rebel commanders and cadre with whom trainees would negotiate and cajole in an effort to begin and sustain an insurrection to overthrow the communist regime. The Army called this area of woodlands and tiny hamlets, “Pineland.”
Our training had already included several night jumps, so that prospect wasn’t particularly worrisome. Pineland would, however, add a touch of realism in that we’d be jumping into an area dotted with ponds, creeks, stands of trees, county highways and other hazards of nature and farm. We’d heard that other trainees had been injured on previous jumps after encountering these obstacles. This seemed acceptable to those running the show, as Pineland training hadn’t changed much over the years. So, as we duck-walked onto the Blackbird with our heavy loads of main and reserve parachutes, M-14 rifles and bulging rucksacks, most of us entered a conditioned mental fatalism, those escapist thoughts of home, wife/girlfriend, what we’d do when we got out of the Army, etc. Soon the aircraft was roaring down the runway and into the night.
On this particular jump I was number two in line, so I had a good view out the aircraft’s cargo door. My eyes caught the flashing red light at the top of some community radio antenna pass by, then the street and business lights of a town. Through some impossible combination of atmospherics, wind, proximity and altitude, I heard what sounded like a crowd of people below. Apparently, the grapevine around Fort Bragg had alerted the locals that a jump was scheduled, and families with kids were awaiting our midnight arrival. I thought, “Holy shit! We’re low!” Our usual training jump altitude was 1250 feet. This appeared to be less than a thousand feet, thus if a malfunction of a jumper’s main parachute necessitated pulling the reserve, there might not be enough time for it to deploy. I hoped the Air Force pilot was paying attention to his instruments.
Then the sky darkened again as we passed the town. The aircraft slowed, the red light turned to green and the jump master shouted, “Go! Go! Go!.” Two columns of jumpers started piling out the doors and into the night.
Prop blast and 120 MPH horizontal speed are ruthless with bodies and the equipment attached to them. On every jump, regardless of subsequent adjustments made to my helmet straps, I always had to slam my right hand onto the top of my helmet to keep it from flying off my head. As my canopy deployed and I was safely hanging vertically, I tried to see other jumpers around me and anything about the ground’s surface that was rapidly coming beneath me. I knew I had to release my rucksack immediately or I’d land with it strapped below my reserve parachute and possibly break one or both legs as a result.
Down it went to dangle at the end of a fifteen-foot cord. The sound of the rucksack hitting the ground would give me a second or two to prepare for a rough landing. I listened for the thud, heard it, and flexed my knees for impact. It was not a bad landing, nothing was broken or sprained, but I took a half minute to catch my breath and gingerly move my limbs for signs of injury.
In the darkness, my eyes started picking up odd shadows, then numerous structures around me – some a foot high, others two or three feet, and some towering pinnacles. I’d landed in a cemetery. How I’d missed landing on, or drifting horizontally into, one of those stone monuments was just luck. Nearby I found another jumper from my class, and he was equally unharmed. We packed up our parachutes in canvas bags we carried for that purpose, heaved on our rucksacks, loaded magazines with blank rounds into our M-14s, and started looking for an exit from our spooky surroundings. Before long, we were hollered at by a local young man who was play-acting as our rebel reception committee. He was part of a contingent of a half-dozen high schoolers who were running through vacant lots, front yards and at least one cemetery policing up paratroopers who’d landed all over the area.
For an hour or so, our rebels brought in jumpers until we all were accounted for. No one was injured, although several rucksacks were wrecked and the troopers they belonged to were forced to haul their gear around in some comically jury-rigged contraptions for the duration of the exercise. One guy’s wife had lovingly made him sandwiches (to supplement our C-rations) and neatly wrapped them in aluminum foil. When his rucksack hit the ground, those sandwiches exploded all over his tightly packed clothing and gear. For a week he smelled oddly of mustard and mayonnaise.
With our teams reformed, the rebels marched us through the surrounding woods and fields for hours until we reached an isolated farmhouse where we were introduced to their senior cadre and our individual assessments began. We spent the following days using textbook approaches to form our rebels into cohesive units of infiltrators, saboteurs and ambushers. We taught barns full of grinning farmers how to set up dead drops for passing information, place observation sites along highways, and form “L shaped” ambushes along trails, etc. It was exhausting, frustrating, and fun. I graduated from SFOC and went on to serve in Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group.
A night parachute training jump with full equipment is a unique military experience. Its risk of personal injury and the impression it leaves on each participant only pales in comparison to an actual combat jump. Maybe that’s why my memory of SFOC, from that first jump into Pineland to our last horrifying meal in the field is so poignant. I can still feel the final indignity of having to kill, cook, and eat dozens of chickens before being allowed to load on the trucks for the return to Fort Bragg. (Colonel Sanders would have been appalled).
Thankfully no one was injured that night as we trampled in the dark, tripping over gravestones with the tangy aroma of mayonnaise wafting across the summer night breeze. After all these years, the Army has yet to find another way to put men (and now women) and materials far behind enemy lines, modernization of equipment and aircraft notwithstanding. Today’s paratroopers no doubt share the same emotions and fears I felt on that night over Pineland as they grip their static lines and await the jump master’s command.
“Go! Go! Go!”