Parachute Jump – Lost Among the Trees
I send my four children a letter each month which includes a personal story from my days in the military. This is one of those stories.
Depending on the direction and speed of the wind, a pilot of an airplane dropping paratroopers may have to fly several hundred meters to one side or the other in order to make sure the wind carries the paratroopers to the correct spot on the drop zone. Back in the early 1970’s, we paratroopers in the 82ndAirborne Division did not have parachutes that were steerable. We just jumped out of the airplane, and wherever the wind took us was where we were going to hit the ground. Most of the time, the pilots did a good job calculating the wind direction, and we would land in a clear area (ie; a drop zone). However, the pilots did not always get it right. This is a story about one of those times when they didn’t.
My battalion was doing a night jump into the Marine base at Camp Lejeune to do a joint field exercise with the Marines. Now anytime we paratroopers worked with the Marines, we wanted to do a great job because we were rivals, so there was a lot of pressure to get everything right. So there we are, 300 plus paratroopers crammed into 3 C141 jet aircraft flying through pitch-black darkness 1200 feet above the ground.
After a couple of hours of flying, I finally hear the command for the 20 minute warning. The plane’s crew chief opens the doors to the aircraft, and the roar of the engines and the rush of air drowns out almost every other sound.
‘Good,’ I think. ‘I’m miserable. I’ve been packed in this plane for over 2 hours unable to move, and I just want to get out. Now!’
I know it won’t be long, so I tighten the already tight straps of my parachute just to make sure, but not so tight my legs go to sleep. I check the strap on my helmet one last time. It’s secure. Then I hear the 10 minute warning. Next the jumpmaster gives the command to standup. I struggle to my feet in the crowded aircraft. I have a parachute strapped to my back, a reserve strapped to my chest, a rifle inside a case strapped to my side, and a 60 pound pack hanging between my legs loaded down with everything my sergeants think I might need to survive for the next week. I hear the command to ‘Hook Up’. I take the end of my static line (it will open my parachute) and attach it to a metal wire running down the center of the plane. Then the jumpmaster gives the commands to ‘Check Equipment’ and ‘Check Static Line’. I check my own equipment as best I can, and then I check the equipment of the paratrooper standing in front of me to make sure nothing on his back has gotten messed up while he was sitting down. I feel the paratrooper behind me checking my back. Then comes the command to ‘Sound Off For Equipment Check’. Starting at the back of the plane, I hear the last paratrooper slap the man to his front on the buttocks and shout ‘Okay’. I hear each paratrooper doing the same in turn until I feel the man behind me slap my buttocks and shout ‘Okay’. I slap the man to my front and shout ‘Okay’ as well. The slapping and shouting continues until the first paratrooper in line and closest to the door points to the jumpmaster and shouts, ‘All OK, Jumpmaster’. Finally, all 120 paratroopers in the plane are standing up. We are ready to go. I’m close enough to the door to see a small light. It’s red. It’s not time to jump yet.
‘Hurry!’ I think. ‘I want to get out of this thing. I haven’t gone to the bathroom in hours, and I need to go NOW!’
There I am, standing up, but still very miserable. Due to the low altitude and the pilots maneuvering to stay at the correct height, I’m thrown in all directions barely able to stay on my feet. If we weren’t packed in so tight, I would probably fall, but I don’t. Then I hear the blessed command of ‘One Minute!’ The first paratrooper stands in the door. Even though we are already tight, I feel the paratroopers behind me pushing forward. I move even tighter to the man in front of me. The light by the door is still red. I’m close enough to the door to see outside. It’s dark. I see no lights. What little I can see of the ground is dark.
‘Are those trees?’ I think. ‘I don’t see the drop zone out my door. Calm down, Rodney. They must be able to see the drop zone out the other door. They wouldn’t be stupid enough to drop us in the trees.’
The plane bounces around even more as the pilots attempt to make last second corrections to their course and altitude. Then it happens. I see the light by the door turn green. I hear the jumpmaster shout ‘Go!’
The first man jumps out of the plane trying to get in a good body position to let his parachute open correctly. The rest of us are so crowded together I know I won’t have time to make a good exit. No one will. I’m tired. I waddle towards the door hampered by the 100 plus pounds of equipment strapped to my body. I feel the paratrooper behind me pushing me forward. I push the paratrooper to my front forward. The paratrooper to my front disappears. I see the now empty door. I try to jump out, but I pretty much just fall out as I’m pushed by the paratrooper behind me. I feel a blast of wind. I sense a flash of lights going by me as I fall past the aircraft. I struggle to maintain my body position in order to give my parachute the best chance to open. I count, ‘One thousand’, ‘Two thousand’, ‘Three thousand’, ‘Four th—’. I feel a heavy jerk on my back as my parachute opens. The straps from my parachute bend my head forward. I bicycle kick my legs to untwist the straps of my chute. I straighten out. Suddenly, it is very quiet. It is also very dark. Off in the distance, I can see the bottoms and lights of our three aircraft. I see dark objects exiting their doors. Other paratroopers are still coming out.
I look around. I can faintly see other paratroopers around me in the dark. I see the shapes of their parachutes. I look above me. My parachute is fully open. It doesn’t look damaged.
‘Good,’ I think. ‘I have about thirty seconds until I hit the ground.’ I look below me. All I see is dark forms. ‘Are those are trees?’ I ask myself again.
I look below me to the left; trees. I look below me to the right; trees. I look to my front and rear; trees. Then I see a lighter spot far off in the distance. It’s the drop zone. I realize we have been dropped almost a mile from our drop zone. The realization that I’m going to land in the trees hits me. We’re all going to land in the trees. Training kicks in. I cross my arms and raise them to protect my face. I put the palms of my hands underneath the opposite armpit to protect the major arteries there from any sharp tree limbs. I hear a few curse words in the dark as other paratroopers realize what’s happening.
‘Twenty seconds,’ I think. I say a quick prayer. Then I see something lighter among the darkness of the fast approaching trees. ‘Is that a clearing?’ I think. ‘It’s so small, just a few feet across. Can I get there? The wind appears to be blowing me right at it.’
I decide to take a chance. I raise my arms and pull down on one of my parachute’s straps in order to spill a little air. I fall faster, but the spilled air pushes me nearer the small clearing.
‘I’m going to make it,’ I think.
I reach down and jerk the quick releases on the rucksack hanging between my legs. It falls free and jerks to a stop at the end of its 16 foot rope. The wind suddenly seems to slow, and I start coming almost straight down. My pack misses the trees. I miss the trees. I’m inside the clearing. I see the trees rising above me, and then I hit the ground hard. I land on my pack. I tumble backwards and the air is knocked out of me. Then all is still. I jump to my feet as I catch my breath and begin to roll up my parachute. The clearing is so small. My parachute barely fit in it, but none of my chute is caught in the trees.
‘How did I get so lucky?’ I wonder. I finish rolling up my parachute. Then I stop and listen.
I hear voices shouting in the darkness. “Help!”, “Help!!!”, “Help!!!!”
Out of all the trees, I was lucky enough to land in a lone clearing in the forest. Most of my fellow paratroopers weren’t so lucky. A lot of them are stuck up in the tall trees. I grab my gear and head towards the nearest shouts.
‘It’s going to be a long night,’ I think.
And, you know what? It was.
Moral of the Story – Things don’t always turn out the way they should. But even in the darkest of times, God may choose to bless you and keep you from harm. Never give up. There’s always a chance. And if God does bless you, help those who are less fortunate than you, because next time it could be you stuck up in the trees and needing a helping hand.